Silicon Valley needs a history lesson

Time for a library card.
Time for a library card.
Image: AP Photo
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Hannah Horvath, the lead character in the HBO series Girls, is a satirical portrayal of the typical millennial living in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood. “I give zero fucks about anything, and yet I have a strong opinion about everything, even topics I’m not informed on,” she rifles off in season six.

Hannah’s proclamation isn’t just an indictment of the freelance millennial: It’s a trenchant statement on the fact we inhabit an era where few people read and more people write. We live in a world where we all have opinions, even when they’re not informed by facts—and what better book to fact check ourselves against than that of history.

We’re all familiar with the adages about history’s cyclical nature and the warnings that those who don’t read history are doomed to repeat it. After all, history grounds us in the narratives of times when things really didn’t look so different. Bhu Srinivasan’s forthcoming book, Americana, covers 400 years of American capitalism, stitched into digestible stories. The historical parallels his work provokes are striking and illustrative, and modern innovators would benefit from looking more closely at how the past may inform their future.

Travis Kalanick and Cornelius Vanderbilt: Today, the fear around artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine automation is palpable, but not unique. When the railroad came about, many feared the end of the canal operator. When the steam ferry came about, it spelled the death of the pioneering sailor. Much of this was true, except in the example of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Travis Kalanick of his day. Vanderbilt obsessed over logistics and human mobility, running a sail service from Staten Island to Manhattan until he moved upmarket into steam ferries and then end-to-end railways. Kalanick would have admired Vanderbilt’s steely grit, but perhaps he would have lasted longer at the helm of Uber had he read about the warning signs of working-class exploitation on the New York Central Railroad.

Self-driving cars and electricity: Today when we concern ourselves with the safety of self-driving cars, we ought to reread the New York Times headlines of the late-19th century. At the time, electricity had created a den of wires over Manhattan, and horse injuries and the threat of fire engendered many a vociferous editorial writer to talk about the perils of the wire and the death of night. While fear of change is perennial, understanding the ways in which the public slowly warmed to electricity could help Tesla executives navigate the debates around autonomous-vehicle safety and regulation.

Texting and Morse code: We think the text message is something new, but it was technically invented in 1836 by a portrait painter named Samuel Morse. He figured out how to transmit electric current over a wire into signals that could be read visually through lines and dots and reassembled into letters. Just as Morse code didn’t stop us from writing letters, instead of lamenting language’s erosion, we could also consider its fluidity. Language has always been in flux, and the use of text messaging is but the latest iteration in formatting.

Automation and the lightbulb: Thomas Edison’s lightbulb spelled the gradual demise of the whaling vessels that mined the north waters for blubber and oil to power lamps. “What will lightbulbs mean for whale blubber?” is not a dissimilar question to “What will robots mean for manufacturing?” While we must mitigate labor transitions and potential dislocations in skills and opportunity, understanding the inevitability of change allows for swifter management. Change requires transition, but few would prefer grotesque cetacean plunder to a 60-watt bulb.

Jeff Bezos and Montgomery Ward: While we ponder the intentions and potential overreach of Jeff Bezos’s Amazon, we might recall an original order-by-catalog pioneer in Montgomery Ward—someone who sought to sell the world nearly everything it thought it needed. Ward inspired the likes of Sears, Bloomingdales, and perhaps indeed even drone-piloting Bezos. In business for nearly 130 years, reading about Montgomery Ward might teach us something about Amazon’s stalwart position—but it can also show us that nothing exists forever, not even Amazon.

Sometimes it requires putting down the iPhone and reading history to look backward in order to see what’s next. So it’s not surprising why entrepreneurs like Steve Case, founder of AOL, or Alexis Ohanian, founder of Reddit, got it right—after all, they were both history majors.