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World: Silicon Valley Becomes A Global State Of Mind

  • Bruce Keppel



Bellingham, Washington; 14 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - From the beginning, "Silicon Valley" has been more a fanciful term than a geographic location. That may be why it has become one of those relatively few phrases recognized -- if not fully understood -- around the world. And some analysts believe that the way business is done in Silicon Valley today offers us a preview of what will become commonplace in business and society in the new century.

The phrase "Silicon Valley" was coined by an imaginative technology reporter to describe the heartland of modern information technology, which occupies a curving strip of the central California coast running along the southern end of San Francisco Bay.

Silicon is a common mineral in sand and quartz. It constitutes information technology's raw material -- since a fingernail-sized chip of the stuff can carry all the tiny electronic circuits that make up a computer's "brain."

Silicon Valley has weathered -- and thrived on -- the first big shock to hit the Information Age. That was the end of the era of the room-sized computers known as "mainframes." These mammoth computing machines were so costly that only the wealthiest governments, businesses and universities could afford them, thus limiting the development of the information age into the global phenomenon of today.

It was the output of Silicon Valley -- silicon micro-processing chips, the heart of computers -- that made possible the millions of small but powerful machines that fit atop office desks and on the laps of travelers, and yet do the work of their huge predecessors.

These personal computers gain additional power by their capacity to connect with other computers by way of telephone lines, which themselves are evolving and increasing in their capacity to carry data, including motion pictures.

Today's Internet, barely out of its infancy, is the sum total of interconnecting these local and regional networks into what has already become a global communication network whose limits are -- like those of Silicon Valley -- not geographic but electronic.

Silicon Valley today remains the "spiritual" center of a rapidly emerging, Internet-based information industry that is expected to influence the nature of enterprises and economics in the 21st century, as did railroads and canals for the Industrial Revolution.

In a recent survey of this industry, the London-based "Economist" wrote that, "nowadays, virtually every government in the world seems to want to create its own Silicon Valley." The newspaper cites, just in the United States:

"Silicon Desert" in the state of Utah.

"Silicon Alley" in New York.

"Silicon Highway" ringing metropolitan Boston in Massachusetts.

"Silicon Hills" in Austin, the capital of Texas.

And even "Silicon Forest" here in the Pacific Northwest and centered on Seattle, home of Microsoft and its founder Bill Gates and surrounded by 2,000 other software firms.

Abroad, there are emerging Silicon Valleys in the form of Egypt's Pyramid Technology Park and in what might be called "Silicon Jungle," a development planned to cover 750 square kilometers of Malaysia. The Indian city of Bangalore already does a good deal of software development work for Silicon Valley firms, whose leaders include a fair sampling of graduates of Indian universities. Thriving computing centers exist in Israel and Taiwan as well.

The "Economist" concludes that Silicon Valley today is less a center of high-technology industry than "a way of doing business, with a product that happens to be technology" -- a way of doing business that depends on links to "clusters" of related companies around the world.

In short, the technology that gave rise to a specific Silicon Valley along the central California coast makes possible today "virtual" Silicon Valley "clones" in an electronic world without geography and national borders.

In this way, suggests the "Economist," the notion of "Silicon Valley" offers a preview of the way business will be conducted in the 21st century. The heart of that commerce will be the Internet -- and the software that activates it. It is the Internet that moves the raw material of Information Age around the world in the way that ships, trains and planes moved the mineral raw materials that fueled the Industrial Revolution. "The valley," it says, "will become even less of a location, and even more of a process: a way of spawning new ideas and young companies."

Several developments under way now in these cloned and would-be cloned "Silicon Valleys" are likely to help shape at least the beginning of the coming century.

The first is expansion and improvement of the telephonic and non-wire satellite links to increase "bandwidth," the width of the "pipe" through which data flows. Increased bandwidth and upgraded electronics can shuttle all types of data not only at the speed of light but in two directions at once. As this happens, the relevance of distance and place will erode even further.

Doing that in a significant manner may take what's left of this century. But once that is done, this lightning fast infrastructure will make it possible to bring the full range of information-based services -- including interactive education and commerce of all kinds -- into homes everywhere.

At the same time, we have development of a "network computer." This is a cheap, computer that can tap into the Internet to borrow whatever software programs that are required. This is not unlike the way an instrument like the telephone provides the behind-the-scenes services needed to allow two distant people to converse without their doing anything more than dialing a number and answering the ring.

Finally, Silicon Valley is spawning a revolution in media, in the nature of information.

What the Internet now makes available is media that we, seated before computers, can "pull" -- or download -- into our machines. But this requires that we find the information that we want to pull into our computers' memory.

What is coming next is "push" media.

Push media refers to information that we want that finds us without our having to go looking for it. Push media was the cover story of the March edition of "Wired," a magazine that closely watches developments and trends relating to the Information Age from its headquarters in San Francisco at the very edge of Silicon Valley.

"Wired's" editors write that "push media" are more like television in that they present themselves to the viewer without being summoned. Still, like TV programming, the viewer's taste dictates what appears.

In short, this is a technology that will regularly deliver to you an electronic newspaper of your choice or provide you with an electronic street map in your car when you are lost.

"Wired" magazine likens the present Internet with its World Wide Web of "sites," which users must find for themselves by navigating with the aid of software devices called "browsers," to visiting a library. Imagine, instead, that the kind of information that interests you "pushes" its way to your attention -- on a computer screen, on a pocket pager or cell phone, or even on a wall covered with digital paint.

"In other words," write the editors of "Wired," the Internet will become "a true network, like the telephone system, rather than a radiating system, like radio or TV." This new medium," they explain, "doesn't wait for clicks of a computer's 'mouse.' It doesn't even need computers."

This is not centralized information, as in a library, but its opposite -- the ultimate dispersal of information.

In this way, Silicon Valley, as a way of doing business in the 21st century, will be marked by the very opposite of the super-controlling "Big Brother" -- or even "Big Business" -- images that have sparked concerns in our century.

After the totalitarian impulses that wreaked such devastation in our century and before, there must be some comfort in that decentralizaton. That is why the "Economist" concludes its survey by observing that a world formed in the image of Silicon Valley may be far from a Paradise Found, but still be "better than the alternatives."

The newspaper says that, "for all its faults, it is hard to think of a place better prepared for the 21st century."
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