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COVID-19 has Blown Apart the Myth of Silicon Valley Innovation


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A PC made of sand awaits the next big wave.

Silicon Valley and big tech in general have been lame in responding to the crisis.

Credit: Getty Images

The frustration in Marc Andreessen's post on our failure to prepare and respond competently to the coronavirus pandemic is palpable, and his diagnosis is adamant: "a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to 'build.'" Why don't we have vaccines and medicines, or even masks and ventilators? He writes: "We could have these things but we chose not to­—specifically we chose not to have the mechanisms, the factories, the systems to make these things. We chose not to 'build.'"

Forgetting for a moment that this is coming from the same guy who famously explained in 2011 "why software is eating the world," Andreessen, an icon of Silicon Valley, does have a point. As George Packer has written in the Atlantic, the coronavirus pandemic has revealed much of what is broken and decayed in politics and society in America. Our inability to make the medicines and stuff that we desperately need, like personal protective gear and critical care supplies, is a deadly example.

Silicon Valley and big tech in general have been lame in responding to the crisis. Sure, they have given us Zoom to keep the fortunate among us working and Netflix to keep us sane; Amazon is a savior these days for those avoiding stores; iPads are in hot demand and Instacart is helping to keep many self-isolating people fed. But the pandemic has also revealed the limitations and impotence of the world's richest companies (and, we have been told, the most innovative place on earth) in the face of the public health crisis.

Big tech doesn't build anything. It's not likely to give us vaccines or diagnostic tests. We don't even seem to know how to make a cotton swab. Those hoping the US could turn its dominant tech industry into a dynamo of innovation against the pandemic will be disappointed.

It's not a new complaint. A decade ago, in the aftermath of what we once called "the" great recession, Andrew Grove, a Silicon Valley giant from earlier era, wrote a piece in Bloomberg BusinessWeek decrying the loss of America's manufacturing prowess. He described how Silicon Valley was built by engineers intent on scaling up their inventions; "the mythical moment of creation in the garage, as technology goes from prototype to mass production." Grove said those who argued that we should let "tired old companies that do commodity manufacturing die" were wrong: scaling up and mass-producing products means building factories and hiring thousands of workers.

But Grove wasn't just worried about the lost jobs as production of iPhones and microchips went overseas. He wrote: "Losing the ability to scale will ultimately damage our capacity to innovate."

 

From MIT Technology Review
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