The Frivolous Valley and Its Dreadful Conformity

The following is not intended to be a systematic analysis of Silicon Valley. I have never lived or worked in the Valley or in tech. I write from the perspective of a native Californian whose two poles, or home bases, in that state are the city of San Francisco and the little beach town of Santa Cruz that lies 75 miles to the south, both of which may be said to bookend Silicon Valley and to have become dominated by it.

Rather than restate arguments I’ve already made about the baleful influence of our tech overlords, I here offer an impressionistic account of how what we call “Silicon Valley” came to be. My hope for it is modest. Perhaps it might spark a conversation on how we might reckon with the looming tech-ification of the United States—and resist what should be resisted, and learn to mitigate what cannot.

Historical lessons are not always apt. But certainly it is better to know than not to know. If we know how something happened once—especially something unprecedented—we are more likely to face the phenomenon squarely if and when it recurs.

The Orchard Lands

The first thing to understand about Silicon Valley is that it’s not a valley. Technically speaking, it’s an alluvial plain. I shall try to make clear the importance of this seemingly minor point.

The “Valley” part of Silicon Valley takes its name from the Santa Clara Valley, which sits between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Range, which in turn separates the Santa Clara Valley from the vast interior Central Valley (which is actually two valleys, the Sacramento and San Joaquin), to this day the single most agriculturally productive region in the world.

The Santa Clara Valley is similar to other valleys in California in that its main thread is long and narrow. Like the nearby Salinas and Carmel Valleys, and like their big brother just to the east, the Santa Clara Valley was once a very productive agricultural region (the southernmost part still is). The large flat at the north end that touches San Francisco Bay is, like the Pomona and San Gabriel Valleys down near Los Angeles, broad and expansive. Also like them, its soil is so rich it could grow almost anything. The only real limitation on that score is the climate, which is dry and sunny most of the year, making it ideal for fruit. Also similar to its cousins to the south, the Santa Clara Valley was, within living memory, almost completely covered with orchards.

Granted, the southern orchards were citrus whereas up north they tended to be apricots, pears, and plums. But the general look of the two regions was the same: vast tracts of orchards, punctuated by little white Victorian or Italianate farmhouses, and even more sporadically punctuated by small four- or six- or perhaps eight-square-block “villages” that contained the hardware store, the post office, a coffee shop, churches, and sometimes a school. Some of those little downtowns—the ones surrounded by tech companies and their management’s homes—are now among the most charming, and expensive, spots in all of California.

“Within living memory” is not an exaggeration. Claremont, a little college town in the vast Southern California megalopolis—the Palo Alto of Southern California, you might say—was, according to people still there when I first arrived in 1994, only a decade or two before surrounded by citrus groves. Similarly, my parents can recall San Jose looking much as John Steinbeck had described it in the 1930s: a compact downtown of businesses primarily serving farmers, an inner ring of craftsman homes and Victorians, and the rest orchards and farms as far as the eye could see.

The main addition from Steinbeck’s time was an outer ring of postwar suburbanization eating away at those orchards. Still, according to a local trade association, the Santa Clara Valley was until the late 1960s the largest and most productive fruit growing and packing region in the world. This would turn out to be important since the character of people who settle agricultural regions, and of those who are later attracted by them, is very different from those attracted by the glories and riches of Silicon Valley.

There are two reasons why Silicon Valley is called a valley even though it is not. First, that vast flat at the northern end of the Santa Clara Valley is contiguous with another vast flat that runs along the eastern shore of the San Francisco Peninsula all the way to the southern border of what pretentious people in San Francisco (which is to say, nearly all of them) still refer to in print as “The City.” This latter flat is what people really mean, and think of, when they say “Silicon Valley.” The epicenter here—dead center on the flat that lines the Bay’s western shore—is Stanford University, and the city or medium-sized town or suburb (it’s hard to say exactly what it is) of Palo Alto.

Which points to the second reason. As Stanford increasingly sold itself to the tech industry, a slow-moving wave pressed out in all directions, blocked only by San Francisco Bay to the west and north, and by the Coastal Range and Santa Cruz Mountains to the east and south. This tech tsunami consumed, first, those western flats, then—that not being enough—the northern Santa Clara Valley, and later—that still not being enough—the flats on the Bay’s eastern shore, or at least the southern part of them. This whole region, with Palo Alto its capital, came to be called “Silicon Valley.”

