Reflections #7: Books and Silicon

The Game of Tech

In the final weeks of the course we have focused on the book publishing industry and Silicon Valley. I would also like to return to the topic of civic enterprise and government technology from my previous post. As always, I would have prefered to stay with each topic longer, since they hold so much interest. Time is the greatest enemy.

On the theme of civic enterprise and government technology, the class paid a visit to the downtown Los Angeles offices of NationBuilder in order to meet Jim Gilliam, the co-founder of the company. NationBuilder is a customer relationship management system, or CRM, for political groups and campaigns, and for non-profits. Despite Mr. Gilliam’s politics, his company is nonpartisan and services all types of groups, including ones that he disagrees with. Several mantras were stated: “power for anyone” and “bring democracy for democracy”. Whether these slogans were that of NationBuilder or Jim Gilliam is difficult to know, but it may not matter. Mr. Gilliam presented an interesting personal story to the class, about which he was fairly open and elements of which can be be seen online. He could be described as a former Christian fundamentalist, twice cancer survivor, documentary filmmaker, and technologist that started a technology company. This was an very interesting guest since we met him on his home turf for an extended time, contrasting to our other guests that came to our class.

The Economist presented “The Future of the Book” and discussed the past, present and possible future of the book and book publishing. It is not an exaggeration to say that the book has shaped human history. The medium’s has preserved, conveyed and created ideas and information since before the printing press. In the past 50 years, the number of books have increased greatly. However, the habit of reading for entertainment has decreased slightly in the past few years, but nowhere to the degree that had been predicted. Books are far from dead. And yet attempts to change how books are presented, such embedded video and sound in e-books, have largely failed, but e-books remain popular. On the other hand, e-readers sales have declined since e-books can be read on non-dedicated devices, such as smartphones, tablets and computers. Books are often compared with digital music and newspapers, but this is not a valid comparison due to the nature of books. Consumers prefer songs rather than albums, and CDs can be easily digitized and shared. Printed books, on the other hand, are not easily digitized. In the end, books are still popular, while where they are sold has changed with the decline of big-chain bookstores and the rise of Amazon. Mainly due to the Internet and inexpensive technologies, self-publishing is more of an option for authors. Yet the book as an object has persisted despite the rise and fall publishing technologies and business models. New business models continue to come as newer technologies create new opportunities. This includes books that are designed to teach rather than only inform, as well as using customer data to market back to them and to develop new content.

Lastly, in “Change the World: Silicon Valley Transfers its Slogans — and its Money — to the Realm of Politics” by George Packer in The New Yorker, is an account of the transformation of the Silicon Valley region from a middle class area to a major hub of technology, money, power, and influence. This transformation appears to come at a cost, not measured in money. Despite its strength, Silicon Valley and the surrounding areas have been criticized for separating themselves from the local communities. Examples of this are the physical isolation of company campuses, changing demographics from mixed-race middle class to richer and more white, and in transportation, such as the private “Google” buses. In addition, more Silicon Valley corporate leaders and investors began to be more politically involved. Silicon Valley’s rapid growth created tension with regulators, resulting in Silicon Valley becoming more interested in politics. Some, such as Ben Horowitz, saw this political interest as largely self-interest. Libertarianism is strong in Silicon Valley, however it is generally believed that their political goals can be achieved through technology. Despite its self interest, some heads of Silicon Valley tech companies created a political advocacy group,, in order to promote immigration reform. San Francisco had also made strides to use technology to solve some of the city’s problems, such as homelessness. Then mayor, Gavin Newsom, has become close to area tech leaders. However, his use of technology in government was labeled by critics as a distraction from real issues. Newsom believed in Gov 2.0 with technology creating positive competition among city services. Overall, critics also claim that the tech industry can be unreasonably optimistic about the assumption that their products can have world changing effects. “Change the world” has been their capitalist mantra.

Thinking of Jim Gilliam and NationBuilder, one has to wonder if there is some type of “madman/visionary” divide, and that his company is his instrumental in achieving his goals. NationBuilder appears to actively counter-argue assertions that their company is partisan. For example, the company has a Myths section on their site to address false accusations and assertions. Perhaps the political aspect of their product fuels outright or perceived politicization or partisanship.

