Welcome To Silicon Prairie!

You’ve heard of Silicon Valley, haven’t you? It’s the unofficial nickname of the Santa Clara Valley of northern California. Located just south of San Francisco, Silicon Valley is the home of Apple, Facebook, Google, Stanford University, and thousands of other global leaders in the technology sector.

The name is so catchy that New York City has adopted a modified version of it for its own emerging technology center. Silicon Alley refers to the canyons of Manhattan that lie west of Madison Square Park and the Flatiron District, underneath the “rails to trails” High Line Park. Anchored by a massive Google office building that sits across the street from the famous Chelsea Market, the Silicon Alley nickname is a familiar one to denizens of the original Silicon Valley.

But what about Silicon Prairie? Have you ever heard of that particular region? It is now emerging in yet another area of the United States, and it is serving as evidence that the Silicon movement is becoming a national phenomenon.

Kansas City, Here I Come

In May 1959, Wilbert Harrison topped the pop music charts with his classic blues tune “Kansas City.” You’ve undoubtedly heard the refrain countless times: “I’m goin’ to Kansas City … Kansas City, here I come.”

But people haven’t been goin’ to Kansas City for awhile. After all, 1960 was the last time that KC has appeared in the list of the twenty largest American metropolitan regions. Today, Kansas City is only the 29th most populous region in the United States.

That didn’t stop Google from selecting the region as the beneficiary of its experiment in incredibly high speed internet access. Last month, the web colossus activated its new one gigabit per second fiber optic network in Kansas City, and the economic benefits are already prompting industry veterans to dub the region “Silicon Prairie.”

In fact, fledgling technology firms began sprouting in the city before Google’s launch last month, in anticipation of the activation of the network. If high speed internet access can create an economic technology hub in KC, why can’t it do the same in any other city?

Rivers and Oceans

Centuries ago, the world’s greatest commercial cities blossomed on the shores of navigable rivers and oceans. London on the Thames. Paris on the Seine. New York on the Atlantic. And Hong Kong on the Pacific. All of these metropolises developed into global economic centers because they were situated on the great shipping routes that connected their societies with other centers of wealth and commerce around the world.

Nevertheless, as the global economy transitioned from its industrial age to a post-industrial age, it entered the era of the service economy and then transitioned to the knowledge economy. As a result of this transition, wealth is no longer primarily generated through the importation and exportation of tangible goods. Instead, knowledge has become the world’s most valuable commodity, and new modes of transportation have become necessary to transmit the virtual products of information assets.

This emerging need for knowledge transmission drove the development of the internet, which in turn ensured that the California coastline would maintain its economic vitality throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Thus, the Golden State underwent its transition from an industrial era dominated by firms like Hewlett Packard and Lockheed Martin, to its current knowledge based era dominated by firms like Apple, Google, and Facebook.

In other words, the communication nodes of the internet have become the waterways of the contemporary economy. And if Google can build an electronic canal to Kansas City, why couldn’t it (and other organizations, of course) do the same throughout the United States?

From Lake Erie to the Isthmus of Panama

Indeed, the appropriate metaphor for Google’s fiber optic network is a canal. Not a river or an ocean, but a canal. That’s because canals are, in essence, artificial rivers that are designed to create trade and transportation linkages between different locations.

When Governor DeWitt Clinton of New York State authorized, funded, and eventually opened the Erie Canal in the early 1800s, for instance, he created a direct linkage between New York Harbor and the Great Lakes. The Canal enabled trade to flourish between the eastern and midwestern regions of the United States.

Likewise, when President Theodore Roosevelt precipitated a Central American revolution in order to claim the land on which to build the Panama Canal, he did so with the goal of establishing a direct water route between the eastern and western coastlines of the United States. His success ultimately led to America’s emergence as a continental economic power.

Today’s fiber optic canals are serving similar needs by connecting midwestern cities like Kansas City to technology centers like San Francisco and New York City. By creating the means to connect Silicon Prairie with Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley, Google might indeed be prompting the long term development of a Silicon Nation.

