Chipped Silicon

Those of us who live in Silicon Valley are sometimes faced with the outside world's view of who we are and what makes us tick. When I go elsewhere and non-residents talk to me about it, they often mention how exciting it must be to live here. They see the wildly successful and always-evolving dynamic tech sector driving the Valley's mechanisms, and they assume we all share in that success. That's not true. In fact, many of us feel its effects keenly, but not the in the way one might think. The festival of innovation atmosphere that has become something of a cliche in Silicon Valley is rooted in reality, but it is not the experience most of us have.

I was born and raised in Santa Clara County, the birthplace of defense contractors, computer hardware and software pioneers (semiconductor manufacturers, software giants), video game developers and the like. I moved far away for small periods of time to get perspective, and boy, did I get it. Each time I moved back here, to the Valley, I had a heightened sense of what I love about this area... and what I hate. First, the love.

Lucky Us

When this is your backyard, why would you want to live anywhere else?
Regional diversity - you needn't drive very far to reach a stunningly diverse array of environments, from vital wetlands, to redwood forests, to majestic coastal routes, scenic lakes, farmlands, and of course, the Golden Gate Bridge. It's all here, all within reach, and few areas can boast such scenic diversity in such a small area.

Weather - let's face it. We're spoiled here. We don't get hot days, and we don't get cold ones. Everything is mild. The rainy days are rotten, but the rain doesn't freeze, so why are we complaining? The hot days are miserable for us, but it's a dry heat. We often face drought, but we needn't look far for a nearby body of water to cool us down.

Lifestyle tolerance - there is little to no hard line social conservatism here, which means that people can be who they are without lots of moralistic judgment. Make no mistake, there is conservatism throughout the Valley, but it's largely fiscal conservatism, and not moral. In that sense, it's the perfect place to raise a child who has an opportunity to be exposed to a larger swath of the world, and a greater sense of tolerance.

Diversity - despite the inherent whiteness in the city I was raised in, I went to school exposed to a diverse group of ethnic backgrounds, including but not limited to Vietnamese-Americans, Sikh-Americans, Mexican Americans, and Chinese Americans. My upbringing wasn't what I'd call inherently 'multi-cultural,' but the diverse cultural themes around me were actively tolerated and integrated nicely into my community. Call it political correctness, but I was raised in an environment that taught me that learning about other cultures only enhances my own. That's part of what once defined Valley culture, and I am thankful to have been raised during that time. I've lived other places where whites are either the majority or hugely segregated from other races, and I'm lucky that for most of my life, that was not the case.

Success - the valley is choked with ambitious visionaries all jostling for an opportunity to pitch their ideas. Attend a job fair or a networking event around here and see for yourself. You'll very likely hear at least a few pitches giving you a glimpse of your own future. Every wonder what innovative technology lies ahead? The money funding those ideas is likely generated here. The Valley is outright obsessed with ideas, to the point where any idea, depending on its proximity to money and buzz, is often seen as a holy grail to be tiptoed around, preached about and protected like a small child destined to be the next savior of humankind.

The Dark Side of Success

New on TLC: "Toddlers and Nuclear Fusion Reactors"
On that note, know that I appreciate the successes in the Valley. I do. My malaise is something more wistful and enigmatic. What I feel is not envy or 'us versus them' hatred. It is a sadness for how the Valley has long eschewed a balanced, integrated, long-sighted approach to the it's own cultural development for sake of holding onto prized mantles and meeting the demands of the tech giants through whom all the money flows. I just don't like what being 'tech leader' has turned us into. Contrary to what the term 'tech leader' may imply a us, make no mistake: we're the ones being led around at the whims of these companies.

As some of you may feel fit to point out, the success of the tech sector obliquely benefits the rest of us in true trickle down fashion. For instance, I know that hundreds of Cupertino businesses stand to survive and thrive as a result of Apple's presence in the city. I know the same goes for Google in Mountain View.

"This is what a thriving metropolis looks like!" one might assert. "Either deal with it or move somewhere else!" I've heard these replies before. "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen! If you don't like where you live, just move!"

Let's put aside for a moment that inarguable fact that for some people, such decisions cannot be made lightly or without great financial hardship. Let's set aside for a moment that for many people, home is home. If a native does not reserve the right to feel sadness and anger at being displaced from their own place of origin, then we truly are a society of 'everyone's on their own.' God forbid.

