New York Times (pg. A13) [Printer-friendly version] April 18, 1998 TECHNO-NOTHINGS 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 D.C. 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 information." 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."