Book talk review: 'Silicon Heartland' didn't fill me with much hope
On Friday, March 31, I attended Rebecca Fannin's lecture about her recent book, "Silicon Heartland" in the Tepper Swartz Center. Her book was the culmination of several years of research across different cities in the Rust Belt of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. She is a tech and business journalist, whose past works include books about the rise of the tech industry in Asia generally, and China specifically. Having studied how the Chinese tech industry exploded, Fannin applied her knowledge to trends and patterns she sees in various Rust Belt cities. She describes how Pittsburgh and many peer cities are seeing the development of "tech clusters" — new centers of manufacturing, research, and development that show promising signs of growth.
While I won't deny the tremendous amount of research and insight Fannin puts into this project, I came away with the distinct impression that the ethos of this book is founded in misplaced optimism. In hoping that the Rust Belt can become the "Tech Belt," the book misses the point of the term Rust Belt. This region of the country relied on a single industry — steel — in the 20th century, and the term is meant to point out the consequences of a region depending on profit from a single item. The imagery of rust feels like a pretty clear metaphor for how temporary and transient the products of capitalism are. Who's to say that the tech industry won't have a similar boom and bust, leaving midwestern cities hollowed-out and economically depressed once again. It feels misguided to see an industry grow in a region of the country and assume that the short-term gains brought on by the influx of capital to that region would lead to any kind of long-term stability.
There were a number of moments during the Q&A session where I felt that people brought up extremely valid or prescient concerns that the speaker wasn't able to really address. During a conversation about the factors that motivate industrial growth, Fannin brought up the need for "native venture capital" — the idea is that VC firms need to set up shop in a region before the local startup economy can bloom. This was followed by someone pointing out that Silicon Valley, the epicenter of American startups, is a notoriously terrible place to live, between its extremely high cost of living and the highly mobile, young workforce that rarely builds roots in the city. They asked if it was a good idea for a city like Pittsburgh to aspire to this to any degree, and I found that her answer did little to address this concern.
I think the business-first, wealth-oriented mindset that is reflected in this sort of tech-optimism can be dangerously short-sighted. Should the Rust Belt actually become the new Tech Belt, we would probably see massive accumulation of capital in the hands of a few industry magnates with very little trickling down to the working class. This would last until the tech industry falters, leaving cities like Pittsburgh holding the check just as they did when steel left the 80s. I would rather see institutions like Carnegie Mellon pioneering things that are practical, sustainable, and conscientious of how they impact those on the margins of society: not just hype for a second gilded age.