Once Upon a Time, a Nearly Unpopulated Paradise

According to the first white men who ever laid eyes on it—Spaniards in 1769, Americans in the 1830s—the land surrounding San Francisco Bay is the finest spot for human habitation on Planet Earth. They have a good case. It is unquestionably the finest natural harbor in the world. The weather is ideal: rainy only when it needs to be, rarely too hot, never too cold, mostly in the 70s. As noted, the soil is rich; and unlike most of the rest of the world, Northern California is not naturally plagued by disease, microbes, pests, or marauding fauna. If you’re worried about invaders, don’t be: the land helpfully throws up natural obstacles on all sides—treacherous currents to the west, steep mountains to the north and east, more mountains plus a desert to the south. There are only a handful of ways in or out, all of them easily defensible. The only things to spoil this paradisiacal idyll are drought and fires, both much exacerbated by overpopulation, and earthquakes (but these are thankfully infrequent).

Arguably, the least favored spot, geographically, on the Bay is the city of San Francisco itself, especially the highly urbanized northeastern part. The only reason San Francisco is where it is, is that early sailing ships, once past the turbulent Golden Gate, dropped anchor at the first sheltered spot they could find (at about the present location of Battery and Broadway Streets). The Spanish placed their mission settlement further inland and to the south, on a sunny, fertile flat. The Americans by contrast chose the foggiest, coldest, most wind-bound spot on the entire Bay—with seven steep hills directly behind it.

For a long time, “the Peninsula”—as the locals call that portion of land south of the city itself—was mostly empty of human habitation. Unlike the Santa Clara Valley, which is drained and replenished by Coyote Creek, the soil of the alluvial Peninsula flats was created in part by erosion from the Coastal Range and so is not quite as rich. Which is why for the first half-century and more of its life as American territory, it was used to graze cattle. Stanford University itself is located on the former cattle ranch of railroad baron Leland Stanford. (Needless to say, cattlemen and the sorts of businessmen who supply and equip them are also of quite a different character than techies.)

Thus, despite being the best place on earth to live, for a long time hardly anybody lived there. The Bayshore (another nickname for the Peninsula flats) was not merely a continent away from the population, industrial, economic, cultural, and intellectual centers of the eastern United States; it was also hard to reach, even after the advent of steamships and the transcontinental railroad. A certain class of ruffian and the vulgar rich from Western mining towns were satisfied with the (not inconsiderable) sophistication that San Francisco offered. But once the Gold Rush (1848-1855) died down, the attraction of the West declined precipitously. For many decades, the chief reason to come was agriculture. In addition to near-perfect growing conditions, land was also very cheap.

It must have been a wonderful time to live there. Local boosters nicknamed the Santa Clara Valley “the Valley of the Heart’s Delight.” My own family members (who never lived in the Valley itself) recalled a trip south as a welcome respite from crowded North Beach.

Postwar Changes

The Valley changed for three basic reasons.

First, World War II transformed the entire West Coast. Had the Japanese not bombed Pearl Harbor—that is, had the entire Allied war effort been focused on Europe—California would today likely look very different. It would not necessarily have remained the nearly unpopulated paradise it had been—it was too pretty and underpriced for that—but rapid industrialization, internal migration (to work in the plants), and then demobilization (hundreds of thousands of returning servicemen got off the boat in California and never went home) sped up the inevitable. The more people who saw the nicest place in the world to live with their own eyes, and realized it was no more expensive than back home, the more they concluded “I want to live here, too.”

This led to the second fundamental change, a wave of suburbanization that all but paved over the Peninsula and “the Valley of the Heart’s Delight.” Before the Valley was, as it were, injected with Silicon, it was primarily a bedroom community for San Francisco and, to a lesser extent, San Jose. Before San Francisco was taken over by hippies, and well before it was purchased by techies, it was the main commercial, financial, legal, and intellectual center of the United States west of St. Louis. The city itself is very small, only double the size of Manhattan, with water on three sides. Its residential quarters could not accommodate all the workers in downtown’s teeming office buildings. So residential development spread south.

