Georges Doriot, who founded the first publicly traded venture capital firm in 1946, arguably announced a new regime of speculative capital when he said: “I want money to do things that have never been done before” (Ante 2008). In the years immediately after World War II, the establishment of venture capital firms was crucial to the ascent of a new kind of commercial enterprise, one that has profoundly influenced the development of digital technologies on a very broad scale. It was with the creation of the first venture capital firms that a financial network to support technology startup companies began to form. The fact that the earliest Silicon Valley startups were funded by venture capital investments is an indicator of the degree to which the developmental trajectory of personal computing has been intertwined with that of finance capital. Fairchild Semiconductor, for example, was the first startup funded by venture capital (in 1957), and it launched numerous “spin-off” companies that were collectively responsible for the innovations that enabled what became the microelectronics industry. Since then, of course, venture capital has grown into a powerful industry that directs vast financial resources into technology startup companies. But venture capital investment doesn’t only fuel the tech startup economy — it actively shapes it.
Research on Silicon Valley’s high tech industry suggests that venture capitalists’ importance to processes of innovation has more to do with their role in selecting promising companies than with simply providing financing itself (Ferrary & Granovetter 2009). Beyond choosing the criteria for valuation by which the potential commercial success of startups is measured, they determine which innovations will even have a chance to enter the market. The result is that Silicon Valley innovation is guided directly by finance capital’s future-oriented logic of speculation. Companies with few tangible assets pursue funding without which they will have little chance to successfully launch their products and, as business news coverage attests, some companies are valued at billions of dollars without demonstrating that they have the means to become profitable. What matters is keeping the possibility of a market open. One could think, for example, of Snapchat, a popular photo and video sharing app that has expanded through significant venture capital investments. Last year, the company was valued at $10 billion, despite the fact that it generates almost no revenue, mostly on the basis of its potential to reach users and create an audience.
A roughly parallel arrangement in the life sciences has been described by Kaushik Sunder Rajan, who has studied venture-capital-funded genomics companies, arguing that according to the logic of speculative capital, value is attributed to a company’s orientation to potential markets that will never actually have to be realized (Sunder Rajan 2005). So, for example, a genomics startup might direct its drug development toward people who may become sick, “patients-in-waiting,” rather than toward those who are or certainly will be sick. By emphasizing that anyone might fall ill, the company tries to maximize its appeal, since its potential market could conceivably include anyone who can purchase treatment. Creating value in the present means making belief in future applications seem viable. That life science companies in India rely on direct production and sales when they do not receive the venture capital of their U.S. counterparts further supports the observation that this mode of valuation is linked directly to the influence of speculative capital investment.
A little over a year ago when Daniel Miller predicted Facebook’s declining appeal among a particular population segment, it was interpreted by journalists in way that was at odds with what he meant. Instead of taking his argument to be about the meaning and dwindling importance of Facebook for a certain population, they cast it as a more general forecast about the direction of Facebook in the social media market. This incident foregrounded the question of what anthropology’s role should be with respect to the popular obsession with identifying emerging trends attached to Silicon Valley’s vision of entrepreneurship. Because my own developing research project on technology entrepreneurship entails making sense of exactly this vision, I have been thinking about what idea of the future it expresses and how it might be examined in the products entrepreneurs make and sell.
There is a case to be made that the experience of time characteristic of Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism increasingly pervades our engagements with our digital devices and the internet. With beta permanence becoming a broader condition of this media environment, the relationship between the production and consumption ends of the media technology market increasingly form a roughly continuous cycle of feedback and revision between users and companies developing software products. It is already the case that many of the internet software products many of us interact with casually and constantly are actually edited more or less continuously while data generated from our everyday behaviors is fed back into the decision processes by which new revisions are slipped directly into the software. There is an open-endedness here that leaves products available for alteration and, therefore, incomplete, except with reference to the future.
If we think about the entrepreneurial venture capital-influenced concern for the future as a matter of correct or incorrect prediction about what will happen once the present is past, then it is difficult to make sense of the ways that it shows up in the makeup of digital media technologies themselves. I think it can be productive, on the other hand, to ask how the future is managed and used as an object of strategy by entrepreneurs. By examining the techniques they use to protect themselves from or exploit the next unforeseen shift in the market, it may be possible to trace how the future inflects the very makeup of their products, even at the levels of their concepts and designs.
Ante, Spencer E. 2008 Creative Capital: Georges Doriot and the Birth of Venture Capital. Boston: Harvard University Press.
Ferrary, Michel & Mark Granovetter. 2009 “The Role of Venture Capital Firms in Silicon Valley’s Complex Innovation Network.” Economy and Society 18: 326-359.
Sunder Rajan, Kaushik. 2005 “Subjects of Speculation: Emergent Life Sciences and Market Logics in the United States.” American Anthropologist 107.1: 19-30.