Love it or hate it, you can’t halt the momentum of Silicon Valley


Opposition and doubt always accompany any great change.

The rise of computer technology over the last 30 years is no different than the invention of the car or the light bulb in this respect.

The innovations that Silicon Valley has produced have shaken just about everything we thought we knew, and made us question the pace of change we expect in our lives.

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At the turn of the twenty-first century, computer scientist and renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted that the world would experience 20,000 years of progress over the next 100 years. It’s no exaggeration to say that Silicon Valley – Kurzweil’s home since he took a job there with Google in 2012 – is leading the race in exponential progress towards the future.

As the 2010s draw to a close, we are ushering in the Fourth Industrial Revolution; not only in Silicon Valley, but all across the world. Significant economic shifts are happening in front of our eyes.

But instead of asking and answering fundamental questions about what we, as humans, want our future to look like, many people are determined to point the finger at Silicon Valley and hold it responsible for all of society’s woes.

The growth of the gig economy, and the backlash it sparks, is a perfect example of this.

Uber and Airbnb, two Silicon Valley unicorns, represent the proliferation of a new labour model based on digital platforms – one that began with eBay and Amazon, and will become more and more prevalent as the technology that enables transactions continues its advancement. Still, hostility to these models, and to the stereotype of the Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur, is widespread. To reject these companies, as governments across the world have attempted, or to try to force them into the carefully-labelled boxes of past generations is unproductive and naive.

While resistance to competition from incumbents is a big part of this, there is also general reluctance to accept the premise of the gig economy labour model. Here in the UK, Deliveroo has faced criticism for a business model based on the productive output of riders, rather than allocating rigid shifts.

This is perceived as a raw deal – which in some ways is correct – but isn’t it also offering flexibility and opportunity that was previously impossible? These features are often ignored in favour of the status quo.

Meanwhile, we spend little time scrutinising the soul-destroying habit of working nine to five in an office we hate so we can make enough money to live. That’s a pretty raw deal too, but it’s more palatable to most because it’s familiar.

The platform economy can turn anyone into an entrepreneur, and it is fitting that this trend has emerged from digital infrastructure that started in Silicon Valley. California is the cradle where so many revolutionary minds have received their start in the spheres of business and technology.

The innovations of today’s entrepreneurs no longer come from the notable academic institutions of the past. Instead, they come from a place of experience, of being an active part of society; examining things and imagining something better. Look no further than an idea born out of sitting for hours in LA’s traffic: Elon Musk’s Boring Company, focused on constructing infrastructure and tunnels to combat congestion.

But it is mistaken to think that this sliver of California is responsible for all this progress – and the problems that come with it.

Across the globe, individuals are being granted economic independence and employment prospects that simply weren’t possible a generation ago. That inspires new opportunities for innovation.

Transformative technology reaches beyond US borders, of course, and, in fact, beyond the borders of any Western country. It doesn’t matter where or how the phenomenon began when just about every city worldwide is signing up Uber drivers and Airbnb hosts by the dozen each week.

If it wasn’t that platform, another would soon rise up to take its place. And we still don’t know what other world-changing innovations might suddenly become possible from this technological shift.

Right now, governments in the developed world are scrambling to kickstart their economies through innovation funding, hoping to create something of Silicon Valley’s success in their own backyards.

Critics who believe that all this begins and ends with California are misguided. It may start from there – but that’s only the beginning.

The big players of Silicon Valley are still prolific, and for good reason. But it won’t be long before they’re usurped by the next wave of tech heroes: companies and characters from places like Bangalore, Shenzhen, Nairobi and Kigali – individuals who we haven’t even met yet, and who will be energised by the possibility of solving entirely new problems. Not only for them, but for all of us.

Lauren Razavi is speaking about technology, innovation, global development, and the future at the Battle of Ideas this weekend.

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