Thursday, March 27, 2014


Tech as Talisman

Sometimes it takes someone else noticing a trait of yours before you notice it yourself.  Last week I had a professor on campus comment that she felt like she had to brush up on her music trivia before meeting with me; apparently, I drop references to cheesy 80’s bands more often than I realized.  Good to know.

A few days ago, reading the latest tech gossip on cnet, I had a moment of clarity. I understand why I read higher ed material and stuff about politics and economics.  I can even explain the random celebrity story or the occasional “I don’t know why that’s interesting but it is.”  But why do I follow the soap opera of Sprint’s attempts to buy T-Mobile?  (“Will Sprint and T-Mobile reconcile their CDMA and GSM networks?  Will the DOJ spurn Sprint, like it did AT&T?  And who will get the MVNO’s?  Tune in next week...”)  I don’t own stock in either company, and the outcome is unlikely to affect me directly one way or the other, since neither has a meaningful network here.  So what’s the appeal?

Yes, I enjoy my gadgets.  I have my share of black boxes (or slabs) that beep, each with its own particular reason to exist.  But that’s not enough to explain the fascination.  

I’m thinking it’s the sense of possibility, combined with the speed of progress.  Compared to education, the difference is striking.

In 2010, a kindle with e-ink display was a cutting-edge device.  Now, a kindle fire with a high-definition screen and a live help button costs less than the original kindle did.  And it’s not just Amazon.  It’s hard to remember now, but just a few years ago the Palm Pre was considered a breakthrough.  Now it’s a paperweight.  

It’s fun to watch these things unfold.  I have a teasing relationship with a professor on campus who is a dedicated Apple fanboy.  I’m platform-agnostic; I use a Mac in the office, a pc at home, and a chromebook on the road.  He divides the world into those who live the one true faith and those who do not.  I see them as Coke vs. Pepsi -- a minor matter of taste, but if one isn’t available, the other is fine.  We have a running debate that we both enjoy, in much the manner that fans of different baseball teams do.  (“But fragmentation!”  “But removable battery!”)  The debate is fun because ultimately it doesn’t matter; neither of us works for a tech company, and neither of us has enough clout with them to affect them one way or the other.  

The sheer cost of gadgets keeps my buying habits in check, so the interest is mostly voyeuristic.  To The Wife’s constant irritation, I don’t have the same fascination for, say, home repairs.  

Which is why I’m starting to figure out that it’s not about this function or that one; it’s about tech as a talisman of progress.  

The best and most effective educational innovations usually take years to bear fruit, and the results are often subtle, and/or hard to tease out from other factors.  Personnel issues are rarely resolved in a meeting or two, and even when resolved, are usually cause for relief rather than excitement.  Organizational dilemmas are even murkier.  They can -- and do -- improve over time, if you handle them right, but “improve” and “over time” both require patience.  

But a new gizmo can instantly give you what had previously been thinkable only as a superpower.  And the rapid rise and fall of tech giants is so much more dramatic than anything that happens in higher education that it’s great fun to watch from a safe distance.  Does anyone else remember when Microsoft was so dominant, and Apple so weak, that Microsoft actually gave Apple a subvention just to preserve it so Microsoft would have a counterexample in its antitrust case?  Hard to imagine now, but it’s true.  That was before Google even existed.  And the higher ed universe looked pretty much the same then as now, only with fewer adjuncts.

As a political theorist by training, I can attest that many of the core issues of politics have been around for as long as we have records.  It’s possible to find progress in some areas -- I see the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage as a real step forward -- but many of the core issues persist over millenia.  Fights over power, justice, fairness, distribution, who’s “us” and who’s “them” have gone on forever, and probably always will.  There’s patience, and then there’s patience.

The sense of possibility in tech is great fun.  The gee-whiz appeal fades somewhat when you look at labor conditions, regulatory shenanigans, and the various details behind how it all comes to be.  But from the outside, it’s not just a source of nifty gadgets.  It’s a source of optimism.  If progress that rapid is possible there, maybe it’s possible in other places, too.  

Old songs are fun to call up from time to time in a way that old tech isn’t.  I’ll happily stream Duran Duran over devices that didn’t exist when they were hungry like the wolf.  (For that matter, I’ll happily read Aristotle on a kindle.) I may not be able to explain how or why the new devices work, but that’s okay.  They’re amazing, and they offer a kind of hope.  When all that patience gets tiring, there’s something gratifying about seeing the latest gadget do something entirely new.  

Since I've seen you post about class wars, it seems that the only appropriate response is...

Interesting post. I've often wondered why most of the gizmos you refer to were invented in the USA, as opposed to, say Europe?
Edmund - academia and Silicon Valley culture are what drive tech development in the US. Stanford University and its willingness to encourage faculty to work with businesses to make new products is what made the bay area a tech center. If you look at a lot of the really good biotech and tech companies in the SF bay area, their CEOs and other C-level execs come from Stanford, often out of doctoral programs. Please note that most colleges would not encourage this kind of investment in non-peer reviewed activities but Stanford has seen the benefits of having astronomically rich alumni seeing as it is funded on an endowment and all, so they tend to be a little more encouraging of "non-academic" endeavors that make millions. There’s a bunch of companies that were launched through an annual contest that Stanford runs that allows professors and student contest winners access to venture capital funds to start their own business.
Also, within 100 miles of Stanford there are 6 universities with excellent engineering and business schools (SJSU, SFSU, CSUEB, UCB, UCD, and UCSC) so there are slews of worker bees ready to come make whatever fanciful "next best thing" you can imagine. And now, in an unholy alliance between academia and industry, we have a constant supply of cheap engineers from India and China to keep labor costs low. Rich people that live up in the hills all around Silicon Valley are ready and willing to invest in the "next big thing" rather than other types of investments so here, you have the perfect combination of talent and money which leads to innovation. This would never get built today under the current regime because the investments in higher ed that made it possible on the state side in the 50’s and 60’s are impossible now under Prop 13. But we still take advantage of our old infrastructure.
As for Europe – didn’t you have a Nokia phone ever? They were so cool for a while! But Nokia didn’t invest enough into the design of their user interface and at the end of the day failed to anticipate the importance of smart phones. And that’s what most tech efforts outside of California fall prey to after a while – companies find something that’s great and try to perfect it rather than developing the next new thing. It’s hard to feel the urgency of evolution when you are not surrounded by restless caffeine driven geniuses you find in every Starbuck’s here or when you think you’re too big to fail (Apple, HP – I’m looking at yoooou!) Even the Kindle – brain child of Jeff Bezos – was developed by Amazon Lab 126 which has 2 offices in Silicon Valley. Being here matters. It makes you work harder when you are surrounded by smart, hard-working people. And people want to stay here despite the astronomical cost of living because the weather is beautiful and people are nice even if you’re a little different (there are more languages spoken per capita in the SF Bay Area than in any other part of the world so we are all a little different!) and there’s a million things to do and the food is AMAZING. It’s not about the US v. Europe. It’s about Silicon Valley v. anywhere else in the world.

Which is why, of course, conservatives want to destroy everything that created Silicon Valley and maintains it.

To elaborate on what Ivory wrote, the GSM network protocol for cell phone and date mentioned by Dean Dad was invented by Nokia in Finland.

Those patent licenses, among many others, are what Microsoft bought.

And don't overlook the Blackberry, developed in Canada, which also holds some really valuable patents.
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