Special Places

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, May 2000

Why 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?

For 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.

A 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 own city.

I 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."

The 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.

In 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.

Terman's 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.

All 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.

Needless 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 special time.

In 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.

Perhaps 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.

I said something like, "Ok, that's nice," and he went on his way.

The 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 that."

So I said something like, "Ok, that's nice."  I always try to give out good wisdom like that.

The 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 thing.


Robert W. Lucky