Friday, July 25, 2008

Innovation and Security

A frequent topic among innovation evangelists is whether or not the "Silicon Valley miracle" can be replicated. This is usually argued in terms of a laundry list of the assets of Silicon Valley. At the nut-and-bolts level there are items such as proximity to quality academic institutions and a "critical mass" of non-technical assets, such as venture capitalists and lawyers specializing in intellectual capital. Then there are social factors like nice weather, options for entertainment, good public education for the kids, and housing commensurate with compensation (if not affordable by the standards of the rest of the country/world).

All this reminds me of a joke that John McCarthy used to tell about the nature of common sense. He considered the question, "What do you need to know to start a car?" He then proceeded to develop a similar laundry list that included the need for fuel in the tank, having the key for the ignition, and (just as important) knowing the right way to turn the key once it has been inserted. After leading his audience to believe that a complete list had been compiled, he would ask, "What about the potato in the tail pipe?" His point was that, while we tend to compose these lists in terms of what needs to be present, there are all sorts of things that need to be absent (such as an object obstructing the exhaust system) that are ignored because we usually do not have to think about them.

Well, when it comes to the efforts of the Indian city of Bangalore to replicate Silicon Valley (under the sobriquet "Electronic City"), this morning's Financial Times ran a story by Amy Kazmin about a potato in the tail pipe:

India’s information technology capital, the southern city of Bangalore, was rocked on Friday afternoon by a series of eight small bomb blasts that killed at least one person and injured nearly a dozen others.

The blasts happened in quick succession at about 1.30pm local time and caused temporary traffic chaos in the city, which is the hub of India’s global software outsourcing business. Known as India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore is home to 1,500 companies such as India’s Infosys Technologies and offices of global groups such as Microsoft, IBM and Intel.

Authorities said the bombs were placed at traffic circles, near bus stops and other locations along important thoroughfares, including the road to Electronic City. They were triggered by timer devices and had metal bolts to add to their damage.

This is not to imply that innovation evangelists are oblivious to the impact that crime might have one where we choose to live and work. Rather, it is to suggest that the rose-colored glasses of their evangelism seem to filter our distinctions between the undesirable and the catastrophic. Those who spend much, if not most, of their time living in Silicon Valley begin to fall under the spell that any part of the world can replicate Silicon Valley as long as the right incentives can be implemented. This overlooks at least one critical element of social context, which Kazmin drew upon for the punch line of her article:

Bangalore was shocked in 2005, when a Kalashnikov-armed militant opened fire at the Indian Institute of Science, killing one retired professor and injuring four others. That attack was blamed on Islamist militants fighting for independence for the Himalayan state of Kashmir.

Is this a problem that can be solved by implementing "the right incentives;" and who is going to do the implementing (not to mention how)? This is not to say that the problem is being ignored:

In recent years many Indian cities – including the popular tourist town of Jaipur – have been rocked by serial bomb blasts, often causing serious loss of life.

While authorities suspect militant groups eager to fan hatred between Hindus and Muslims, and raising tensions between India and neighbouring Pakistan, police rarely have success in identifying, arresting or prosecuting the perpetrators.

Mohandas Pai, chief financial officer of Infosys, said the Bangalore attack highlighted the need for greater investment in policing, including electronic surveillance. “It’s a wake-up call,” Mr Pai told an Indian television channel. Other local executives echoed his call.

This is where we recognize the most important factor about that potato in the tail pipe. However extensive the laundry list may be, I doubt that anyone has ever included in it the following item:

Silicon Valley is not (nor does it need to be) a police state.

We do not think about such things, because we take it for granted that our Constitution protects us from them. However, our cultural context provides us with not only the Constitution but also a positive spirit of eternal vigilance moderated by due process of law. Not only are such matters not "universal" standards; but also, as anyone who has given more than a passing thought to what Clifford Geertz called "the interpretation of cultures," there is no reason that they should be universal standards.

The question, then, is not one of replicating something that works, so to speak. Rather, it involves recognizing that different settings "work" for different reasons in different times. In the history of art, Paris was long assumed to have the same level of priority that Silicon Valley now has for technology; but nothing is forever. The Nazis put an end to that priority; and, for a variety of reasons, the priority, such as it was, shifted to New York. These days it is probably more distributed, with different settings drawing different sorts of artists. Why should it not be the case that a similar tendency towards greater distribution for the sake of greater diversity would have an equally beneficial effect on the innovation and development of future technologies?

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