The billionaire entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley have not all been recycling their earnings into Napa Valley vineyards. With publicity commensurate with their wealth and ambitions, such notable visionaries as Elon Musk (cofounder of PayPal, the online payments giant owned by EBay) have staked out claims at and beyond the frontier of available technology, from Tesla’s all-electric cars to the prototype spaceships of SpaceX.
This is a moment when the Silicon Valley style and brand — Go Big or Go Home — has appeal. The recovery from the great recession remains frustratingly slow. In response, governments across the developed world have perversely embraced austerity. Authoritative voices — economist Robert Gordon of Northwestern University and Musk’s cofounder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, among them — are publishing obituaries for the most recent “new economy,” jointly created by the microchip, the computer and the internet.
Can individual initiatives backed by personal fortunes reinvigorate the digital revolution and launch new transformational technologies? The short answer is no. To understand why, we need to read the relevant history of the innovation economy, from the early days of the first industrial revolution through to the gestation and commercial birth of our continuing digital revolution.
It is important to recognize that the impact of the digital revolution itself is far from played out. Only 50 years on from the technical realization of the programmable microprocessor, momentum is accelerating across a broad front.
At the level of infrastructure, migration to the “mobile cloud” — the fourth generation of architectures — is irreversibly under way, rendering access to ever growing computing power ubiquitous. At the level of platform technologies that enable previously unimaginable applications, the ability to extract meaningful information from aggregations of human-generated “big” data is being realized, and not only by the world’s security agencies.
Potentially most revolutionary is the pervasive deployment of computerized speech recognition and its incipient extension into natural language understanding: Hal of 2001: A Space Odyssey will be riding with you in your pocket, on your wrist or on the bridge of your nose.
In this context, it is useful to recognize that the “killer app” of the railway age — mail order retail — did not emerge until a full 50 years after the first “railway mania” on the London stock exchange. Reconstruction of manufacturing to take advantage of electrification plus the mass distribution of home appliances each reached its respective tipping point some 50 years after Edison turned on the first generating plant.
If we need not concern ourselves excessively that the digital economy has (as it were) run out of steam, where should we look for leadership from the philanthropic angels of Silicon Valley? The most intensely needed innovations are among the host of technologies collectively referred to as greentech/cleantech. They promise radically to increase the productivity of carbon, enabling the switch to a low carbon economy.
Some of these technologies are digital: smart meters, for example, that manage electricity consumption relative to actual usage. Delay in their deployment is political and economic — who pays for them? — not technological. Most of these technologies, from solar cells to batteries, involve breakthroughs in entirely novel materials such as graphene.