Pittsburgh to be Assimilated

Jobs. Good jobs. Jobs with a big, rich company. All coming to Pittsburgh. That's all too rare these days; that has to be a good thing. [See also Pgh is a City.] I have friends at Google, senior Googler friends, genuine "Don't Be Evil" friends. There is a side of me that still thinks of Google as just really, really cool.

And then there is the other side. Google's expanding in Pittsburgh prompts thoughts of the Borg. I've been inside the Googleplex; it is more than a little creepy. (As a result of my visit, I'm confident that Google has my DNA.) I've watched the number of IT domains -- and non-IT domains (energy production, for example) -- where Google's ambition has gotten the better of "Don't Be Evil," or at least has bought a sizable chunk of controversy. Google may look like a cool engineering company; in reality, Google is a massive media-and-electricity-production empire. Search "Google 'world domination'" and you get 806,000 hits. Run that search on Bing and you get more than 21 million hits. Borg aren't a bad metaphor: "Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile."

Pittsburgh shouldn't - can't - won't say no. And the point of the Borg metaphor isn't that Mayor Luke is going to turn into Locutus. The point is that Borg come, Borg go. The Googleplex was once the fancy campus of a high-flying Silicon Valley company called Silicon Graphics. Anyone remember them? And there are still a few people in town who remember that "Bakery Square," the "Eastside" development where Google is taking additional space, was once the Nabisco Factory in East Liberty Larimer.

One company does not the progress of a city restore.


6 Responses to "Pittsburgh to be Assimilated"

C. Briem said... 12/19/2009 9:53 AM

I'm waiting for something to be called the "Eastside Annex"....

Jefferson Provost said... 12/19/2009 5:02 PM

When I was a kid there was an old man who lived next door to me. He was a great friend when I was small. My mom's photo albums have pictures of him at my 3rd birthday party, and me at 5, 6, or 7 sitting in his living room or on his patio. He was like a grandfather to me, in many ways.

Then I hit puberty. One day I went to his door for something, a gangly 14 year old with a deep voice and a little facial hair, and he answered the door with a mistrustful "what do you want!?", and things were never the same between us. Apparently I had become scary and threatening.

So it is with startups and the American people. We all root for them when they're small and cute, the scrappy underdog fighting to make it in the big bad world. Of course, he natural consequence of that fight is that if they succeed they become big hairy monsters. That's the goal. One day our former little friends come knocking and we're like, "Oh shit! Who are you and what do you want?!"

It happened to Microsoft almost a generation ago. It happened to Google a couple years ago. This year people seem to have realized that Amazon.com's main competitor isn't Barnes & Noble, it's Wal-Mart. And so Amazon becomes Wal-Mart, and the net abounds with bizarre Amazon conspiracy theories.

One thing I wonder is, what, if anything, does this phenomenon mean for those who pin their economic hopes on a start-up economy? The ostensible goal, after all, is to produce the next Microsoft, Google, or Amazon.com. Is it more okay if the HQ is in your city? Or will they be just as scary when they darken your door looking for a favor?

Mike Madison said... 12/19/2009 5:54 PM

That's a good story. The problem with it is that the American people have long-standing, good, and legitimate reasons to be distrustful of companies that get as large and powerful as IBM, AT&T, Microsoft, Google, and now amazon.com. (I thought that the problem was that Wal-Mart's nearest competition is amazon.com. But I digress.) The larger the company, the greater the risk -- and the evidence -- of genuinely bad behavior. A lot of people still envy the Wizards Sergey and Larry and pay little attention to Eric, the man behind the screen. Not that he's a bad guy (he's not). But he's made Google a very big business, and being big puts Google in places and has Google doing things that are uncomfortable for a lot of people. And not just the French. (Yet here I am using Blogger!)

There is a lesson for entrepreneurs here, but that lesson isn't that dreams of successful market domination are likely to be dashed unfairly by charges of conspiracies. The lesson is grounded in reality, not rhetoric. Go ahead: Innovate. Build companies. Employ people. Get rich. Change the world. But don't aspire to be, let alone become, an abusive monopolist. Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.

Jefferson Provost said... 12/19/2009 7:07 PM

It is a good story, isn't it? And as a metaphor for the Google situation, I would say it applies almost as well as the Borg metaphor. Grown-ups have legitimate reasons to distrust teenagers. After all, many teenagers have childlike judgement in nearly adult bodies, and they're often reckless, thoughtlessly doing all kinds of crazy things without much consideration for the long-term consequences. Starting to sound like a lot of fast-growing companies. And of course, some cute kids grow up to be assholes or criminals. My neighbor was a retired shop teacher from Connelly High, so I reckon he knew more about teenagers than I do.

But, like mistrust of teenagers, mistrust of big companies is often blown way out of proportion to the actual risks, crossing the line into paranoia. When there is a problem, malice is often inferred where the real cause was merely recklessness, or just plain error.

Jefferson Provost said... 12/20/2009 2:24 AM

On another note, the best news for Pittsburgh in the linked article might actually be Google's purchase of ReCAPTCHA. A purchase that will hopefully drop a big chunk of capital into the pockets of ReCAPTCHA's local founders and investors, which, if patterns hold, has a good chance of getting recycled into other startups. This is the cycle that feeds startup ecosystem.

Tacitus said... 12/20/2009 12:31 PM

Jefferson: I suggest you read Frank Rich's op-ed today in the Times. To say that “problem[s]” are “often” caused by “recklessness, or just plan error” is na├»ve and uninformed. Enron, subprime lenders, over-leveraged banks/hedge funds/PEGS (up to 500% of the normal rate), were neither reckless nor innocent gaffes, but purposeful and sometimes criminal practices to boost the profit margin. Particularly, as we've seen over the past decade, as those practices can and are spread across a large swath of consumers or turn into many other shady dealings. Does this cover every business? No, of course not, but the line between amoral business practices and immoral business practices is a thin one and one which many companies have crossed. So, to say that most of the swelling distrust of large corporations is unfounded is to view corporate practices through a colored and tainted lens.

As far as Google's arrival into Pittsburgh: if they are evil, they are a necessary evil or at least a lesser of two evils (innovative, texh jobs vs. a dearth of any type of jobs. As a recent graduate making barely enough to cover loans, I personally would be ecstatic to find a job there, if for any reason to play ping pong on my breaks.

Non-sequitor: There was an interesting debate last fall about Google's corporate motto, one can find most of them on youtube.com. NPR, not surprising, did a great job of distilling the major themes, the link is provided below:


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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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