That vaunted fount of innovation, the Silicon Valley, may be showing signs of aging. It is beginning to resemble the history of industrial development before the information age. Some of the symptoms are: growing larger companies by gobbling up smaller ones; attempting to control markets by stifling startups (or by engulfing them as in the prior case); and developing borg-like headquarters facilities aimed at exerting almost total control over the lives of their employees. From the Company store to the company town. From Silicon Valley to Assimilation Valley.
It seems that Yahoo was one of the first of these to develop a campus for its employees. Apple and Google have also shown these agglomeration tendencies with Apple planning an imposing, lifesaver-shaped building to dominate Cupertino, California. In every case a primary reason given for these edifice complex developments is the need for preserving/increasing innovation among its employees. Indeed, Yahoo triggered a recent round of such attempts by calling in its home-based telecommuters this year, purportedly to maximize its togetherness. I have discussed that decision in earlier blogs.
Also in every case it seems that the motivation for all of this togetherness is the assumption that, if their employees are thrust into constant situations where they can interact with each other (most likely to the exclusion of anyone else), the innovation sum will somehow become greater than its parts. In Google’s case this attempt to become the universal den mother for its cubs extends even to the point where Google has developed its own transportation system to shepherd its employees between sleeping and work places without hindrance from the external world. Then there is the side effect of distorting the economy of San Francisco.
My question is whether this transformation from Silicon Valley to Assimilation Valley is in the best interests of the respective companies and/or the general public. As I have maintained in previous blogs the primary result of such cocooning, while possibly good for polishing existing products, is likely to be a decrease in the desired innovation, the Aha! moments when totally new concepts spring into being. Such denovation effects may already have shown up in one of the northern competitors of the Assimilation Valley trio: Microsoft; its attempts to catch up with contemporary and broader innovation trends have attracted much public comment over the past year.
The reason for this seems fairly obvious, at least to me. A group of people, no matter how brilliant and well educated, whose interaction is almost totally confined to members of the group is almost guaranteed to run out of new ideas. A recent insightful article by Robert Pogue Harrison in The New York Review of Books gives some telling examples of this situation. I, too, have friends who have chosen to flee the borg rather than become assimilated.