New York Times (pg. A13)  [Printer-friendly version]
April 18, 1998


By Thomas L. Friedman

I don't think I like Silicon Valley.

Here's why: I'm as impressed as anyone with the technologies that
Silicon Valley is producing and the way they are changing how we must
think about economic power and how nations interact. But what is so
striking about Silicon Valley is that it has become so enamored of its
innovative and profit-making prowess that it has completely lost sight
of the overall context within which this is taking place. There is a
disturbing complacency here toward Washington, government and even the
nation. There is no geography in Silicon Valley, or geopolitics. There
are only stock options and electrons.

When I asked an all-too-typical tech-exec here when was the last time
he talked about Iraq or Russia or foreign wars, he answered: "Not more
than once a year. We don't even care about Washington. Money is
extracted from Silicon Valley and then wasted by Washington. I want to
talk about people who create wealth and jobs. I don't want to talk
about unhealthy and unproductive people. If I don't care enough about
the wealth-destroyers in my own country, why would I care about the
wealth-destroyers in another country?"

What's wrong with this picture is that all the technologies Silicon
Valley is designing to carry digital voices, videos and data farther
and faster around the world, all the trade and financial integration
it is promoting through its innovations, and all the wealth it is
generating, is happening in a world stabilized by a benign superpower
called the United States of America, with its capital in Washington

The hidden hand of the global market would never work without the
hidden fist. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon
Valley's technologies to flourish is called the United States Army,
Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps (with the help, incidentally, of
global institutions like the U.N. and the International Monetary
Fund). And those fighting forces and institutions are paid for by all
the tax dollars that Washington is "wasting" every year.

Because of the intense competition here among companies, and the
continuous flood of new products, there is a saying in Silicon Valley
that "loyalty is just one mouse-click away." But you can take that too
far. Execs here say things like: "We are not an American company. We
are I.B.M. U.S., I.B.M. Canada, I.B.M. Australia, I.B.M. China." Oh
yeah? Well, the next time you get in trouble in China, then call Li
Peng for help. And the next time Congress closes another military base
in Asia -- and you don't care because you don't care about Washington
-- call Microsoft's navy to secure the sea lanes of Asia. And the next
time the freshmen Republicans want to close more U.S. embassies, call
America Online when you lose your passport.

Harry Saal, a successful Silicon Valley engineer, venture capitalist
and community activist -- an exception to the norm -- remarked to me:
"If you ask people here what their affiliation is, they will name
their company. Many live and work on a company campus. The leaders of
these companies don't have any real understanding of how a society
operates and how education and social services get provided for.
People here are not involved in Washington policy because they think
the future will be set by technology and market forces alone and
eventually there will be a new world order based on electrons and

They're exactly half right. I've had a running debate with a neo-
Reaganite foreign-policy writer, Robert Kagan, from the Carnegie
Endowment, about the impact of economic integration and technology on
geopolitics. He says I overestimate its stabilizing effects; I say he
underestimates it. We finally agreed that unless you look at both
geotechnology and geopolitics you can't explain (or sustain) this
relatively stable moment in world history. But Silicon Valley's tech-
heads have become so obsessed with bandwidth they've forgotten balance
of power. They've forgotten that without America on duty there will be
no America Online.

"The people in Silicon Valley think it's a virtue not to think about
history because everything for them is about the future," argued Mr.
Kagan. "But their ignorance of history leads them to ignore that this
explosion of commerce and trade rests on a secure international
system, which rests on those who have the power and the desire to see
that system preserved."