This is the week that the new Steve Jobs movie is out, one that allegedly takes a less hagiographic view of the man who designed a lot of nice-looking gadgets for rich people. It follows on the heels of a summer where The Economist pointed out the insularity of Silicon Valley and how this could be a weakness. Are we reaching the peak of technorati fever? Is a crash around the corner?
It reminds me of another group of technorati from another era and thousands of miles away: the Orang Laut or sea peoples of the Straits of Malacca. By the nineteenth century, they were already seen as a “rude class” of pirates or primitive hunter-gatherers, a nuisance in the way of potentially lucrative development schemes.1 But only a few hundred years earlier, their unparalleled expertise in the ways of the sea was the key to power in the water-logged Malay universe.
Back then, Malacca (and before it, the mysterious Srivijaya empire, of which little is known) was a bit like Silicon Valley today: a global nerve centre for the movement of goods, instead of ideas (or personal information). Like the Internet, the Orang Laut provided the channels through which this movement could happen. And like many an innovator, they started outside the system, rising to prominence because of their raiding capabilities. Remember Napster?
Wanting to capture their untapped potential, the landlubbing rulers of Srivijaya reached out to the Orang Laut and directed their raiding capabilities to the development of trading power. The Orang Laut would raid Chinese, Indian and Arab ships that passed through this heavily trafficked region and force them to stop at the Srivijayan ports, where they would then have to pay tolls. According to the historian Timothy P. Barnard, this key development was the beginning of the link between Malay power and trade.2
Later on, when this knowledge-power nexus moved to Malacca, it is said that the Orang Laut even influenced the choice of Malacca as the site of the next big trading power. Their ability to catch enormous amounts of the terubuk fish and other valuable marine products contributed to the development of Malacca as a trading centre.
In return for these many favours, the rulers of Malacca bestowed titles on the Orang Laut, marrying them into some of their more notable families, although these wild and shaggy men of the sea still remained somewhat apart.
So what explains their eventual downfall?
Once the Malay rulers lost their grip on power, they were no longer able to provide steady patronage to the Orang Laut.
Simultaneously, new groups such as the Ilanun arrived on the scene, with more sophisticated raiding technologies that rendered the Orang Laut obsolete.
Nonetheless, in order to maintain their primacy, the Orang Laut could have done either of two things: as the knowledge elite, they could have upgraded their skills constantly so that they were always at the vanguard; or, they could have parlayed a temporary competitive advantage into a permanent one through a series of strategic (military, marriage, etc.) alliances with the power elite.
They did neither, and the rest is history.
Silicon Valley, take note.