A version of this article appeared at Inc.com
I have an embarrassing admission to make: The arrival of the cloud as a mainstream business tool has…well, clouded (ahem) my thinking about big business, particularly in tech and associated industries.
Let me explain: I like to think I’m a relatively sophisticated observer of the business world. Started and ran a bunch of businesses, wrote a few books, advise a bunch of people, write this column – not the bee’s knees, maybe, but perhaps a gnat’s ankle.
And, bright chap that I am, I know, intellectually, that Amazon (for example) is headquartered in Seattle and operates multiple massive warehouses not just in the US, but worldwide. I not only know about Apple and Google’s humungous complexes (complexii?) in Cupertino and Mountain View, I’ve personally visited and spoken in both. Ditto Oracle, IBM, Rackspace, Citrix and a host of the other major tech players.
And yet, in recent years, my concept of these companies as a physical entity has diluted, increasingly replaced by an (admittedly fuzzy) notion in my brain that they’re now somehow virtual – that these companies ‘live’ in cyberspace, not here, in the real world. That the cloud is not only where we put all the stuff we want to store, but like a plot in a William Gibson novel, those companies have migrated themselves to the cloud also.
I warned you it was embarrassing.
Now clearly, I know, intellectually, that this notion isn’t true. I’m aware that these are real companies, with real plants, offices and warehouses dotted all over the globe. And yet… it seems to me I’m not alone in the cognitive delusion my brain plays with reality, once I start thinking about many of our largest businesses.
I fear, sadly, that many of those who run such companies increasingly suffer the same delusion. That the CEOs, EVPs and other senior executives at the top of many of our largest tech organizations are themselves succumbing to a dangerous, creeping belief that they and their businesses are somehow disassociated from the muck and clay their buildings are built on; that their businesses somehow exist at a level apart from the streets and avenues their offices populate; and that their success is somehow nothing to do with the people and environment that surround and nourish their activities day in, day out.
Furthermore, I believe it’s resentment at this insidious, not-quite-verbalized belief by many tech companies that they are ‘of the world, but not in the world’ that has been fueling local protests such as those we’ve seen recently in San Francisco.
The bottom line? You can’t store proximity in the cloud. You can’t abstract your business out of the physical location it occupies. You don’t get to wash your hands of being a good neighbor, a responsible resource-user, or an involved member of the local community just because you buy and sell in the virtual world.
You don’t get permission to ignore the physical impact of what you do because you operate in a universe of bits and bytes.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating a return to the era of factory towns, where the local community only existed through the patronage of the largest local employer (though ironically, that’s precisely what many large tech companies are turning their central campuses into), nor would I dare attempt to tell any company how, and to what extent, they should give back to the communities they inhabit and intersect with – but I do know that the illusion of abstraction from place is just that – an illusion.
In any society there’s a cost associated with being part of a community, at both the personal and corporate level. Tech industry leaders would do well to rethink their cost-benefit presuppositions.