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What Google's Alphabet Really Spells for Silicon Valley: "I" Is for Innovation (And Also Irrelevance)

Like a lot of places in this world, it's hard to be old in the center of tech.

Like a lot of places in this world, it’s hard to be old in Silicon Valley.

That’s because it has always been an environment where its young eats its old, rather than vice versa, right from the start. Shockley begat Fairchild begat Intel and so on and so forth, a biblical lesson that has iterated throughout the tech sector since.

Silicon Valley’s power elite will deny this age insecurity up and down, of course. But, like Hollywood actors heading to a Botox session to stave off the inevitable, there is always a sense of needing to refresh into the new, new thing to slow the digital guillotine hanging above all their efforts.

Which in many ways is a bit of what’s going on over at Google and its recent name change to Alphabet. The name itself is even younger than young, harkening back to nursery school and that sing-song we all learned to memorize it. A, B, C, D, E, F, G …

To say it is primary is an understatement and that is perhaps what Google is going for here. In his blog post on the subject, Google — excuse me, Alphabet — CEO Larry Page noted:

“We liked the name Alphabet because it means a collection of letters that represent language, one of humanity’s most important innovations, and is the core of how we index with Google search! We also like that it means alpha‑bet (Alpha is investment return above benchmark), which we strive for!”

All the exclamation marks aside and that it was well said, this is a perfect dose of the kind of banal Silicon Valley bromides that mean a whole lot less than they say. You get a lot of that here in the center of innovation and it is frankly wearisome.

And perplexing because Google should be justifiably proud of just how innovative it has remained since it was founded around the beginning of this century — or, as I like to call them, the olden days of yore. Despite its massive growth in power, revenue, employees and overall influence, the search giant has arguably remained more nimble than any other company in tech.

Google Glass, Loon balloons, contact lenses that test for diabetes, giant solar kites and who knows what else. I just assume they are cooking up a time machine and an invisibility cloak in Mountain View right now.

To my mind, Google needn’t agonize about staying current to what the kids are up to quite as much as it seems. I know former Intel star Andy Grove once said that “only the paranoid survive,” but everyone from my vantage point seems have taken that to extremes.

In fact, aging probably shouldn’t be so much a worry anywhere in Silicon Valley, given the most powerful companies are run by these same ever-aging execs, and most of the money funding the startups is controlled by another cadre of mature — almost always — former dudes. The olds run the place more than it looks.

Nonetheless, those same men all long for one thing: Remaining as it was in the beginning, was then and ever shall. This is the prime directive. Which is to stay always and forever retaining the ethos and spirit of a startup. That they are still wearing cheap hoodies instead expensive cashmere. That they can live on junk food and Red Bull rather than the pricey Mission hipster food they consume.

And mostly, that they really can get by on nothing when they now have everything.

In other words, to start from the beginning again, where ABCs meant you were just learning how to spell rather than having to change your name to stop what is probably inevitable.

And that is that you will eventually be upended as you yourself once upended. That you will grow old and will be replaced as an iPhone 6 will someday soon (I hope!) be shoved aside for an iPhone 7. To modify the famed “Godfather II” quote from Hyman Roth: This is the life you have chosen (to always change).

Plato once noted that “nothing is real, because everything is always changing or becoming something else.” It’s an old saying, for sure, but it still works for me and maybe realizing that is not such a bad thing.

This essay first appeared on my weekly podcast, “Re/code Decode,” in a modified form.

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