I'm not altogether sure if it's good or bad to be out-of-it, so completely out-of-it that just about anything I read on a subject seems astonishing. I mean, I knew Bill Gates was mega-rich, that his philanthropy is astounding--giving 30 million for Alzheimer's research just lately; but the whole culture of Silicon Valley is something I know far less about than even the technology with which my new/used car is blessed, about which I seem to know very little.
If I were shopping for a guru, I might just choose Alan Jacobs, who formerly taught at Wheaton and is now at Baylor. In a review in the Weekly Standard, Jacobs reviews Valley of Genius, a book he claims fawns pathetically over the world of Silicon Valley by lauding the sheer genius of its miracles. Jacobs, who writes with his own thoughtful Christian perspective, finds that fawning distasteful.
Many, perhaps most, of the readers of Valley of Genius will share this belief in the inevitable victory of our genius technocratic overlords. Some of them even welcome it. As for me, when I got to the end of the book, I thought, “Well, that was fascinating! Now let me just go take a long soak in a big tub of disinfectant.”There at which he sneers is the vainglorious atmosphere borne out of the place's own rags-to-riches stories--and they are legion. That photo above accompanies the review and probably says it all. Those two kids, if like me you wouldn't recognize them, are Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniac, co-founders of Apple, Inc., presently the richest corporation in the world. You read that right.
That picture is the Silicon Valley story, or so says Alan Jacobs of Valley of Genius, a book whose time may well have come and gone at the moment it appeared. Critiques go beyond the obvious: has Twitter made the world a better place? Hmmmmm.
The line I found most interesting is the comparison Jacobs draws between the failures of Silicon Valley with decadence of ancient Rome. What Jacobs insists is that the outline of the Silicon Valley story is as old as the hills: yet another rise-and-fall saga, this time of the nerds, the filthy rich nerds. Except for Silicon Valley there's a twist:
Edward Gibbon, whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is the progenitor of the genre, had a simpler tale to tell, because he could show Rome declining in power as its ethical foundations crumbled. The moralistic among us can take comfort in such a narrative. It is harder to find satisfaction in reading about people whose moral decline is accompanied by ever-rising bank balances, whether you think the wealth caused the moral collapse or vice versa.Moralists like me expect that ethical decline means economic decline; we feel comfort in such failures. But Silicon Valley's decline cannot be measured in dollar signs. The wealth, at least for the rest of us, remains unimaginable--and growing. As it will, says Alan Jacobs.
But then, two decades ago, the words borne by that cursor slowly moving across the bottom of the screen right now wouldn't be there, would they? And, if you're eyes are following them right now, you wouldn't be here either. My grandfather closed his blacksmith shop when technology made farm tractors affordable for just about anyone working the land. He must have wondered where the world was going.
I won't speak for Alan Jacobs, but I can't help but think that the old man in me is making his fully-expected appearance right about now (I am 70 years old) when I say "amen" to Jacobs' overall appraisal, especially when he says that after reading this glorified testimony to the grace of Silicon Valley, he'll feel refreshed only after a long bath in disinfectant.
I know the feeling. That much I do.
What hath God wrought?