The third way that the Valley changed is also related to the war. The ancient political philosophers taught us that war necessitates or at least spurs innovation. The need to build better weapons than the Axis Powers had, and the later need to outdo the Soviets, led to the development of the transistor, which in turn led to the semiconductor, which is the basis for the modern computer.

All that happened in the East—at Bell Labs in Manhattan and New Jersey, mostly, and a little bit at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One of the men at the center of it all, William Bradford Shockley, Jr. (1910-1989), just happened to have grown up in Palo Alto to parents in the mining industry. This scion of California’s old extractive economy decided to move back home when his mother got sick. Palo Alto today is the place to locate your little startup, if you can afford to, but back then the place had no office buildings, and commerce (other than the kind that keeps households stocked) was not welcome there. So in 1956 he founded Shockley Semiconductor in nearby Mountain View, whose street pattern was custom-made for dreary suburban office parks with lots of parking.

Shockley’s return to California, more than any other single event, marked the beginning of Silicon Valley. The great irony is that the father of Silicon Valley was anti-silicon. Shockley’s company—and career—would founder precisely because of his stubborn insistence that silicon, as the basis for a better semiconductor, was a dead end. Eight of his employees disagreed, could not convince him otherwise, and so quit en masse and founded Fairchild Semiconductor, which you might call Silicon Valley’s ur-company that spawned all the others. When Fairchild was founded, its little two-story building (also in Mountain View) was still surrounded by orchards.

At First, It Was About Making Things

It’s tempting to say the rest is history, but that history has had a few ups and downs. The three that matter most are the birth, spectacular rise, near-death, rebirth, and deification of Apple; the dot-com boom-bust of the 1990s; and the dominance of the Big Three information monopolies: Google for search, Facebook for social media, and Twitter for short-form vapidity and mob justice.

Still, there is an arc to the story. Silicon Valley in its first stages was about making things. In that respect, it was not vastly different from older sectors of the American economy. The type of person it attracted was also not much different from, say, the Los Angeles-based aircraft engineers indirectly fighting the Cold War—smarter and more ambitious, perhaps, than the drudge commuters to San Francisco’s Financial District, but not hostile or condescending to them. Many who hit it big in the early tech industry were dissenting Protestants from the Midwest and so, if not quite embarrassed by their sudden wealth, were not exactly eager to show it off. The cost of living—especially home prices—stayed more less in line with inflation at least until the late 1980s.

Even Apple did not fundamentally change Silicon Valley—at first. Before it became a design company with an offshore manufacturing subsidiary, it too was primarily a maker of things. The first Macintosh computers, for instance, were built by Apple at a facility in Fremont in the East Bay—then not formally considered part of Silicon Valley, but now well on its way, thanks in part to Apple.

But the main point is that Silicon Valley’s first wave of innovation shared an essential kinship with that of its techno-economic forebears, the Industrial and Transportation Revolutions. These were all about enabling Americans to do more cheaply and efficiently the things they were already doing, and were going to keep on doing regardless. Computing—at least outside of its scientific and military applications—initially simply did the same for paperwork, but with new and fancy names like “information management.” It made clerical work easier, faster, and cheaper. A subsidiary wave did the same for buying and selling. This has had lamentable consequences for brick and mortar stores and the communities they used to serve. Yet these displacements are not wholly dissimilar to those that undermined old orders in the past. How many at the time regretted the horse giving way to the car? We lost something, surely, but we gained much as well.

The 1990s were a turning point—not just for Apple, but for Silicon Valley. And not because of the dot-com bubble but in spite of it. Apple, led by returning hero and Valley secular saint Steve Jobs, reinvented itself around its various iDevices. Jobs was famous for saying that the key to success was to figure out what people were going to want before they did. In other words, big tech—led by Apple—became a force for creating new wants and then selling you things to satisfy those wants. As a business model, that’s genius. As a societal force, one may fairly question its beneficence. Especially when the chief product being sold—in bulk—is time-sucking frivolity.

