Steve Jobs, Silicon Valley, and “The Creation Myth”

Last week, I wrote a short Weekly Standard blog post on Steve Jobs — or, more specifically, on Silicon Valley and the role of community in fostering innovation.  I talk about Silicon Valley and tech, although the same can be said about New York and finance, Hollywood and cinema, Detroit and autos, Houston and oil, etc.  I’m probably being too facile, but it seems to me that an industry cannot become truly great unless it finds a home in a single community, to intensify competition and collaboration, and to attract money, minds, and mettle.

After writing the post, it occurred to me that I should have mentioned, or at least linked, Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent essay, “The Creation Myth,” which the New Yorker published back in May.  Focusing on the story of the Xerox PARC (i.e., Palo Alto Research Center), which created technologies that companies such as Apple later commercialized with great success — the mouse, the graphical user interface, the laser printer — Gladwell reminds us of what can happen when we put creators and commercializers, intellectual capital and financial capital, in close proximity:

The reason Xerox invented the laser printer, in other words, is that it invented the personal computer. Without the big idea, it would never have seen the value of the small idea. If you consider innovation to be efficient and ideas precious, that is a tragedy: you give the crown jewels away to Steve Jobs, and all you’re left with is a printer. But in the real, messy world of creativity, giving away the thing you don’t really understand for the thing that you do is an inevitable tradeoff.

“When you have a bunch of smart people with a broad enough charter, you will always get something good out of it,” Nathan Myhrvold, formerly a senior executive at Microsoft, argues. “It’s one of the best investments you could possibly make—but only if you chose to value it in terms of successes. If you chose to evaluate it in terms of how many times you failed, or times you could have succeeded and didn’t, then you are bound to be unhappy. Innovation is an unruly thing. There will be some ideas that don’t get caught in your cup. But that’s not what the game is about. The game is what you catch, not what you spill.

“In the nineteen-nineties, Myhrvold created a research laboratory at Microsoft modelled in part on what Xerox had done in Palo Alto in the nineteen-seventies, because he considered PARC a triumph, not a failure. “Xerox did research outside their business model, and when you do that you should not be surprised that you have a hard time dealing with it—any more than if some bright guy at Pfizer wrote a word processor. Good luck to Pfizer getting into the word-processing business. Meanwhile, the thing that they invented that was similar to their own business—a really big machine that spit paper —they made a lot of money on it.” And so they did. Gary Starkweather’s laser printer made billions for Xerox. It paid for every other single project at Xerox PARC, many times over.

By the way, regarding my Standard post:  It was later republished by NPR, which is nice, except I have no idea why NPR grafted some incomplete text on to the front of it.