Sunday, April 16, 2017

Robert Taylor and Silicon Valley Myopia

Reading Steven Musil's obituary for Robert Taylor on the CNET Web site was a sobering experiences. Having worked on the fringes of the Internet even before that label was hung on it and having followed activities at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center dating from not long after the place was founded, Taylor's name was familiar to me, even if I never crossed paths with him. Ironically, though, when I finally found myself working in Palo Alto, it seemed almost as if he had fallen off the map.

For example, it seems as if Douglas Engelbart always managed to secure himself some turn in the ongoing buzz, even if that turf was relatively narrow. On the other hand, even though I was one of the early adapters of the Alta Vista search engine, it never occurred to me to associate it with Taylor. In many ways Taylor was the quintessential victim of Silicon Valley myopia. Silicon Valley would never have been what it was without Taylor's contributions. Nevertheless, there was a period about twenty years ago marked by an outpouring of papers about "the Silicon Valley phenomenon;" and Taylor's name never showed up in them.

I suspect one of the reasons that news of Taylor's death triggered my thoughts is that it has a remote connection to the book I am currently reading, Tim Rutherford-Johnson's Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989. I realize that one of the reasons I am so unhappy with the book is that, regardless of how well or poorly it is written, its thesis drives me up the wall. Put as succinctly as possible, the author seems to be making the case that, where music-making practices are concerned, promotion will trump achievement every time. (Yes, I chose that noun deliberately, because there is probably a corollary applicable to politics!)

Perhaps it was because of his connection to the Advance Research Projects Agency (ARPA) that Taylor did not have to obsess over promotion. However, one consequence of his work was that there were more people trying to get a slice of the funding pie while the pie itself did not grow accordingly. Of course where music is concerned, there was not much pie in the first place; but it does seem that the world the Internet made is one in which the idea of fair compensation has atrophied to a level that makes it barely recognizable. So one can appreciate that promotion may be more important than it once was, but it is hard to avoid anticipating a reduction ad absurdum when promotion is so important that it can be achieved even when one does not have anything to promote!

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