As a matter of fact, our plan is to leave, and for good this time, but financial necessity has made that a moot point for at least another few years. In that sense, I am stuck here, in a place I was born, a place I've called home for most of my life, a place that should define me, and yet... I don't like what we've become. I don't fit in here any longer. I am discouraged by how brazenly self absorbed some of us have become. This is a valley of haughty self promoters, and at first glance you'd think them all part of a big satirical performance art piece about the power of smugness. Some kind of meta irony? But it's not an act. It's who we are. It's what we've turned into.

I am not 'envious of wealth' or 'hating the rich' or any such nonsense. I don't 'resent success.' The flow of money, ideas, investment capital and buzz arguably drives our economy. It's what allows our Valley to be a special place. The problem is that this tech phenomenon is a bubble, a very energized, very arrogant, very small bubble with a lot of pull. It lures in people from all over the world, not all of whom have any vested interest in anything but 'go go go' and 'full speed ahead.' Success of that magnitude, and the upkeep associated with keeping companies planted here and the money people happy - breeds arrogance, and entitlement, and with that comes myopic thinking, short sighted civic planning, and little to no incentive to foster or nurture cultural development. That's what has happened here.

I don't blame any one group, or any one company. I blame a prevailing group think spurred on largely by arrogance, greed, myopia and self preservation in a ruthlessly competitive environment. I blame the high spiritual cost of living in an area where the price of living - and more succinctly, the price of living well - costs so much more than merely a paycheck.
Hollywood of the North

"Dude, check out my startup. It's gonna take off, braugh!"
Silicon Valley has become every bit the Hollywood of the North, breeding the same kinds of idol worship, the same kinds of insufferable celebrity, the same quirky pockets of wealth mingled with the frustrated destitution that comes with any metropolitan area grappling with its own sprawl. Go to any meeting of start-up guys (or girls) pitching their ideas for each other, and marvel at how like an acting audition it is. In parts of L.A., aspiring actors clump together, waiting for a chance to impress someone and get the job. Up here, the idea people have to put on a similar show for the investors. Take a chance on me! Love me! I need my big break! Just as actors must convince themselves that they're perfect for the role, budding entrepreneurs must convince themselves that their ideas are truly unique, and the scramble for fame and recognition is nearly indistinguishable from Hollywood's.

Companies here are like Mecca for aspiring tech celebrities. Everyone wants to be the founder of yet another company that makes them disgustingly rich and changes the world at the same time. Movies (particularly The Social Network) have romanticized this, simultaneously critiquing and helping sell this cult of entrepreneurial celebrity. We're like the person who gets that acting gig and suddenly has an entourage and forgets all the old friends and starts ignoring everyone because being a celebrity is hard!

Breathless tech blogs and business columns only add fuel to the fire about what it really means to live in Silicon Valley. Valley culture dishes awesome daily tech buzz when a new product launches, or when a tech celebrity delivers a keynote. The problem is, while it's the loudest and most widespread coverage you're likely to see, it's also the least representative of the experience of living here. For instance, if you live in the Hollywood area, are you automatically a movie star?

It is often assumed that if you live here in Silicon Valley, you must have money, a sentiment ignoring the less romantic, less exciting, but no less hard working silent majority who struggle quite a bit in grappling with the cost of living here. Some of them are natives working in non tech jobs who have watched as everything around them gets more expensive, more sprawling, and more unbearable.

Where does this leave those people who haven't hitched a ride on the gravy train? What about those who don't have a desire or a natural affinity to code? What about those people outside of coding and engineering vying for human resources or white collar job? If they're not attractive or alpha enough, or know the right people, they find themselves less and less able to subsist, and move farther and farther eastward toward Livermore and beyond, to the Central Valley, or out of State altogether. Who can blame them?

The Worker Visa Contingent

Corporate housing is a nice way for temporary workers to feel at home, but sometimes this is not enough
Engineers and programmers are sometimes flown here from other States and other countries by companies who serve to benefit from their highly skilled labor. These workers are placed in corporate housing or subsidized units (sometimes having to wait months or even years to reunite with their families). Like the temporary traveler in a distant land who does not dare venture past the lobby of their hotel, foreign workers often have no easy way to assimilate into the areas they inhabit. As a result, a portion of these skilled migrants don't ever have opportunities to help define their environs. They find themselves merely taking up space and going to work each day out of necessity. The exceedingly rough pace and high cost of living here makes the mingling that might allow this quick cultural assimilation to go down smoother that much more impossible.

