Thursday, December 11, 2008

Cheering into the ether

Michael Malone built a solid reputation as a tech reporter covering Silicon Valley business issues for years for the San Jose Mercury News. But in this article from the Winter 2008 Santa Clara Magazine (a periodical aimed at alumni), he falls into the purest of groundless cheerleading (Liberty and the pursuit), complete with a cowboy graphic:

It's the kind of thing they love at annual rah-rah company sales meetings and on the rubber-chicken circuit: the corporate bureaucrats as bold, individualist entrepreneurs. You know there's a problem right on the first page, when he spends several paragraphs explaining Frederick Jackson Turner's end-of-the-frontier theory as though it's generally accepted. When, in fact, it's pretty much universally rejected by historians, and has been for quite a while, or at the least not take very seriously.

The rest of the article is the typical tech fantasy that anyone over the age of 15 has already heard a thousand times. Everything about work is going to change, everybody's going to be an entrepreneur, and won't it be cool when everyone is working from home or from Starbucks?

For an article in a Jesuit university magazine, you might think he could come up with a paragraph or two about the downsides, i.e., the fact that businesses provide most people's health insurance, or that our general retirement system essentially assumes that companies will provide defined-benefit pension plans, which fewer and fewer actually do. And don't even think about looking for any positive words about labor unions in this article!

Apparently not having noticed the failure of the private financial system, which was already becoming very evident a year and a half ago, let alone the possibility of a global depression, Malone says we should be partying like it's 1999. Here, he gushes about how we are achieving Thomas Jefferson's "200-year-old dream of a nation of yeoman farmers". Actually, by 200 years ago Jefferson had moved beyond that vision, if he ever held it in the mythical form assumed in Malone's article. But, anyway, back to the new 1999:

We Silicon Valleyites know these traits and attitudes all too well. They are the personality of the entrepreneur, the spirit of the start-up. And what began here in the Packard garage and in the Wozniak garage and on a thousand kitchen tables has suddenly become the spirit of the age, the new American zeitgeist.

Today, the heroes of our culture are almost all entrepreneurs. Not just the living legends like Steve Jobs, or the young tycoons like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. But also athletes, like Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan, whom we now automatically assume sit atop sophisticated multiproduct, self-made business empires. Think of movie stars who produce their own films and of politicians who construct private, virtual corporations as they campaign for office. Even record companies are dying, replaced by entrepreneurial musicians who produce and distribute their own creations online. [my emphasis]
What would a speech about entrepreneurship be without the famous garages? For those who haven't yet heard 1,000 of these pitches, the garages to which he refers related to Hewlett-Packard and Apple Computer, both of which are familiar names because they became giant corporations.

And what do those ambitious teenagers in their garages or other workspaces dream of? It's more like starting a company and selling it to a larger company. Which is what most Silicon Valley startups dream of, and design business plans build around that goal.

But one thing is for sure. If Babbittry were a hot export item, we wouldn't have a trade deficit in the United States. Well, at least not until the Chinese and Indians picked up the knack. Which wouldn't take long. With recordings of a couple of motivational speakers and a copy of one of Tom Friedman's books where the taxicab drivers in Timbuktu have learned the secrets of global competitiveness, pretty much anybody can become their very own Babbitt.


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"It is the logic of our times
No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse."

-- Cecil Day-Lewis from Where Are The War Poets?


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