Resolved: The Problems of the Future are Too Great for the Entrepreneurs of Today

Editor’s Note:   Twelve years ago, Michael S. Malone created “Silicon Valley comes to Oxford”, which has grown to become the largest annual event for entrepreneurs in Europe.  A Union debate was added three years ago, and Mike discussed the latest debate on the question of whether the average worker is being left behind by technology here on Ricochet.  This year, Mike arranged the First Annual Great Silicon Valley Oxford Union Debate, which was held last night on the campus of Santa Clara University (a Jesuit institution that grew out of the Santa Clara Mission) .  Below is Mike’s speech in opposition, which were the closing remarks of the debate. 

For context to fully understand Mike’s comments, as in the real Oxford Union, the teams faced each other across a table.  The Oxford Union table bore two despatch boxes from Parliament, donated by Winston Churchill.  Upon the table sat a 1984 Apple Macintosh and a 1939 Hewlett-Packard model 200A audio oscillator.

A full video of the evening’s proceedings will be added when it becomes available.


Resolved: This House believes that the problems of the future are too great for the entrepreneurs of today.

Good evening, Mr. President, esteemed members for the proposition, and ladies and gentlemen.  I am truly honored to be here tonight for this first Silicon Valley Oxford Union debate.  I am particularly honored to be here speaking for entrepreneurs – because for me, this debate is not just an intellectual exercise, but moral choice.  And it is not a debate about who participates, but who leads.

The esteemed members for the proposition have made a strong case tonight – as might have been expected given the nature of their careers.  They include, after all, a captain from Digital Equipment Corp., the company that decided average people didn’t need personal computers, the head of what used to be called Xerox PARC, an institution that shrewdly allowed great entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to steal their best ideas and actually make them real – as embodied in this Apple Macintosh; and a pair of gentlemen representing solar energy and electric cars – two industries that are currently proving every day what happens when the Federal government leads entrepreneurial endeavors. 

The proposition team has tried to establish its case by making entrepreneurs look smaller, even as they make the problems facing us look bigger.  These are merely rhetorical tricks. I’d like now to specifically speak to each of the proposition’s claims.

First, there is the question of the importance of the entrepreneur in the overall scheme of tackling the great problems of the world. The proposition team would have you believe that the entrepreneur is little more, to quote them, than “part of the ecosystem”, a supernumerary, a bit player; the valet who holds the cloaks as the big boys – government, giant corporations and NGOs – wade into the fight.  Ladies and gentlemen, do I have to tell you that this scenario is exactly backwards? Does anyone here believe that had the Internet been left to the government it wouldn’t still be the clunky, limited DarpaNet?

Take the HP 200A here, the founding invention of Silicon Valley and the electronics age.  It was assembled by Bill Hewlett in the Packard garage, and the enamel on its sides was baked dry in Lucile Packard’s oven.  If you accept the proposition team’s argument, then you would argue that the real credit for the invention of this audio oscillator belongs to Pacific Gas & Electric.  Sorry, but No. Not then and not now; it is the entrepreneur who takes the lead, who marshals together the money and talent – sometimes including those big institutions – and leads the charge.  Everyone else is sufficient to the task, only the entrepreneur is necessary.

As for the magnitude of the challenges facing us – sure they are immense.  But as I arrived here tonight I was reminded that almost fifty summers ago I was on the lawn out there leading a group of Boy Scouts conducting an archaeological dig.  We dug beneath Silicon Valley, beneath the Valley of Hearts Delight, and down to the very first days of Mission Santa Clara.  Ladies and gentlemen, ask yourselves:  what were the great, intractable, insolvable problems facing the people who lived here in 1777?  They were an infant mortality rate approaching 50 percent, illiteracy at 80 percent, epidemics that nearly wiped out the entire local native American population.  And isolation.  The fastest you could travel was about 15 miles per hour on horseback.  It would be six more years before a handful of people in the world have ever floated above the earth, much less travelled to the moon.  No sound or precise image had ever been preserved in the history of the mankind.  The sum total of the world’s recorded memory was hidden in a few hundred libraries scattered around the planet.  Medicine was largely worthless and surgery brutal.  And there wasn’t a single secure democracy on earth.

If the proposition team had been around in 1777 as this mission was being built, they would have made the same arguments that they made tonight:  The problems of the future are too big for the entrepreneurs of today.  Happily for all of us, the entrepreneurs of the 18th century didn’t listen to the nay-sayers;  nor should we listen to them tonight.  You heard Santosh talk about mining asteroids, micro-lending for the poor, and liquid fuel from genetically-engineered algae.  I’ll add that there are more than 11,000 new apps for the iPhone and 200 funded new start-ups tackling the high cost of healthcare.  The problems of the future aren’t too great for us, we’re already solving them.

We are the heartland, the Capital, of the world’s entrepreneurial movement – and we hold this title because we believe in our hearts that there is no challenge too great for an entrepreneur with vision and ambition.  If you don’t believe that, why be here?  I ask you cast your vote for the primacy of the entrepreneur, for Silicon Valley, for the future, and for optimism. Join me in voting Nay. Thank you.

  1. Mel Foil

    Sometimes I envy the Amish. If the whole American economy collapses at our feet someday, well, somebody will have to go tell the Amish what happened. Otherwise they wouldn’t know. Their livelihoods would hardly be affected.

  2. michael kelley

    Standing up and applauding.

    As a culture, as a Nation, we are not done.

  3. David Williamson

    The entrepreneurs have been very successful in evolving the Apple McIntosh into the Ipad, but less so in solving California’s, er, fiscal challenges.

    Those fiscal challenges are too great for entrepreneurs, alone, to solve. But fracking will help, as would nuclear or fusion power.

    Otherwise, we will have to rely on politicians… hard to be optimistic.

  4. Diane Ellis
    David Williamson: The entrepreneurs have been very successful in evolving the Apple McIntosh into the Ipad, but less so in solving California’s, er, fiscal challenges.

    Those fiscal challenges are too great for entrepreneurs, alone, to solve. But fracking will help, as would nuclear or fusion power.

    Otherwise, we will have to rely on politicians… hard to be optimistic. · 13 minutes ago

    Yes, so many of our current problems are caused by the stifling forces of government.  And many are caused by cultural elements — broken homes, children growing up without fathers, a move toward moral relativism.  It would be easy to make a case that those sorts of problems are too great for the entrepreneurs of today. 

    But if we’re limiting the resolution to problems of science and engineering, well, it seems like it would be pretty shortsighted to say that our entrepreneurs don’t have sufficient ingenuity to solve such things when even recent history proves otherwise a million times over.

  5. Indaba

    Tremendous stab with the stiletto knife with the comment on how government has fared playing private equity fund with solar and electrical cars. I believe that needs to be explained in far more detail because most people do not understand that entrepreneur craziness and tenacity when facing yet another cliff edge. A government official on a salary will just not need to make that effort. Why would Jobs keep working once he made his first millions? This spirit is what is not understood and I am seeing people lose that energy with the current administration and it’s disrespect for how hard the weekly slog to make enough to meet payroll. Great speech.

  6. Whiskey Sam

    Always refreshing to read a well-thought out argument for optimism in what are often pessimistic times.