Years ago, when I was working on the book "The Virtual Corporation" with the legendary Silicon Valley executive and venture capitalist Bill Davidow, he told me something so insightful that I've never forgotten it.
It was that if you want to get rich from a technology revolution, get into the construction business.
I've thought a lot about that remark over the last dozen years and what I think Bill meant was that, sure, you can make a fortune starting or joining early some hot new company at the bleeding of the latest new tech wave. But even if you've got the right product, and have identified the right customers, and have enough capital to get to market on time, the odds are still against you succeeding.
There are just too many contingencies, too many smart competitors out there, and too much of your fate depends upon factors that are simply out of your control.
On the other hand, and this was Bill's real insight, what is rarely noticed is that major technological revolutions are always trailed by even bigger social revolutions. Humanity always makes the same mistake: We assume that we can change our tools without also changing how we see the world, how we deal with each, and ultimately, how we live. As a result, we are forever being taken by surprise when, a decade or so after the tech revolution, we suddenly find our daily lives being transformed in strange and unexpected ways.
And one of those ways is how we redesign our homes to fit the times.
Changing Lives, Changing Homes
Over the last couple years I've gotten a lesson in how we Americans have, almost without noticing it, fundamentally changed the way we live. My mother, who is 86 now, for many years dreamed of regaining the family farm lost in the Depression. Located near Bison, Okla., the farm was first claimed by my great-grandfather during the Oklahoma Land Rush.
While he and his young family, including my grandmother — then an infant — lived in a cave in a creek bank, my great-grandfather built a farmhouse and several outbuildings by hand. By the early years of the 20th century, the farm had become a thriving concern, with 320 acres under cultivation and a huge barn to store the harvest.
Three years ago, after a decade of trying, my mother and I managed to buy the farm — and we instantly set about restoring the buildings, which had been abandoned for nearly 20 years. Needless to say, it's been a long and expensive process.
As you might imagine, I've spent a lot of time recently studying photographs of the farm, old and new, for clues to its restoration. In the process, I've noticed some interesting things. For example, this is a farm built essentially before the age of automobiles. Thus, there is a road into the place, but it fades away as it approaches the house. After that, on horseback or in a wagon, you simply crossed the wide lawn on the easiest path to the house or barn, perhaps leaving the horse to graze. Indeed, the only delineated part of the entire acreage was the garden, which was surrounded by fence to keep out the deer.
Even when my great-grandfather became more prosperous and began to purchase cars, the yard hardly changed. The automobiles were either parked in the barn or in the shop, which was converted from horse-shoeing to car repair.
A few miles away, in an old neighborhood in Enid, my grandparents' house also still stands. It was built just before World War I and is a classic front-porch Midwestern clapboard house. By the time my grandparents moved there a technology revolution had taken place and was now beginning to transform the culture: automobiles (now ubiquitous — my grandfather worked as a truck driver in those days), the radio and electrical appliances.
You can see it in the design of the house: a real kitchen (as opposed to the attached room at the farm), a living room (as opposed to a parlor) for gathering around the radio in the evenings, and, down a gravel alleyway, a garage that is essentially a modified version of a traditional carriage house.
Skip forward to the houses of my childhood and adolescence in the 1950s and 1960s. We're talking your stereotypical suburban ranch houses. Thanks to air conditioning, the porch is gone, and with it the traditional notions of neighborliness (impossible to maintain anyway with such long commutes). The living room has now grown to command the house — complete with plate-glass windows to passively observe the passing world on the street outside — this was the television age after all.
But the single most important feature of these houses was the garage, now right on the front of the house, often the single strongest feature of the facade, underscoring the absolutely central role of the automobile in that world.
Perhaps the most extreme example of this view of reality were the Eichler homes — those architectural darlings of recent television commercials — in one of which I spent my teen years (and in which my mother still lives). My old man was a true modernist, and I know that's why he fell in love with the Bauhaus-Barcelona Pavilion grid and plane style of the Eichlers, with their glass walls and central atrium.
But with my 21st century perspective, I can also now see in those homes something else: a distaste for the increasingly chaotic and man-made world out on the street, and a retreat to a private garden surrounded by glass walls that make little distinction between inside and out. From the back, my mother's house is a sea of glass; from the front it is a solid wall, broken only by the smallest of windows (frosted glass of course), a solid door to finish the Mondrian grid, and a gigantic two-car garage.
Eichlers fell out of favor for two decades. But now they are more popular than ever. I think the reason is that they were ahead of their time, capturing a perspective that is once again with us.
While much was made in the '80s and '90s about the return of traditional neighborhoods, of cozy bungalows and the revival of the front porch, here in Silicon Valley, I saw something very different being built, especially by the wealthy: McMansions, shoehorned in to take advantage of every square foot of lot, and featuring giant family rooms, kitchens and master-bedroom suites. Clearly, people weren't planning on going out, but hunkering down.
Even more interesting, I saw a growing number of houses that resembled little castles with ersatz entry arches, internal courtyards and hidden garages. The automobile, it seemed, had finally begun to recede from its cultural dominance.
In an increasingly scary world, what better strategy could there be than to retreat behind your castle walls into a world sufficient to most of your needs? There is a car, tucked away, in case you need to go to work — but even jobs have begun to migrate home. These days, I don't know a house in the Valley that doesn't feature a home office that is given pride of place in the floor plan.
Even the once-mighty TV, now grown huge and flat, has begun its retreat out of the living room, into the family room and beyond — it's fate to become a wall in the "media room" and a window on a dozen household computers. What has toppled television, in a swift coup d'etat, is, of course, the Internet. A recent survey by IBM found, to no one's surprise, that time spent on the Web (especially among those who spend more than six hours per day in front of screen) now surpasses time watching television.
And how is that time mostly spent these days? On community sites like MySpace and Facebook, massive online games, or aggregator sites like Yahoo and AOL (who would have guessed those guys would be making a comeback?). It seems that we have found our neighborhood — and it has 150 million members, each with their own MySpace page.
The Internet, Wi-Fi, cell phone "3rd screen" technology, mash-ups, the blogosphere, community sites … technologically, these are all old news. Their revolutions are already behind us. But their cultural impact is only now beginning.
Everyone in Silicon Valley these days is focused upon coming up with the next big community Web 2.0 application. But if we really want to get rich, maybe what we should be doing is taking Bill Davidow's advice, buying some AutoCad software and designing the Levittowns of 2012.
TAD'S TAB -- It's not spam. It's not junk mail. It's bacn — a new Web 2.0 word coined by the bloggers at Podcamp Pittsburgh, meaning the electronic updates that you receive in your e-mail that are neither personal messages, nor advertisements. Things like Google Alerts, Facebook messages, etc. fit the definition. Aptly put by the creators, bacn are "notifications you want, just not right now." Read more about it here at http://www.downloadsquad.com/2007/08/19/bacn-the-new-web-2-0-term/
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michael S. Malone is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the bestselling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the ABCNEWS.com Silicon Insider columnist since 2000.