If Silicon Valley has a father, it might be William Shockley, the paranoid co-inventor of the transistor. Shockley grew up in Palo Alto when it was a place of apricot orchards and a few thousand people, then went East for his doctorate and to work for Bell Labs. In the 1950s, after he, Walter Brattain, and John Bardeen sparked the information age revolution with their transistor, he wore out his welcome at Bell, and decided to go home. He took with him a dozen brilliant young engineers, and together they started the Valley’s first transistor-making firm. It didn’t turn out well for Shockley himself, because his best staff soon mutinied and left. But it did start the ball rolling for the Valley when some of his former employees went on to establish Intel. Already, serendipity was working.
By then, Palo Alto had become the beating heart of the Valley. A crucial action then rooted serendipity into the Valley’s firmament. In 1951, Fred Terman, Stanford’s dean of engineering, set aside hundreds of acres of land on university property as an industrial park for entrepreneurs. Inventors could lease space cheaply, locking in a relationship with the university and setting the stage for countless famous startups, including among the first tenants — Bill Hewlett and David Packard.
Dozens of startups and legacy companies are trying to solve the serendipity crisis. Among them are Gather, a Silicon Valley startup, and Hopin, a U.K. company, both of which see the answer in conference apps.
Until Covid-19, Big Tech seemed to be pulling out all the stops to engineer more serendipity. In recent years, Google had spent an estimated $120 million on celebrity architects, designers, and builders to construct the Googleplex, its Mountain View headquarters, and another $1 billion for an adjoining office park. Facebook had laid out $300 million to add a new main building at its headquarters for 3,000 employees, outfitted with its own Redwood forest, a 3.6 acre rooftop garden, and multiple restaurants. Apple had spent about $5 billion for Apple Park, a circular, four-story building designed by Jobs for its 13,000 local employees. In all the cases, the idea was to create more and more chances for people to run into each other and start trading ideas.
And yet Big Tech has seemed calm if not outright indifferent regarding the potential demise of the unscripted moment in this protracted period of remote work. A look at the last decade or so of Valley history may explain why: Over that time, the FAANG companies have largely stopped trying to invent the next big thing, at least in-house. Instead, they have shifted to milking their signature inventions — for Google, the search engine; for Facebook, its basic social platform; Microsoft’s operating system and Office software; and Apple’s suite of “i” products — while keeping a keen eye on the Valley’s garage inventors. When a startup produces something truly market-moving, Big Tech leaps into action, copying the breakthrough or attempting to buy the startup outright, such as Facebook’s acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram, and Google’s purchase of Fitbit and a suite of A.I. companies. Big Tech’s heft has allowed it to leverage away from a heavy reliance on serendipity.
If so, Big Tech’s presumed distance from the vagaries of chance could end up backfiring. The Valley’s scrappy startups, the small, currently nameless teams working long hours on an idea developed only on paper, do hope for a bit of kismet to stave off failure and, if the stars can possibly align, make them the next big thing. If the founders, engineers, and designers in such startups are laboring entirely or largely from their own homes, and miss their moment, doesn’t Big Tech potentially lose its next big growth machine?
Entrepreneurs say that, at least currently, the answer is yes — the work-from-home mandate has probably put classic serendipity out of reach for Silicon Valley’s budding companies. “In the seed or angel stage of work, when you are trying to go from zero to one, you need rapid iteration,” said Hathiramani. “That is much harder to solve remotely.”
If serendipity’s explosive impact in creating the tech world as we know it has been biased in practice, a question is whether anyone should be vexed over its possible diminishment.
Dozens of startups and legacy companies are trying to solve the serendipity crisis. Among them are Gather, a Silicon Valley startup, and Hopin, a U.K. company, both of which see the answer in conference apps: You watch online talks, then — just as you would at a physical conference — you go onto a “coffee break,” a virtual room where you can “bump into” just about anyone else at the event. You can also sign up to be paired with people with whom you might have similar interests. “It’s like a coffee break at TED,” said Paul Saffo, a futurist at Stanford.
Last week, Microsoft released a new feature for its Teams conferencing app called “Together Mode,” which uses A.I. to cut out the images of everyone in a call and assemble them in a virtual setting, such as a theater. The sensation is to remove some of the fake-togetherness of Zoom calls, which is a real advance for the typical work meeting. While all of these are valiant attempts, none introduce anything remotely organic. It’s the same digital intentionality, dressed in slightly fancier clothes: people sign up, know who is going to be present, and may or may not say or hear something surprising. In other words, if your objective is serendipity, all of it is utterly primitive.