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mythical exports

The most potent export to come out of Silicon Valley is not the software. The software that ate the world, chewed on it and spat it back out into a new reality of surveillance capitalism and the always-on.

Instead, it’s the idea that no software companies (which these days almost exclusively go by the term startups - although startups can produce other goods and services, these are often sold or mediated through a digital, software enabled platform of some sort) in the world can be built without its blessing, without a sprinkle of the magic unicorn dust that originates from the glass-walled meeting rooms on Sand Hill Road.

Here, on the other side of the pond, we raise our eyes towards the giants, sometimes to excoriate them for the dystopian tales enabled by their software that are a daily presence on news websites, but secretly wish we could be them and raise our eyes in worship, wishing we would have our very own Valley somewhere here.

A while ago, at a meetup hosted by one of the Valley darlings, someone asked if it would be possible for the employees of a European company to take a field trip to see the hosting company’s offices in Palo Alto. Why, I wondered, did this group want to fly halfway across the world to see open plan offices, sleek laptops and engineers sprawling on multicoloured beanie bags? Why did they want to fly halfway across the world when they could get the same vista in any one of the local startups in the capital, tripping over themselves to emulate the culture of the Valley in the hopes of becoming one of the few tech unicorns in Europe.

After all, a pull request submitted on a beanie bag in Palo Alto is probably equivalent to a pull request submitted on a beanie bag in the Silicon Roundabout.

It wouldn’t do, one of the engineers engaged in the conversation, explained to me. It wouldn’t do to go to the Silicon Roundabout or one of the other Silicon X’s springing up in cities big and small around Europe. They wanted to go to Palo Alto to imbibe some of the magical startup culture that made 20-something year olds, (mostly) white college-educated men into billionaires seemingly overnight. There was conviction in those words. They would surely bring back a bit of the magic sparkle dust that helped to propel many of Twitter tech thought-leaderati to an early retirement (or a lucrative career as a VC).

I had myself been on one of these tech pilgrimage flights recently. The 12 hour long-haul from London was full of hopefuls. They sat in economy plus, the hungry and the up and coming, the business development managers in crisp ironed shirts and slacks and the developers in tattered tech conference t-shirts. The stickered laptops were out as soon as the seat belt sign was switched off. Half-finished pitch decks and in-progress pull requests mingled with airline food and the eternally hopeful spirit, that in Silicon Valley, everything is possible.

The thing that has always bothered me in this mythos that all the best software companies needed a sprinkle of the Valley magic was the ultimate hypocrisy of this statement in the face of the global, cosmopolitan digital nomadism that many of the people who believed in this mythology, claimed their technology enabled. European tech companies sprung up to develop new, better videoconferencing software to help other companies cut business travel costs, yet their executives flew once every two weeks across the ocean to court the money and know-how in the Valley. The best investment decisions are made in person, bragged a greenwashing advertorial by an airline. The airline had just flown out a select group of the Valley glitterati for a startup event in Finland on a new “climate smart” airline fuel.

Nothing happens unless someone pushes a button in New York, says a banner on the Twitter page of a former acquaintance who now works in publishing. Nothing happens in the world of tech, unless someone pushes a pull request in Silicon Valley. This all against a blind allegiance to the idea of meritocracy and the enablement of said, global meritocracy by tech built by these companies. With the power of this or that new JavaScript framework, a dairy farmer in rural France was just as likely to disrupt the world and ascend into the constellation of tech luminaries as an Ivy League CS graduate working at a FAANG and yet.

At some point in our obsession with this mythos we seem to have forgotten everything about what a business (software or otherwise) was or should be. The idea that a business should have a realistic business model or revenue was lost in the noise of billion dollar valuations given to vapourware or your-mom-but-through-an-app startups and at some point it became so normal to raise obscene amounts of money for nothing but a figment that few ever stop to consider the alternative.