Self-Driving Vehicles: Transformational Technology

Feeling a little glum this holiday season? Despite the determined cheerfulness of the holiday music and lights that surround us, Americans are consistently telling pollsters that they are quite pessimistic about the future.

Their pessimism, of course, extends far beyond their feelings about the gridlock that plagues lawmakers in Washington DC. Technology itself, once perceived as a great enabler of social progress, appears to be incapable of capping oil spills, managing natural disasters, and solving countless other problems.

Indeed, even the great discoveries of our time appear to pale before the inventions of yesteryear. For instance, while some commentators compared Steve Jobs to Thomas Edison and Henry Ford at the time of his demise, others noted that the iPod, iPhone, and iPad failed to transform our lives in the same manner as did the light bulb and the automobile.

Every so often, though, American ingenuity has a sparkling way of glimmering through the darkest of concerns. In a sense, we witnessed such a situation last week, as an unusually gloomy recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) appeared to be tailor-made for a potential solution that was recently patented by Google.

Ban All Electronic Devices!

The recommendation was presented by NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman, who surprised the American public with some strikingly extreme policy advice. Namely, Ms. Hersman publicly announced that the NTSB now supports a comprehensive nation wide ban on the use of all portable electronic devices by drivers of all moving vehicles.

Yes, that ban would include “hands free” telephones. It would also include text messaging devices. And although not explicitly stated, it would presumably encompass hand held Garmin “satellite traffic” devices and other mobile Global Positioning System units as well.

Ms. Hersman supported her recommendation by presenting various case incidents of horrific accidents that recently occurred when distracted drivers, using such devices, took their eyes off the road.

Apparently, the bans on handheld mobile phones that are currently in place in several states would have done nothing to prevent these terrible events. According to Ms. Hersman, the NTSB has concluded that more extreme solutions are required to stop the carnage.

Eliminating The Driver

And what does Google propose to implement as a substitute solution to a nation wide ban on all electronic driving devices? Simply enough, Google actually proposes to produce moving vehicles that can drive themselves!

The concept itself has been circulating in the world of science fiction for many years. A robotic taxi driver was famously featured in the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger film Total Recall, which in turn was based on Philip K. Dick’s earlier 1966 novelette entitled We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.

And self-moving vehicles are already in limited commercial use. In 2006, for instance, the Lexus LS 460 sedan become the first automobile that could maneuver itself into parallel parking spots with little or no interference by its drivers. BMW, Ford, Lincoln, Mercedes, and Toyota are now offering similar systems in their own vehicles.

But nobody has yet developed a technology that can self-drive vehicles over extended distances. General Motors’ Vice President of Global Research and Development Alan Taub, though, recently predicted that autonomously driving vehicles will be in widespread use “within the next decade.”

Pros And Cons

What are the benefits of self-driving vehicles? Well, assuming that the software technology proves to be reliable, we would all be able to phone and text our friends — or even kick back and read a book! — while our automobiles drive us to our destinations.

That would certainly address the concerns raised by Ms. Hersman and the NTSB. It would also dramatically improve the quality of life of millions of commuters, who could redirect thousands of hours of driving time to other endeavors.

But on a longer term basis, such vehicles would impose numerous social costs as well. Imagine the increase in energy use and pollution costs if all commuters now utilizing mass transportation were to switch to self-driven automobiles instead!

The gridlock we now experience would undoubtedly worsen too. In cities like New York, where mass transportation options and road traffic already exist side by side, how much longer would it take us to drive across town?

Transformation and Hope

Even though the possible benefits of such technologies may be narrowed by the long term pitfalls and complications, we can nevertheless take hope from the fact that technology still possesses the potential to transform our society.

Centuries ago, diseases like smallpox and cholera seemed like unstoppable scourges until medical technologies developed vaccines to eradicate or control them. And during the past two decades, the internet has globalized knowledge and revolutionized communications.

Those technologies must have seemed impossibly clumsy and ineffective to citizens who were living through the early days of their genesis and development. Although videos of Google’s self driving prototype automobile similarly portray it as a slow and plodding vehicle, it is still possible to hope for a future when its technology can enhance our lives.