Tech: A Silicon Valley Religion

12 Oct 2006|Lori Hobson

Where I live, “technology” has a meaning beyond its functional purpose, its inherent marvel of invention, or its potential as a status symbol. We are a community for which technology has a deeply valued significance that transcends even fundamental emotional satisfaction. The meaning of “technology” in Silicon Valley nestles somewhere among our hope for prosperity and the American dream, our unity with our neighbors and friends, and our belief that intellectual prowess applied over time can resolve any challenges humans face.

When we need to, Silicon Valley inhabitants rise to the defense of technology. Recently, San Jose State University announced that it was considering a ban on the use of Skype on campus because of a possible threat to security. (Campus May Ban Skype) Immediately, students, professors and the larger tech community began protesting that such a ban would put the university at a disadvantage, that education would be compromised and collaboration defeated. (And more critical views ) Skype’s owner and Silicon Valley icon, eBay, met with university officials to help them understand solutions to security concerns. In less than a week of announcing what was now referred to as a “draft policy,” SJSU dropped the idea all together (Skype to Stay at San Jose State), citing that eBay had provided suggestions that would protect the campus network. At the same time, bans on Skype have been in place at other campuses outside Silicon Valley – places like the University of California, Santa Barbara – with some objections but no where near the public outcry. These other communities apparently do not see the ban as a threat to a way of life.

In Silicon Valley, we believe that answers to problems with technology should not detract from its potential. So when two fifteen year olds went missing last year, within days of each other, and both were suspected to have gone to meet someone they’d met on MySpace, our Silicon Valley schools reached out to parents with warnings. None of the warnings I saw suggested that we prohibit our children from using MySpace to protect them. They were strictly notifications that would allow parents to take actions that they deemed appropriate. A notice that even hinted that MySpace was to be avoided could have caused a stir; there are parents in these districts who have helped found or fund much of the cyber world in which MySpace operates. Their businesses are not about harming children! We instead advocate a focus on the safe and intelligent use of technology, not restrictions. It is simply too important that our children have access to things like social networks that could define tomorrow’s economy, sources for learning, or other valuable stores of information and opportunity. Wisely, the schools sent a different message, “Be sure your kids stop posting information about themselves and their friends that creeps might take advantage of!”

For a while, my own daughter was a MySpace addict and slave to her cell phone. Like many parents, my husband and I struggled with what to do to get her to set these aside and focus on school. Between text messaging and interacting with people on her MySpace page, she managed to drive her grades to new lows and generally be distracted from other aspects of life. I tried taking away her Treo and her laptop in the evenings. But that didn’t last long. It wasn’t her persistence in trying to re-win them. It was our view of these products. How can I keep my daughter from the cell phone that her dad had designed? How could we take away the notebook created by people we knew, some of whom were friends of our family? How could the products and services we – our family, friends and neighbors – spend our days envisioning, designing and building possibly be a source of wrongdoing?

Luckily, Melissa has gotten more into writing for English class than maintaining her MySpace account. (She says MySpace is “so last year.”) She recently told me she had signed up for www.meebo.com, a Palo Alto-based Internet company that allows its customers interact with all of their instant messengers in one place. The announcement didn’t raise an eyebrow or evoke a lecture on how she shouldn’t get distracted by it all. Instead, I asked her what she likes about it, and she went on to explain how cool it is because it is so easy to understand and use. I have come to realize that her knowledge of different Web services might be almost as crucial (almost!) to her future as her study of an important historical figure for Mr. Welsh’s class at M-A. Besides, one of her close friend’s moms works for meebo, so it must be built on technology, part of our community, and somehow creating a better world!

Also, with my move to Cheskin, I can see the value of a single site for electronic communication. Ours is an email/IM culture; while my past was mostly one of cell phones. I am making a transition to a company where I am not the only one interested in constructing full sentences. With this recognition and to pay homage to the greater Silicon Valley good, I now wear my meebo T-shirt to the local farmer’s market on the weekend, right after I check my Cheskin email.

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