A silicon Renaissance

The leaders of Silicon Valley are truly creating a new Renaissance. We are living in one of those rare eras of significant change, when economic upheaval meets societal dislocation.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
"In then for the first time we detect the modern political spirit of Europe, surrendered freely to its own instincts, often displaying the worst features of an unbridled egotism, outraging every right, and killing every germ of a healthier culture." -Jacob Burckhardt, "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy."

Silicon Valley is smack in the center of a modern-day Renaissance, according to recent articles in some of the fancier business magazines.

"It's like Florence during the Renaissance," said Rob Lilleless, a vice president with Trilogy, in the Wall Street Journal on August 19--and he was talking about Austin, Texas.

Oddly enough, the statement appears to be correct.

As the quote above points out, the ambitious Italian city-states that gave the world Michaelangelo and Raphael also had a knack for greed, recklessness, and generally underhanded behavior--just the sort of tools praised in today's fast-paced Internet economy.

Back then, the hierarchy of medieval society that kept the rest of Europe in a vise had disintegrated in Italy. Power shifted from being a birthright to become a menacing tool ready for anyone who was willing to wield it. And, for the first time, that meant commercial power. Blood flowed in the streets.

"I lifted my dagger above his head, and hit him in the back exactly at the junction of the nape-bone and the neck. The poniard entered this point so deep into the bone that, though I used all my strength to pull it out, I was not able," wrote artist Benvenuto Cellini, who broke out of prison, murdered three men, and also painted masterpieces for the Vatican.

Later the next day, he wrote, "The Pope cast so menacing a glance toward me. Afterward, upon examining my work, his countenance cleared, and he began to praise me beyond measure."

To citizens of the Valley, of course, this may not be the picture of the Renaissance they had in mind. To hear them tell it, we bask in a golden era of human enlightenment--which translates roughly to 40 percent annual growth in networking hubs.

What is it that has made this region the navel of modern life? Is it the light? The soil? The fact that multibillion-dollar businesses are headquartered on the "Great America Parkway," a street named after an amusement park? A Renaissance in Silicon Valley conjures up images of, say, venture capitalist John Doerr spouting about new trade routes to the East, or Excite@Home chief Tom Jermoluk trolling about in pantaloons.

Dancing around the May pole, and minstrels at the Stanford Mall. Everywhere you look, it's enlightenment and dogs in hats.

The regional Internet villages are just as bad. Reports on New York's Silicon Alley paint a world with dazzling conversations and daring ideas on every street corner, not just weenie carts with bright yellow umbrellas. And of course there's Austin, Texas--a Renaissance repeat, but this time with 24-hour pancake houses.

But at closer look, the leaders of the Valley are truly creating a new Renaissance. We are living in one of those rare eras of significant change, when economic upheaval meets societal dislocation. Looking back, this time will probably interest historians just as much as the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, or the Victorian era of imperial and industrial expansion.

And, as much as I hate to admit it, the epicenter of the revolution is just south of the Webster Exterminator sign on Highway 101.

However, the tech leaders are not playing the role of enlightened men like Galileo or Leonardo DaVinci. Instead, they are like the notorious Medici and Borgia families--clannish, self-aggrandizing groups with loads of money and big dreams. In other words, Florida sports tycoons with foreign sports cars.

Rather than erroneously believe they are personally creating a new tomorrow, Silicon Valley execs should be content with an indirect role. They get to hire individuals with talent--scientists, decorators, artists, or the occasional university professor--and treat them really bad. In the end, something worthwhile will come of it.

Besides, the parallels are tough to ignore. Taxes were especially despised in the period and often could lead to the downfall of a family house. Plagues and a life expectancy that hovered around 29 years at the beginning of the century gave leadership a youthful glow. Goatees abounded, and so did the idea of intellectual colonization.

"My country is the whole world," wrote Dante, who, like Ghiberti and Machiavelli, got the boot.

"Young adults commanded, for they were the only generation with the numbers and skills needed to run society. The leaders of the age show psychological qualities which may in part at least be attributed to their youth: impatience and imagination; a tendency to take quick recourse to violence; a love of extravagant gesture and display; and a rather small endowment of prudence, restraint, and self-control," quoth Mortimer Chambers, in his work "The Western Experience."

So put those skills to work.