Monday, August 26, 1996
Most areas exist in two places at once. They have an actual existence on the ground, and an imagined existence in the minds of people that think about them. People who have never been to London can tell you about Big Ben and red buses.
And people who have never been to the Silicon Valley in Northern California can tell you about the hot-shot computer companies that are based there.
Of course there’s a gap between the truth and the perception. Most people’s ideas of London are correct but stylised – like the Underground map, which shows the right stations, but skews the distances between the stations. When you visit London, it’s not exactly how you imagined it, but the things you thought you’d see are there somewhere.
So what about Silicon Valley? This small area is exerting an ever-increasing influence on our lives, and even the names of its hi-tech companies bring to mind gleaming visions of the future – Oracle, Sun, Netscape, Electronic Arts, Informix, Cirrus Logic. Surely the place itself must be something to see, that it should be a home for such creativity and endeavour.
In fact, the gap between the idea of Silicon Valley and its reality is immense. The first obvious problem is that the Valley doesn’t really exist – look on a map, and you’ll see Santa Clara County and the towns strung along the 101 highway from San Francisco to San Jose: Foster City, Belmont, Redwood, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Cupertino. This is Silicon Valley, but because it isn’t marked as such, even finding the place requires an act of imagination.
It’s not much of a valley either. The peninsula that arches round the Bay and ends at San Francisco is largely flat. Silicon Freeway might be a more accurate name, because Interstate 101 cuts straight through the area, and highly-paid computer experts spend a frightening amount of time sitting in traffic jams on it. At least this gives them the chance to examine the large number of personalised license plates on display – how long before people’s e-mail addresses start appearing on their cars? From the highway you can see very little else, except a succession of signs telling you the names of the invisible places you’re passing through.
Once you get off the freeway, the sense that this place is not really there still prevails. Take Netscape Communications, for example, the current darlings of the Valley. Last summer, having reached the ripe old age of 16 months, they were launched on the stock exchange in a share offering that at the end of the first day’s trading valued the company at $1.96 billion. Overnight, Marc Andreessen, their 22 year-old vice president of technology became worth more than $50 million personally.
Yet drive past their nondescript Mountain View offices (no mountains, no view), and try to imagine what could be worth $1.96 billion inside the closed blue blinds. Even if the Netscape buildings are filled to the ceiling with gold bars, that still might not account for all the money. Somehow it should all look different.
Although on reflection, it’s very appropriate that there’s nothing to see. On a hillside near the airport is a huge sign declaring, ‘South San Francisco – The Industrial City’. One of the characters in Douglas Coupland’s recent novel Microserfs has a more appropriate suggestion: ‘If they changed it to “Post-Industrial City”, it might be meaningful.’
Very few of the companies here ‘make’ anything in the old sense. Previously, a site of industrial innovation would leave an indelible mark on the landscape, but instead of dark satanic mills there’s manicured grass, and neat two-storey offices. Future archaeologists will be hard-pressed to work out what was going on here; the best they’ll be able to find will be a few Snapple bottles and Coke cans left over from the free supply that most companies give their programmers.
The 4000 or so high-technology companies in the Silicon Valley generate $200 billion in revenue annually by rearranging ones and zeros to create software. They don’t even make silicon chips here any more – too messy and dirty. The companies’ products are shiny ideas, and their assets go home in the evening and watch Melrose Place and Friends.
Intellectual property, not real property, is the important thing. You’re closer to visiting the real Valley when you’re downloading the latest software over the internet from your flat in Cork than you are actually standing outside Sun Microsystems, or driving along Infinity Loop on Apple Computer’s ‘campus’.
However, one company does seem to acknowledge the intangible quality of their business. Oracle Corporation’s buildings are huge cylindrical structures situated beside the bay. They look very curious until you realise that Oracle’s main work is in database software, and in computer documentation a database is commonly shown as a cylinder. The buildings are a physical representation of an insubstantial idea. Perhaps this is the information age’s version of High Gothic architecture, where cathedrals soared upwards to represent the idea of the heavenward urge towards an approachable God.
Aside from the Oracle buildings, though, it’s very hard for a visitor to reconcile the power and reach of the area with the reality of driving the freeway and walking on the grass. Even when you’re standing right in it, Silicon Valley seems hardly there at all.
(first published in The Irish Times, Monday August 26th, 1996)