Why Silicon Valley innovation has stalled

By Francisco Dao , written on January 3, 2013

From The News Desk

From Peter Thiel's lament that "they promised us flying cars but instead we got 140 characters" to Michael Arrington's latest complaint that he's bored with what currently passes for innovation, there is a growing chorus of people voicing their disappointment with Silicon Valley's inability to push the envelope. While core hardware, microprocessors, infrastructure, and display technologies continue to break new ground, I think it is a fair assessment to say that innovation in internet products and services has been largely derivative and underwhelming.

While many of the reasons for the sorry state of innovation in the internet space have been discussed before (tech has become too trendy, proliferation of incubators, echo chamber, etc.) one idea that I’ve never heard anyone talk about is this; in order to push the innovation envelope, people must be working at, or at least have a deep knowledge of the current cutting edge of innovation. Here’s an example, would SpaceX engineers be able to develop new rocket technology if they weren’t already working at the forefront of their field? I doubt there are many, or any, engineers who don’t have deep aerospace experience working in the SpaceX engineering department.

Allow me to draw a larger analogy to the medical field. Virtually all of the scientific advancements in medicine, genetics, pharmaceuticals, and biotech are driven by researchers who are typically Ph.Ds working with the backing of universities or well funded pharmaceutical companies. These are serious scientists who have spent years studying and researching their field. It would be absurd to suggest that people with limited medical or biological education would be expected to create a new cancer drug. Yet that is the exact scenario we have in the internet space, people who are not working at the forefront of their technology trying to be innovators. Unlike medical research, or for that matter microprocessor engineering, the current internet space is largely driven by people trying to make a fast buck as opposed to people working at the edge of the envelope.

Continuing with the analogy to the medical field, while the undergraduate biology dropout has little hope of developing a new cancer drug, he might be able to open a chain of low cost clinics or even come up with a better medical billing system. Again, this scenario is what we’re seeing in the internet space. People aren’t driving new technological innovations so much as they’re creating convenience models.

There’s nothing wrong with entrepreneurs seizing a business opportunity, but what is disconcerting is how this entire segment has convinced themselves that they are on the cutting edge of innovation and have all the answers. Using the medical analogy, the current environment in the internet space essentially tells people that they will make more money as a pre-med dropout opening clinics than as a serious researcher looking for a cure for cancer. The internet space lacks real technological innovation because it is largely populated with the equivalent of clinic owners who believe they are more representative of the forefront of medicine than the Ph.Ds and researchers working on advanced genetics.

I realize my indictment is harsh and of course I know there are still serious, well educated engineers working in the internet space. I apologize in advance if you’re developing serious tech. My criticism is pointed at the overall environment and zeitgeist of this segment of Silicon Valley. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, when incubators are graduating multiple companies mailing men’s underwear and passing them off as technology innovators, something has gone seriously wrong.

Many people responded to Arrington’s complaint about the lack of innovation by pointing to significant tech developments such as SpaceX and Google’s advanced work such as Google Glass. In these examples, and the others offered as a rebuttal, the people developing them are serious engineers and scientists building on a deep well of cutting edge knowledge.

For the most part, entrepreneurs in the consumer internet, mobile app, and light enterprise space aren’t working anywhere near the forefront of technology. Increasingly, entrepreneurs in this space are like guys who took a vocational course in medical billing and opened a chain of clinics. They might have a good business model and they might provide a good service, but they're not going to push the technical envelope because they're not even close to working or possessing the knowledge at the edge of the current envelope. Until this environment changes, Thiel, Arrington, and everyone else might want to look toward other segments of Silicon Valley for impressive technological innovation.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]