does place matter? Why does
it matter where we live and work today when the world is so connected that we're
never out of touch with people or information?
decades the futurists have been promising us that very soon we will be able to
live wherever we wish and telecommute to the job of our choice.
Now that the electronic means to enable this telecommuting are all around
us, the truth seems to emerge that place really does matter.
For some mysterious reasons all places are not equal.
For example, Silicon Valley seems more equal than, alas, New Jersey -- to
pick on my own dear state.
few years ago the Smithsonian Institution had a conference entitled "Da
Vinci's Florence, Edison's New York, and Terman's Silicon Valley."
These were all special places at certain historical times where the best
people in some field all got together to cause a great flowering of that field.
Speakers at this conference grappled with the questions of why then
and why there. Of course,
everyone was trying to figure out how to do something like that in his or her
mean, I can imagine a conference in Padua in the year 1500, and conferees are
asking how come Florence gets all the action?
Someone probably comes up with the idea, "Hey, let's try to lure
this guy da Vinci to Padua. We'll
offer him an endowed chair and promise some government grants, and the whole
renaissance will come here."
problem is, even if they get da Vinci, it won't work. There's just something special about Florence, and it doesn't
travel. Just as in this
century many places have tried to build their own Silicon Valley. While there have been some successes in Boston, Research
Triangle Park, Austin, and Cambridge in the U.K., to name a few significant
places, most attempts have paled in comparison to the Bay Area prototype.
the mid-1960s New Jersey brought in Fred Terman, the Dean at Stanford and
architect of Silicon Valley, and commissioned him to start a Silicon Valley
East. I remember as a young
engineer attending a meeting at Bell Labs in Murray Hill when Terman discussed
his theory of how to create an east coast replica of Silicon Valley.
What New Jersey needed, he explained, was a great technical university
like Stanford to serve as a nucleus for the research community.
The problem was that New Jersey didn't seem to have a suitable university
other than Princeton, which at that time was said not to be interested in
applied research and industrial affiliations.
Although New Jersey employed some 4500 PhDs in its industrial research
labs, two-thirds of these were imported from universities in other states.
solution was to create a new technical university, an Institute of Science and
Technology, that would focus on graduate education with a small faculty of Nobel
laureates and distinguished researchers loaned by the state's research
laboratories. Terman's theory was
that a school's reputation was determined by its "spires of
excellence" -- the famous faculty members who could be seen from a great
distance. New Jersey had such
people, and if local industries joined together to fund and staff the new
university, a Silicon Valley East would follow.
these years later, I can still remember the excitement I felt walking out of
that conference room in Murray Hill after listening to Terman -- our own
university, our own Silicon Valley! I
was hoping that perhaps one day I myself could be a part of this grand plan.
to say, it never happened. The
agreement between the industries unraveled and the funding disappeared.
Looking back now, however, I believe it very unlikely that it would have
been successful. A university is
only one piece of the puzzle that comes together to create a special place at a
my mind I see the image of a Cargo Cult airfield on a South Seas island.
These were ersatz airports that were built by natives after the second
world war in the pathetic belief that they could attract airplanes out of the
skies -- airplanes that would carry the goods and supplies that they had seen
mysteriously appear during the time of the war.
So the natives built runways, lit fires along the sides, and made wooden
huts for men to sit in, with two wooden pieces on their heads like headphones on
a controller. It looked like an
airport, but no planes came. It's
like New Jersey trying to attract the culture of Silicon Valley.
there is something different in the air in Silicon Valley, because I get a
different feeling when I am there. Eating
in restaurants in Palo Alto, I hear the deals going down all around me, and I
feel that twinge of "why is
everyone here rich but me?" Last year I was sitting in a visiting office of one of the
universities there, and in walked one of my own company's employees, who
explained that he was quitting, because his goal in life was to make five
million dollars in the next three years.
said something like, "Ok, that's nice," and he went on his way.
next person in the office was a young faculty member at that university, who
asked me from my more experienced (i.e., older) viewpoint, what would I suggest
to him for his life goals? Well, I
said, the person who just left this office said that he wanted to make five
million dollars in the next three years. I
paused. The young faculty member
smiled slightly, and said in a quiet, modest voice, "I already did
I said something like, "Ok, that's nice." I always try to give out good wisdom like that.
little vignette that epitomized the culture of Silicon Valley for me was the
story in Wired Magazine about the
cubicle man, who runs around with his truck and two cell phones, buying cubicles
from companies going out of business, and selling them to other companies just
going into business. So I thought
-- maybe I should buy one of those cubicles myself and take it to New Jersey.
I could have my own little Cargo Cult -- sit in the cubicle and wait for
the culture to arrive. Whatever it
is in the air and the culture, there is still something different in one place
as compared to another -- being on the end of a modem isn't quite the same