As for the bursting of the bubble, it’s by now laughable to consider it an example of hubris checked. Many frivolous companies went poof, to be sure, but frivolity did not; it roared back with a vengeance and dominates to this day. As Jobs had discovered, there was still money to be made, and lots of it, but that required forging new avenues of consumer desire.

Mecca for Math Nerds

The techies have been telling us for years that cheap, “frictionless” communications—the web, email, Skype—would conquer the “tyranny of geography.” Everyone would be able to do whatever they wanted, from anywhere. Workers at the same company, on the same teams, could live and work thousands of miles part. You say you always wanted to live by that little lake where your grandparents had a cabin? Now you can!

Obviously, things haven’t worked out that way. But consider the fact that those who sold us the hardest on this idea absolutely insist—not in words but through revealed preference—that they themselves all have to be in the same place: Silicon Valley. Perhaps they know something about the value of network effects, at the people-to-people level, that they don’t wish to advertise.

But some of the impetus is sheer vanity. Who wants to be a god without worshipers? And not just any worshipers. Little old ladies in Dubuque will not do. Those bowing and scraping must have some appreciation for the subject’s greatness; they need to know something about tech. Most important, they need to feel envy. This is all best accomplished in a concentration of techies.

Hence, as Washington is said to be Hollywood for ugly people, Silicon Valley has become Hollywood for math nerds. This is true in more than one sense.

First and fundamentally, Silicon Valley is today primarily an entertainment industry. The economically and socially useful work that Silicon Valley could accomplish, it has by now mostly accomplished. To belabor the point, it no longer seeks to meet real needs but to create and satisfy new wants. It has gotten very good at creating markets, and the demand for them, from thin air. It would be uncharitable to say that the techies don’t care about the effects of these new markets and demands. They very much care. They’ve simply managed to convince themselves that everything they do is not merely good but almost purely, transcendently so.

Second, Silicon Valley increasingly draws the same kind of soul as Hollywood does. Or perhaps one might say that math nerds never before had a shot at mass adulation and glamour, Silicon Valley gives it to them, and many try to grab it. The motivations—fame, power, money, sex—are scarcely different from those impelling people to flock to Tinseltown, or the nation’s capital, for that matter. The main difference is that the rewards in Silicon Valley are vastly greater, for the few who manage to claim them. More wealth, more power, and more fame—certainly in combination—than any mere movie star or politician could ever dream of.

Third, Silicon Valley is incredibly hierarchical. Long gone is the spirit of equal teamwork that motivated the initial engineer-nerds to break new ground and build new stuff. The “Silicon” in the Valley’s name is today a vestige of the industry’s physically-oriented past. To today’s coder-nerd, hardware is passé—necessary for running his brilliant new software, which, if he does not create it alone, he certainly conceives in flash of solo creativity. Just like in Hollywood, the gains are increasingly winner-take-all. Wait tables or become a star. In Silicon Valley, the formula is, found a “unicorn” or forever code for others.

That’s an exaggeration. It’s still possible to found a company that gets gobbled up before the unicorn stage—by a real unicorn—and to reap an enormous windfall. Indeed, you might say that’s part of the Valley’s new business model for its celebrated “entrepreneurs”: found a company not with a groundbreaking new product or vision, but instead one just close enough to something that’s already out there (but not so close that you bump up against patents and copyrights) that a bigger company feels forced to buy to fend off potential competition. I don’t have a PhD in economics. But this sounds to me not unlike extortion. At the very least, it seems like an enormous waste of time, energy, talent, and capital.

People do it because the pot of gold at the end of that particular rainbow is overflowing. To grab it, you must be alone or part of a very small, jealously guarded group. The ways in which this ethos undermines any kind of wider loyalty, any kind of community spirit, are obvious. Coders stalking the unicorn are like miners jealously guarding their claims. The inherent selfishness of the enterprise perhaps helps explain the extraordinary effort put into sophistry. The most worn-out cliché in Silicon Valley is that the goal of every new start-up, of every new photo-sharing app, is to “make the world a better place.” Even the techies themselves got tired of hearing it, but they still rely on the underlying sentiment to rationalize what they are really doing, and so pay expensive public relations teams to find new and inventive ways to say it.

