Question: What forces have shaped America most?
Walt Mossberg: Capitalism. Capitalism has a lot of problems. There are a lot of inequities. There are a lot of things about it that are imperfect and should be tweaked and should be fixed.
But capitalism has created a world, in those countries that practice it, where if you have a great idea, you can raise some money and you can go do it. And certainly the personal computer and consumer digital revolution of the last 30 years would never have happened if it weren’t for free markets, people’s ability, from any walk of life, to come up with an idea, do it in a garage, get a little money from some venture capitalist or somebody, and then bring it to market.
And if it fails – and most of them do fail – you go try something else. And if it succeeds, you could become the wealthiest guy in the world, like Bill Gates did.
And I think you can’t overstate the importance of a free market economic system, and particularly the way it has been practiced in the United States where both technologists and investors have been willing to take risks.
Sometimes you’ve lost money on those risks. We saw it in the dot-com bubble and then bust of just six or seven years ago.
But overall, it’s been an extremely invigorating and healthy thing. And even in other capitalist countries where risk-taking was harder, and where failure was much more of a kind of final thing, they didn’t spawn the kinds of ideas, and products, and technologies that we did. Because it’s not a sin to fail in the United States, certainly not in tech.
I can tell you that people come to see me every day with companies and products who came to see me five years before for some completely different company and product which may have failed. Maybe it succeeded, but a lot of times it failed.
And I don’t say, “Well I’m not gonna see that guy because he failed in his last company.”
And the venture capitalists don’t say, “Well you failed in your last company. Why should we even listen to you?” No, they say, “Okay, you learned something from that failure. Let’s listen to your new thing.”
So American style free market capitalism has been a huge factor.
Question: What forces have shaped technology most?
Walt Mossberg: There have been two huge contributors to it, I think. This may be a little different than the last giant cycle of technological innovation when I think things were a lot less formal in America.
One huge cycle has been education – high quality institutions of higher education. Now it’s not always true. We’ve got to remember, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs – who are probably two of the most famous high tech figures of the last 30 years – are both college dropouts. Michael Dell, who is not really a technology figure but runs a big technology company, is a college dropout. And even Sergey Brin and Larry Page who founded Google – while they are certainly not college dropouts, did drop out of their PhD programs and never finished their PhDs.
Having said that, it’s obvious that the last several waves of innovation in digital technology – that kind of thing that I write about – have been generated by higher education institutions of high quality. The pre-PC era; a reason that a lot of those companies were clustered around Boston was MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology].
We still have companies being spun out of MIT today. You may have heard of iRobot, you know, which makes vacuum and a bunch of military robots. They’re an MIT spinoff.
There is a company spun off by MIT that are working on basically electronic paper and a number of other things.
But the PC revolution; Stanford played a much bigger role in that. Yahoo, Google, quite a few other of those Silicon Valley companies. The reason Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley is Stanford. Obviously not everyone went to Stanford, but it has been a huge catalyst; an area that at one time – I think as recently as 30 or 35 years ago – was primarily a fruit and flower growing area, and now it’s called Silicon Valley.
Recorded on: Sep 13, 2007