Opportunity Outside the Bio-Dome

bio-domeSilicon Valley believes itself to be a self-contained, self-sustaining ark of innovation. To hear technology industry luminaries tell the tale, there is simply no better place to achieve your geek dreams than Silicon Valley: there’s money, there’s brains, and therefore (the theory goes) there’s success. Much like Woody Allen, Silicon Valley casts itself as the romantic lead in its own movie and the rest of us willingly suspend our disbelief. We hail pimply-faced youths on the covers of our magazines and marvel at the virtual success they’ve achieved, even if it defies all rational explanation.

I view the situation somewhat differently. Instead of thinking of Silicon Valley as a self-contained innovation ecosystem, I think of it more akin to Biosphere 2, a self-contained environmental ecosystem that spent the majority of its existence trying very hard to kill its own inhabitants.

BioSphere 2 was a colossal failure not because it was incapable of providing a sealed environment, but precisely because it was such a perfectly hermetically sealed vessel. This somewhat surprising when you consider that when building such a vessel, be it sphere, cube, or dodecahedron, one would expect this would be the major requirement: nothing gets in or out. Unfortunately, in the case of BioSphere 2 the engineers forgot to account for the tendency of microbes in the soil to process oxygen. As a result, the BioSphere 2 building spent the majority of the aborted two year experiment inhaling oxygen, exhaling carbon dioxide, and slowly cutting off the air supply to its own occupants.

There are two lessons to be learned here. First, living in a bubble might kill you. And second, if the bubble was built by engineers, it will probably succeed.

Silicon Valley lives in a bubble. It’s a bubble built by engineers. Engineers that, quite frankly, hate normal human beings. Normal people are complicated, and engineers hate complications. They like structure. I’m an engineer, so I can tell you that if it were up to us, the rest of you would be stacked like cordwood and plugged into the Matrix to do our bidding faster than you can say “Keanu Reeves”. Then again, if you look at Facebook and Google you might argue that this process has already begun.

A lot of the Web 2.0 activity that’s all the rage in Silicon Valley these days isn’t actually about people – it’s about networked obsessive-compulsive disorder. Normal people don’t even enter into the equation for this stuff. In a recent conversation with a friend of mine, a guy with degrees genetics, business, and law (i.e. not a total dribbling idiot), I mentioned that I would invite him into my LinkedIn network. He replied with curiousity, “What’s LinkedIn?” Once I succeeded in picking myself off the sidewalk, I calmly explained to him what I considered to be a very useful web site where people could stay in touch with their business network. And he then noted that he has a cell phone that does the exact same thing as far as he’s concerned.

In the midst of this explanation, it struck me: Silicon Valley doesn’t understand the rest of the world – and the rest of the world doesn’t get Silicon Valley either. This is Silicon Valley’s Achilles heal – or at the very least, its exercise-induced asthma (for all you William Golding fans out there).

While there are a few deadly characters in the valley who understand the world at large, none of them are building Web 2.0 applications designed to allow you to organize your record collection in autobiographical order. They’re building big, robust software that solves very difficult problems for massive enterprises with deep pockets. BC, it just so happens, has a large number of these big, heavy industries that have difficult problems that people in Silicon Valley don’t even know exist. These industries are filled with people that have boatloads of cash, and a willingness to spend it on stuff that helps them make more boats that they will then proceed to fill with more cash.

Silicon Valley ignores this opportunity. Its oxygen-deprived brain is slowly eating itself, and it has become obsessed with shiny things, colors, and reflections. Our advantage is that we’re outside the bubble. Next week, I’ll give you some very specific advice on how we can stop building bullshit and capture this opportunity.