‘The nerd culture is changing’

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on December 15, 2014 Published on December 14, 2014


One generation of nerds makes way for another that builds ‘real stuff’, says author Michael S Malone

Not many have chronicled the birth and boom of technology capitalism in the US the way Michael S Malone has through his writings over the past two decades. Journalist, author, investor and broadcaster, Malone has tracked trends in technology with unmatched eagerness and lucidity. His latest work, The Intel Trinity, traces the history of the technology giant. Business Line met Malone at Intel Capital Summit held recently in California. Edited excerpts from the interview:

How has the rise of the Silicon Valley transformed US capitalism?

It has brought to surface something that has always been native to the American economy, which is a great leap in entrepreneurship. It presented entrepreneurship as a form of freedom, of personal liberty.

The Valley systematised the entrepreneurial process. In the past, if you were a Henry Ford, you had to face a lot of obstacles to build a company. It took Ford years to start and build Ford Motor Company. Now there is an entire ecosystem of venture capitalists, angel investors, head-hunters and all that. You can put together a company pretty fast. This process of creating new companies is a big contribution of the Silicon Valley to America and the rest of the world. It turned big business capitalism into start-up capitalism.

That’s a unique contribution.

Yes. Now there are many such valleys across the globe, but nothing that’s like the real one. There is more money here, more products, more companies and more entrepreneurs now than there ever was. And there are new big companies. Already, there are many technology enclaves, like Bangalore, but there is nothing like the Valley where really smart people build successful companies out of thin air.

But aren’t the very philosophies that built the Valley also changing -- nerds giving way to more disciplined, money-minded, business-like herd?

Even the nerds admit that the nerd culture is changing. I can remember the day when Steve Jobs was called a nerd. But no one would call him a nerd at the end.

So there has been a change, and it has got to do with the nature of the business, because writing code requires a certain type of personality. It’s a different kind of hard work. It requires you to be young, working 20 hours a day and you’d be sleeping on the floor.

That nerd culture is kind of coming to an end because, one, many of them have been shifting to hardware. Hardware is more hands-on, physical and demands a different approach altogether.

And the other reason could be that all those nerds that came up with those bright products 15 years ago are 35 years old now and they are moving out of the Valley and settling down. They’re having kids and family and that demands changes.

And the next generation of nerds are going to be ‘robotic nerds’. The guys who are already taking part in these robotic competitions at high school levels today are the next generation. They are different too, because they are the real wizards over here. They are going to ‘build’ stuff; they don’t ‘think’ stuff.

The Valley also produced its own leadership models.

Yes. We know of some of the key ones, like Hewlett Packard and management with objective and all those basic, new management ideas that emerged in the 1960s.

The core contribution of the valley is the idea of the scientist-businessman, which was kind of rare earlier.

How has tech journalism changed over the years?

About 30-40 years ago, technology was just another story. It was an emerging field of interest. Over the years, especially in the past 25 years, it has become a thing unto itself. It has become so gigantic that it has penetrated everything else. Today, you cannot talk about the automotive industry without talking about technology.

You cannot talk about food without talking about technology. And yet, there are actually very few people who can really do it (technology journalism). As a result, it has become an inside game between the companies and the journalists talking to each other, not about a lot of journalists asking tough questions.

That’s been a great loss. Even inside technology journalism, not many today know of, say, semiconductors; they are all about the web, software, social networks and so on. There is only a handful people who can write about chips and how they are made.

The other reason is publications have got smaller as we have gone to the web, while companies have got bigger. There used be some balance between the companies and the newspapers that were writing about them. Now, the companies are gigantic, and the reporters are kind of on their own, and they don’t have a lot of leverage.

Are technologies, especially social tech, making people more reclusive?

In the physical world people may have become less social, but in the virtual world they are more active. Even shy kids have 200 friends on Facebook. Social media technology is going to have a long-term effect on our ability to deal with each other face to face, but all technologies are doing that. What is happening is we are learning to interact between each other without a lot of the usual signals.

In communication, all this while, we have had several cues, like how one’s lips moved, eyes shut and hands were positioned, now we have removed 90 per cent of them. That’s an area people in the Valley also are looking at, how to achieve communication between people who are sitting several thousands of miles away just like the way you and me sitting three feet away here are communicating.

Does science fiction, which helped kindle interest in technology, have the same vigour now?

I remember when science fiction was predicting the future of now, that is the 2000s. So we were all having atomic helicopters, jet packs and robots running around our houses. But none of these happened. But in reality, we advanced even more, in a direction we had no idea of. Which is the digital world, along the path of the Moore’s Law. It has taken us faster than any experience in the history of mankind. And we have jumped on that wagon, instead of the atomic helicopter.

All of a sudden the digital world is coming to the real world faster than we have imagined and we are not really prepared for it. That’s why we have people telling us we better be careful about artificial intelligence and these will go racing beyond us.

As Stephen Hawking said, the danger is when the machines find out we are weak, flawed and superficial, they will not need us any more. And this aching fear in us shows up in science fiction.

EO Wilson, the great biologist, was talking about space travels, exploring other worlds, looking for life -- the problem is the distance is too far, so what we are going to do is we will probably use computer simulations and create digital models of such worlds and explore. Which is a great innovating notion. Maybe, that’s the future of science fiction as well. It could take the form of an App that could let people experience a different reality to live in for a while.

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Published on December 14, 2014
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