The Road Behind

The Road Behind

The Road Behind

Feb. 19 1998 3:30 AM

The Road Behind

Silicon Valley's sense of time.

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People in Silicon Valley play tricks with time, all of which distort their perception in a similar way. The first trick is to inflate the prestige of the future. The future is invoked far more often by people with technology to sell than by any other human beings on the planet except presidential candidates. When technology billionaires take to the stump, or have books written in their name, they don't waste much time on what has already happened. Instead they tell you what will happen next. The Road Ahead!

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There is a good commercial reason for all the futurology: If you can predict the future, then you are more likely to invent the technology that people will want there. But the effect of the constant clawing ahead is to distort time. The future is always right in your face, like the background of a Mannerist painting. Whether this willful distortion actually helps people see into the future is a different question. What could be easier to anticipate than the year 2000? Yet it will cost something like $70 billion to make up for the failure of technologists to foresee that the century might end.

The second trick the Valley people play with time is to lower the prestige of the past. They do not grant the past the pride of place it enjoys in, say, Bosnia, or even in Indianapolis. The past in the Valley is regarded as distinctly irrelevant and slightly second-rate.

Again, there are good commercial reasons for this attitude. In the world of high technology the past is mainly a succession of bad ideas about the future. The experience most common in high-tech startups is not wild success but slow, fizzling failure. Nine out of 10 new technologies that qualify for venture-capital funding fail to meet their initial expectations. Failures are not stigmatized, however, because people who fail need to be encouraged to try again. Valley culture, if not Valley rhetoric, recognizes that starting a business is a crapshoot. But to try again with all the required enthusiasm means forgetting what happened the last time.

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P eople in Silicon Valley are like victims of a Stalinist purge, except that instead of being punished for remembering, they are paid to forget. Even people who have made their fortunes do not dare to linger on their success overmuch. The past and the future are widely regarded as antithetical; to dwell on one creates the impression that you don't have the other. The most damning polite adjective you can hurl at someone in the Valley is old. I recently watched a spokesman from Xerox PARC--famous for inventing the mouse, windows, and other key pieces of the PC operating system without ever trying to sell any of it--keep a perfectly straight face as he envisioned the world a decade hence. Bill Gates, he said, had no idea of what was about to hit him. "Bill's thinking," he said, with real malice, "is old thinking."

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Which brings me to the third reason the past recedes so quickly in the Valley: Unlike in, say, Washington, D.C., it isn't much good as a weapon. People here don't have much interest in remembering bad things about each other, since they are all joined at the hip in the same enterprise--Future Inc.

The exception suggests the rule. One of the Valley's classic stories is the saga of Gary Kildall. It has appeared in at least two books; one television series; and many, many conversations between Valley people and journalists. When IBM asked Bill Gates for a PC operating system back in the early 1980s, Gates sent them to Kildall. Kildall had already invented the operating system that should have been used in the IBM PC. But some combination of indifference and commercial ineptitude led Kildall to ignore the men from IBM, who wound up returning to Gates. Gates, in turn, purchased a cheap rip-off of Kildall's system, which he dubbed MS-DOS. Gates thus became Gates. Kildall died from head injuries suffered from a fall in a bar.

The Valley cherishes this story, because it reflects badly on its biggest enemy. It minimizes Bill Gates' achievement. It wasn't even his idea! This dead guy thought it up! (The story also illustrates the tragedy of technical genius unlinked to greed.)

The final trick the Valley plays on people's perception of time is more purely technical. New technologists slice time into smaller units than do normal people. Not long ago an important person at Sun Microsystems explained this phenomenon to me. Time is not merely money, he explained. Time is also identity. Many people at Sun apparently identify themselves by the speed of the computer problems they are working on. When asked to list Sun's corporate subculture, he neglected to mention the usual corporate subdivisions: marketing, programming, personnel, and so on. Nor did this man mention race, religion, or nationality. Instead he handed me the following list:

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millisecond people;

microsecond people;

nanosecond people;

picosecond people;

femtosecond people;

attosecond people.

A millisecond is 1/1,000 of a second. An attosecond is 1/1,000,000,000,000,000,000 of a second. The millisecond person, said the man from Sun, is not merely in a different league than the attosecond person. He has trouble even making himself understood to an attosecond person.

All these temporal distortions have the same effect: to push the human mind ahead of its time. The road behind vanishes very quickly here; the road ahead is always in your face, in ever briefer slices. People often claim that life goes by faster than it used to. Obviously this cannot be true as a matter of fact; but as a matter of perception there must be something to it, since people, especially busy people, say it so often. This morning seems like yesterday, yesterday seems like last week, and last week is virtually impossible to recall. This rampant memory loss is especially odd in a culture that prides itself on its perpetual youth. It used to be only old people who forgot who they were and what they'd been.