NationBuilder may be the embodiment of Mr. Gilliam’s ideas and success. His statement, “Startups are like cults, but startups are right, the other is wrong,” and his management of the company may reflect this. For example, Mr. Gilliam conducts bi-annual “retreats” to refocus the staff on the mission of the organization. These may be more like “purges” to remove the non-believers. Although one can imagine that these events may be difficult for the staff, Mr. Gilliam reports that they make the company stronger. The employer review site, Glassdoor, reports many current and former employee criticisms, which interestingly, Mr. Gilliam acknowledged. One has to wonder if this is a “take it or leave it” situation. And if so, it may not be conducive to staff stability. In addition, Mr. Gilliam has also mentioned that the company may expand into other areas, such as book publishing, film marketing. Strangely, NationBuilder also has an online store that sells jewelry.

Regarding the book, it is still unchanged despite the fact that books are sold and distributed differently than they have been in the past. Though younger generations still prefer printed books, one can imagine that as e-books become natively digital, they may become more attractive. This also assumes that reading e-books will become easier as the technology improves.

Silicon Valley is a subject that has become quite controversial. Despite the technology, “geek glamor”, and money, Silicon Valley is both part of the problem and part of the solution. Some of the readings reinforce some of the stereotypes of the tech industry.Regarding its relationship with the local region and the state of California, Silicon Valley has not made the right steps to build connections. In an open letter to the city’s mayor Ed Lee, a male tech worker comments on not wanting to see “homeless riff-raff” in San Francisco whose “pain, struggle and despair” should not have to be endured by “wealthy” people. Although this was an single event, it does support the perception that Silicon Valley is out of touch with the community and the plight of other people.

In another example, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist failed in his attempt at a CA proposition to propose the dividing the state into six different and independent states. In the proposal, Silicon Valley was to be its own state. Although it was a single event and Tim Draper may not be completely representative, this does reflect the political goals and isolationist tendencies of the region. Silicon Valley’s activity in politics appears to be, at least in part, self-centered Their interest in immigration may related to H1 employment visas as a source of labor, rather than any altruistic or moral attitudes. These attitudes do conflict with a change the world philosophy.

There may not be much to defend in the criticisms of Silicon Valley, but there are good companies, run by decent people, doing amazing and beneficial things. However, in Wired’s Silicon Valley isn’t a Meritocracy. And it’s Dangerous to Hero-Worship Entrepreneurs by Alice Marwick, she cautions that Silicon Valley is not a meritocracy as it is believed. This mythology furthers the male, white, and wealthy individuals that already “stack the deck” in favor or similar individuals and stereotypes. It also negates any other that is not already part of the wealthy and privileged. The fact that there are low rates of women and minorities demonstrates this.

Marwick brings further caution of hero worship of the entrepreneur. In part, this word of caution can be applied to Jim Gilliam as an example. He could be a target of, maker of his own “worship”, or perhaps a victim of hero worship. Mr. Gilliam did make comments of cultism, and some employees have made comments that the company has cultish elements. His vision is to change politics, which is an admirable goal. And he is far from the only one. Other tech leaders have made claims of wanted to change the work with their product. This may be based on the myth of the “self-made man” and on the “bootstraps” idea. This, along with Silicon Valley and the startup, are almost a type of fetish.

What does all this mean to me and what do I want to do in life. As the cliche says: the future is bright. Innovation is everywhere and, with help, closer to achieve than previously thought. Although I did not agree with some of the arguments made during the course, I did learn some basic skills and ideas that can be used either as an entrepreneur or as one acting within an organization.

In considering Silicon Valley, one can think of alternatives in California and if there are local opportunities to work in tech, but not have to deal with the negative effects of Silicon Valley. Building tech hubs or copies of Silicon Valley is “all the rage”, as localities attempt to replicate its knowledge and related workforce, wealth and capital generation and innovation. The most obvious that comes to mind is Southern California in the relative startup technology hubs or centers of “Silicon Beach” and Downtown Los Angeles.

In this final post, I can easily say that this course have been fascinating, insightful, and challenging. This has been quite a test of my “entrepreneurship”. So much so, that it tests my spelling of the word. Through the readings, coursework, writings, guests and class discussion, I find that I have a better understanding of the entrepreneur experience and a no-joke belief that I “could be an entrepreneur too”.

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