Back in the 1970s, a Japanese academic who was involved in early robotics research coined the term “uncanny valley.” Masahiro Mori, then a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, developed the term in his studies around robots. The uncanny valley was the point where, despite the robot looking incredibly human-like, it engenders in its observers a sense of strangeness, unease and a tendency to be scared. The uncanny valley is people’s negative reactions to others’ attempts to replicate something.
The term has been bouncing around the inside of my mind lately, ever since the Covid-related crescendo from the “technology will solve New Zealand’s problems” brigade. For anyone who spends their time working in the real world, this theme maybe something new, but in the software industry and, especially, around the halls of those who have had exposure to the tech sector, it is a rallying cry.
The theory goes something like this: success stories such as account software vendor Xero, employ highly skilled and highly-paid individuals producing a service that is “weightless.” That is, the delivery of that service doesn’t need raw materials or container ships – it’s just bits sent down a big internet pipe all around the world. Proponents of the “Silicon Valley 2.0” model suggest that New Zealand should reinvent itself rapidly, such that it becomes a South Pacific version of that hallowed place, Silicon Valley, the small belt of land just south of San Francisco from where such socially positive services as Facebook and Reddit emanate (sarcasm intentional).
Now I need to offer a disclosure before I begin my rant. I’ve spent a good 15 years in the technology industry. Until Covid wove its magic, I was on an aeroplane every few weeks, generally up to “The Valley” to go and opine about this technology stuff. I’d like to think I’ve spent enough time up there to have a pretty realistic view of what the Silicon Valley dream has delivered.
And that experience has driven me to two conclusions. The first is that, despite some of its positive attributes, Silicon Valley has enough bad points on the other ledger that we shouldn’t aspire to recreate it down here. The second conclusion is more practical. The reality is that Silicon Valley was borne out of a very unique set of attributes that we don’t have here and hence any attempt to carbon copy The Valley will be doomed to failure.
So, on that first point. What does life look like in Silicon Valley? Think of crawling traffic along choked highways. Think of huge numbers of people living on the street as billionaires walk past. Think of a “winners take all” mentality that celebrates the strong crushing the weak. Think of high stress and the antithesis of work-life balance.
Now we may not be perfect (far from it) down here in New Zealand but our income inequality is far lower than that of Silicon Valley. We have a far more collegial approach towards business and we still have a bit of balance in our lives that allows us to focus on home, family and pastimes as well as the holy grail of commercial success.
All things being equal I know which one produces better outcomes, when measured with a holistic ruler.
The second conclusion is even simpler. Silicon Valley is unique, and an amalgam of traits that are very much of the place. Research-driven universities with massive endowment programmes? Check. Huge amounts of capital looking to invest in early-stage companies? Also check. A decades-old culture of individuals cycling freely between academia and the commercial world? Also a check. A massive existing industry that has been many decades in the making and was originally fuelled by the Space Race and huge defence budgets? You betcha.
New Zealand doesn’t have any of these traits and would be unlikely to be able to create them. What we do have is creativity, space, dynamism, a proud history of primary production. How about, instead of trying to steal someone else’s model, we look to improve the one we already have. How about, rather than creating a second or third rate Silicon Valley clone, we create the very best Aotearoa imaginable – one in which our core attributes are augmented, not dispensed with. Let’s not fall into the trap of creating our own uncanny valley.