Sunnyvale's transformation into a thriving East Indian Suburb has been a miraculous evolution to behold. These engineers - many of whom are my neighbors and occasional friends - have found themselves at the mercy of the companies they serve, much more so than any US resident would be. Their rich cultural and familial traditions, holidays, and beliefs, in a fast paced environment such as this, are not given a chance to breathe or find the foothold they deserve. The ultimate longevity of all the wonderful, inevitable cultural shifts taking place here is entirely dependent on the tech scene's continued dominance in the area. If it leaves, or dilutes, they may as well. That's disconcerting.

The sad truth is, Silicon Valley suffers from an identity crisis so profound that no one deigns speak of it, one so profound that even Google's admirable attempts to embrace the culture of its workers - for instance, it's yearly Diwali festival of lights - cannot curb the encroaching rot. Valley culture has allowed the love of money - and make no mistake, that's the engine propelling Silicon Valley - to override even the final gasps of what is essentially a fractured and self deluded culture being slowly buried its own hubris.

What's worse, vast cultural and economic inequalities abound between sections of San Jose and the rest of the South Bay, between the Oakland and Richmond areas and the famous City across the bay, and dramatically, between Palo Alto and its counterpart to the East. The span of University Avenue that crosses over 101 in Palo Alto, at the spot where IKEA looms, marks a dramatic tableau poised between great wealth and great destitution. Large murals have been created throughout East Palo Alto depicting this divide, and while the problem is not caused by deliberate actions of the tech sector, it's a result of the great demands placed on the area by its presence.
Vampires, Evil Robots and Ghosts

San Jose Airport's new Dante's Inferno-inspired Parking Garage (thanks to Skye for the idea)

According to popular culture, the Silicon Valley has long been known as a bright spot hiding a great seething undercurrent of evil. For instance, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's 'Sunnydale' is a clear reference to the fair city of Sunnyvale, and Sunnydale itself hid a Hellmouth. The Terminator films all claim that Sunnyvale gave birth to Skynet's evil machinations. Billboards for San Jose's one enduring attraction - the house of crazed gun empire heiress Sarah Winchester - can be seen as far south as the Grapevine.

While it's true that our mild, bright weather does hide all kinds of less than appealing elements, there is also a  quirkiness and a little darkness in our blood that might do us some good, were we to embrace it. With that would come a spread of lifestyle diversity that only serves to enrich communities. However, when that diversity doesn't mingle, or income disparity keeps cultures segregated, the chances of that happening are slim. Valley tech culture has, for sake of not missing the boat of opportunity, embraced straight-ahead channels of ideas and acquisition that have come to define our commerce. All the weirdness has migrated elsewhere, leaving us with a cologne drenched valley of backslapping dude bros, mouth breathers and all or nothing alpha bullies.

Silver Linings Checkbook

Not everyone has the view from above
If you're an optimist, or better yet, if you're riding the wave right now, then what the Valley has given rise to  is a beauteous thing. It's a microcosm of what the United States is supposed to be about. A land of opportunity, money sluices like waterslides, nice paying jobs like low hanging fruit.

I've struggled to explain this to non-California residents, though: living in the Bay Area comes with its fair share of joy, but it is no guarantee of wealth and success, regardless of your skills. We have truly become a vast sprawling metropolis of haves, have-nots, and temporary-cum-permanent new residents struggling to find their place. It's made the experience of being here a splintered one, one that still comes with a fair share of reward, but leaves much to be desired.

We have the ocean close by. We have the eminently visit-able (but prohibitively expensive) San Francisco to the north. We have friends - and, by god, you'd better know who you are by now, because you are arguably the reason that living here is not more painful - who make the sprawl seem smaller and more manageable. There is much to love.

But I cannot help but pine - not so much for the Silicon Valley of old, which was destined to change, but for the promise of its evolution that never fully came to pass. We're an economic behemoth, a musclebound tech celebrity with an entourage of architects and brokers, kicking sand in the face of the outcast pioneers that build the foundations of our home. It is the price of great success, I suppose, to be this way. And it is not, as my wailing ranting might suggest, all bad. But despite all the good, I can't escape the sensation that what defines us is in pieces, drifting apart like the continents and in danger of losing cohesion and ultimately, import.


EtheReed said…
I enjoyed this piece and although I am also happy that I grew up in the valley (especially the social liberalism), I'm glad that I am not still there.

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