Saturday, April 07, 2012

Washington, Du Bois, and Silicon Valley

One hundred plus years ago, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois  engaged in a protracted dispute:
  • Mr. Washington encouraged black Americans to advance their economic positions by acquiring the skills required for manual trades and lower level white collar occupations. The businesses they could establish with these skills would provide services that were greatly needed by American society, but would encounter less racist resistance than businesses based on higher level skill sets.
  • Dr. Du Bois  resisted any "compromises" that surrendered opportunities for black America's best and brightest to develop their abilities to the fullest extent because he believed that the "Talented Tenth" were the primary engines of black economic progress. Hence he argued that racism should not be accommodated, that it must be resisted and, eventually, overcome. 
This summary grossly oversimplifies the positions of both men, but it is accurate enough to underscore the fundamental incompatibility of their strategies for the economic advancement of black America ... an incompatibility that persisted for the next eighty years until the dawn of the information age and the "progressive digitization of everything."

Ironically, the sudden emergence of computers and computer networks -- the most brilliant products of the world's most advanced science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- as the dominant forces shaping modern economies has opened extraordinary economic opportunities for persons with high aptitude and minimal education. While it's still necessary for students to obtain PhDs to become leaders in the "S" and "M" of STEM, i.e., science and mathematics; the "T" and "E" -- technology and engineering -- have become the Wild, Wild West with regards to information technology and software engineering.

Steve Jobs (Apple), Bill Gates (Microsoft), and Marc Zuckerman (Facebook), three of the most successful entrepreneurs in the short history of information technology, were college drop-outs; other IT billionaires -- like Jerry Yang and David Filo (Yahoo!), Sergey Brin  and Larry Page (Google)  -- dropped out of grad school. Their dirty little not-so-secret is that you don't need a college degree to learn how to use computers and computer networks to create services for which the markets will shower you with billions of dollars -- if you have the right mix of technical and entrepreneurial aptitudes. None of these boy billionaires studied long and hard at anything before they made their vast fortunes. And for all of the pain that Wall Street's Masters-of-the-Universe inflicted on millions of Americans as consequence of the Great Recession that was triggered by their felonious greed, few of them have amassed fortunes as large as the Silicon Valley elite.

Partisans could plausibly support either protagonist in the Washington vs. Du Bois debates one hundred years ago. But as we move into the New Millennium, the facts on the ground are squarely on Mr. Washington's side of the line ... for the foreseeable future. Back then, he preached that every student should learn a trade, whatever else they learned in school; in today's markets that trade should be skills and certifications in information technology. As for Dr. Du Bois' Talented Tenth, we should encourage them to become IT entrepreneurs, because that's where their efforts will earn the biggest  returns ... for the foreseeable future. And yes, our black high-tech wannabe entrepreneurs will encounter racism, but so what. The level of racism they will encounter is substantially lower than it was one hundred years ago, while the potential financial gains are substantially higher.

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