In a way, it’s hard to blame them; you have to go back to the post-Civil War economic boom to find comparable opportunities to acquire such sudden, vast fortunes. One difference is that techie windfalls tend to be reaped all at once, and when they are young,  rather than built over a lifetime. This helps explain the messianic tenor of much of their rhetoric. The youth are always more prone to seduction by revolutionary nonsense. The danger is that thirty-something billionaires have the means to enact their silly, and potentially dangerous, enthusiasms.

Another far more important difference is that the “robber baron” fortunes were inherently tied to the land, to the physical country. Silicon Valley’s, to say the least, are not. The mildest thing one could say about the outlook of the typical tech oligarch (there are a few honorable exceptions) is that they are transnational and post-patriotic. No one would expect the first question they asked of a new innovation to be, “Is this good for the United States?” They would consider the question gauche, unless asked in relation to the entire world, of which the U.S. is but a part. And not, in any meaningful sense, their part.

Industrialists without a Country

It’s telling, I think, that many Apple products are stamped with the phrase, “Designed by Apple in California.” I here gloss over the phrase that follows—“Assembled in China”—not because outsourcing is unimportant but to make a different point. In Apple’s conception of itself, the company is located not in “the United States” or “America” but in “California.”

I think Apple makes this distinction for three reasons, which can easily be extended to the rest of the tech industry. First, the techies want to distance themselves from the notion that they are part of, or own allegiance to, any country at all. They are above such petty concerns, beyond—and in many ways more powerful than—the nation-state. Second, they want to distance themselves from all that is held by elite and world opinion to be bad about America: racism, sexism, Bible-thumping, guns, and so on. Third, they wish to evoke California not as an American state but as an idea: the Golden State, the California Dream, paradise, the future. Or, you might say, the finest spot for human habitation on Planet Earth, made incalculably better by their very presence on its sacred soil. We may here note that Peter Thiel’s intellectual and political heterodoxy among the tech elite might be owing to the fact that he actually grew up in one of those Peninsula commuter suburbs (Foster City), and so sees the area as more than just a tech hub. For him, it was home.

Be that as it may, the locals—the descendants of growers, ranchers, grocers, small businessmen, downtown office workers, and public servants—have found the techies’ attitude grating for a good long while now. The techies seem to think that non-tech native Californians are in their way, and have no right to remain where they’ve long lived. If locals can no longer afford to because the techies price them out, that just proves (to the techies) that they’re losers who don’t belong there anyway. The finest spot for human habitation on Planet Earth belongs, by nature, to the übermenchen. If the natives prove to be too prideful to be useful as servants, well, the techies have a remedy for that, too: chase them out and import a more pliant replacement population.

More than that, the techies seem to think that non-techies have no real right to opinions of their own. They are to be told what to think or, if that doesn’t work, to be prevented from seeing or reading things that might lead to heterodox thought, or if that doesn’t work, then simply prevented from expressing any unapproved thought. Increasingly—thanks to those Big Three information monopolies—the techies have the power to enforce their will.

So far, in California, this low-grade but inherent hostility has not boiled over. Partly that’s because Silicon Valley has done a bang-up job of convincing the Left—and in California, only the Left matters—that they are the world’s first and only morally pure oligarchs. This is why, despite the enormous piles of cash ripe for expropriation, the Left has been very slow to practice its time-honored shakedown antics against the tech industry.

But they are starting to. And when they begin to draw blood, two things will happen. First, like Sauron frantically shifting his gaze to Mount Doom as Frodo drops the ring, the techies will realize that they can no longer ignore state and local politics but will have to try to take them over. Second, they will realize that they have few allies in the fight against the Left, because the ways in which they’ve transformed the state have driven out a lot of the people who might otherwise have stood with them, and the few who remain they’ve alienated with their arrogance.

The techies might well succeed, after making a few necessary concessions, in taking over California politics. They are too rich, too powerful, still broadly popular, and the state is too dependent on them—financially and psychologically—for them to be denied. The loss of California in that sense would just formalize what’s already taken place, and so not be much of a loss.

But one day, this political struggle may come to the United States as a whole. If it does, we shall have to do what yesterday’s Californians were unable or unwilling to do: fight for what’s ours.