Wow, what a ride. I moved to Silicon Valley a little over 10 years ago. I've been constantly amazed by what has happened here since then — a furious rush of innovation and...

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Wow, what a ride.

I moved to Silicon Valley a little over 10 years ago. I’ve been constantly amazed by what has happened here since then — a furious rush of innovation and change.

I’m not smart or wise enough to predict in any detail what will happen in the next decade. But I’m certain that, as always, it’ll be interesting, because innovation and change are still the coins of this realm.

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It didn’t take long to learn what made Silicon Valley so special. The combination of attributes was unequaled: the great research universities, an astonishing collection of talent, a pool of investors with enormous sums at their disposal and an ingrained culture of risk-taking.

The eagerness to take risks has always been the valley’s most special quality. In most places, business failure leaves an indelible career stain. Here, failure is often seen as an education, provided one fails the right way, which is to say not stupidly or sleazily. The rise and fall of Apple Computer’s fascinating but flawed Newton handheld computer, for example, helped spark the Palm Pilot, the true breakthrough in the genre. I won’t forget the shiver of excitement I and others in a crowd of tech executives and journalists felt when we saw the first Palm on the 1996 Demo conference stage.

Relentless progress

We don’t think of the Apple iPod or today’s ever-smarter mobile phones as more modern handheld computers, but they are. They’re also a result of the valley’s relentless progress.

The chips powering not just PCs but all kinds of everyday objects are making everything more intelligent. Even faster advances in storage mean that all these intelligent things are gaining memory. And the advent of faster data networks means that we’re connecting it all.

Those intelligent connections are bringing vast capabilities to the people at the edges of networks. The long-range importance of early Internet file-sharing was not the potential for copyright infringement. It was the heightened ability of everyday people to inform and help each other.

Along the way, we went through the bubble years, a time when greed totally superseded all other principles and values. The prevailing Wall Street attitude, which also pervaded the valley, was sickening. When what’s acceptable is what you can get away with, society has turned rancid.

The bubble’s deflation was hellish for those who became collateral damage. But it was useful in reminding us that even in such a fast-changing world, a few tried-and-true principles, economic and otherwise, still applied.

In the past several years the valley has returned, in part, to useful roots. Innovation and building great companies matter as much to entrepreneurs as scoring big financially. And everywhere I look, I see innovation.

But I also see competition where it didn’t exist before. The rest of the world has learned some of the valley’s lessons and can provide much of what we do here at a lower cost. This is the harsh dynamism of the modern world at work. The fact that other regions are rising economically is positive overall, even if it’s not the best news locally.

As noted, I’m not smart enough to tell you what’s coming in any specific way. But we can look together at the trends and imagine some of what might be, if all goes well.

We will see breathtaking leaps in medicine, environmental protection, and a variety of materials sciences and manufacturing processes. We can thank advances in biotechnology and the emerging field of nanotechnology. Information technology is at the heart of both as a tool, and it will remain so.

The Internet and its progeny are still early in their development, meanwhile. The Net is nowhere near as universal as it will be when we enter an age of what some call ubiquitous computing, but the outlines of its value are obvious today. For example, all media will eventually move around the world in little digital packages, called packets, that are the basic units of tomorrow’s communications. The importance of this — in decimating old businesses while improving most people’s lives — has not been sufficiently appreciated.

Growing risks

The risks are growing, too. When the ability to do great things spreads from the center, so does the ability to do massively dangerous things. The power of one fanatic or small group to create incalculable damage should worry everyone. But we should not allow that concern to stifle progress.

And, as always, the people and institutions currently holding the clout don’t cede it willingly. Governments are clamping down on us in all kinds of ways. Incumbent business powerhouses are trying to hold back the tide as well, not just to keep their positions but also to thwart new innovation that might threaten them.

These reactionary encroachments and retrenchments are not surprising. They always occur in times of swift change and challenge. In the end, they are almost always unsuccessful, because progress ultimately finds a way around barriers, and because people challenge the reactionaries.

But we need to keep the pressure up, as citizens and people who want the freedom to use these new tools and live in liberty. The stakes are high, and liberty takes work.

New adventure

This is my last column. I’m embarking on a new adventure, a project to help bring online grass-roots journalism to more people and communities.

During these past 10 years I’ve enjoyed a privileged, front-row seat — not on a roller coaster, even if it occasionally seemed that way, but a vehicle of exploration. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have taken this fantastic ride.

Mostly, though, I’m grateful to you. Even when you’ve disagreed with me, you’ve been on my side in a vital way. You’ve challenged me to think deeply about technology and the larger issues we must all ponder and deal with in this complex era. You’ve always known more than I do, and I’m fortunate that you haven’t been shy about telling me.

Our conversation — which I hope we’ll continue as my new project gets under way — has been a constant source of inspiration. If it’s meant something to you, that pleases me more than I can say. Thank you all.