Silicon Valley, Myth and Reality

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September 8th 2011
Published: July 13th 2012
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Figure Holding the Sun by Italo Scanga in downton San Jose

Silicon Valley

For those who like technology, Silicon Valley is a place of myth, the modern equivalent of the western Sierra in 1849.

This cluster of cities between Palo Alto and San Jose has an amazing concentration of incredibly smart engineers, along with adventurous investors.

Their constant interactions and competition create ideas, products, and companies that revolutionize how people use computers, the internet, and modern life.

People here create things that change the world.

Local boosters like to claim that this environment only exists in this one small area.

In reality, it also exists in other parts of the country (Boston MA, Seattle WA, Austin TX) but not the extent of here.

Working here must be a profound experience.

Visiting, on the other hand, was rather disappointing.

I expected some sort of Shangri-La.

Instead, I found an area that with few exceptions looks like any other part of California built after World War II.

Silicon Valley consists of huge complexes of office buildings surrounded by vast areas of upscale tract housing.

Except for the famous names on the buildings, I could be back in the sprawl of Atlanta (see History, for a City that Doesn’t Like Any).

Looking back on it, the environment makes sense.

Engineers care far more about what things DO than what they look like.

The work that goes on in those buildings is both transformative and fascinating, and that is what really counts.

Silicon Valley does have some sights worth seeking out.

The most important for me was the Computer History Museum.

It tells the story of the computer in deep detail, from the analog calculating machines of the 1700s to the early electronic computers built during World War II to the current day.

The museum contains a number of rare machines, most of which run.

To my disappointment, the website showed they are closed for a special event today 😞

I finally drove to the largest city in the region, San Jose.

Downtown has a curious mix of architecture.

Much of it is new, some of it is old, and the rest is new trying to look old.

The city centers on a large open plaza.

It has some impressive public art, such as a sculpture of a man holding a circle that is half cubist, half pop art, Figure Holding the Sun by Italo Scanga.

I also found a display that definitively signals that I’m in Silicon Valley, a booth promoting the electric Tesla Roadster.

One corner of the plaza has a large plaque commemorating San Jose’s brief period as the capital of California.

After the state was admitted to the United States (see The Golden State), the legislature moved the capital from Monterrey to San Jose.

It remained here for two years, after which it moved again to Sacramento due to the city’s transportation links and offer of cheap land.

The plaza borders the San Jose Art Museum.

It’s supposed to have a descent collection.

In another disappointment, I didn’t get to see any of it.

They had put it all in storage for a show on cartoonist and 1960s countercultural icon R. Crumb.

He created Fritz the Cat (WARNING: May be offensive), which inspired an entire generation of alternative comic book artists.

While I enjoy comic book art, I don’t want to pay a high admission to see many rooms worth of it.

I asked about other art museums within walking distance, and the front desk person gave directions to the Institute for Contemporary Art.

Institute of Contemporary Art, San Jose

The Institute of Contemporary Art had a San Jose State MFA show.

For collectors of truly cutting edge artwork, these shows can be a goldmine.

Most people who attend MFA programs want to be professional artists.

They put a lot of effort into their studies.

The thesis show is where new graduates show their best work.

While collectors may fantasize about buying a work from a new artist who later becomes world famous, this rarely happens at a real life show.

These shows are much better treated as a place to see lots of new ideas.

Like most shows of this type, some of the work was interesting, some had intriguing ideas but bad realization, and a few were utterly impenetrable.

I need to point out this is how I react to much contemporary work, not just thesis shows.

Some of the best pieces were a series of abstract geometric paintings in bright colors by Jessica Eastburn.

These were inspired by old web pages, from the days when designers filled them with bright flashing graphics.

Nick Tranmer made sculptures that from a distance look like miniature cities floating on clouds.

Get close and see that everything is made out of old electronic components, the literal discards of Silicon Valley.

Timo McIntosh made a conceptual work of the world’s most obvious self-help guru.

He printed up a set of brochures for improving one’s life in various areas in five easy steps; all of which are shallow clichés.

These brochures make a pointed ironic comment on both the self-help movement (which is based around Los Angeles), and the shallowness of the desires that movement promotes.

On the other end of the spectrum, Ryan Carrington exhibited a hand panted board with a plaid pattern.

The wall text talked about elevating mundane textile work to the realm of a cultural object and celebrating laborers, but I couldn’t follow it.

This is the type of highly theoretical art that only art theorists can really appreciate.

California, Home of the Mall

I want one last exposure to Silicon Valley culture before leaving the area.

California is stereotyped as the land of the mall.

The state has so many of these shopping centers, particularly around Los Angeles, that they have become cultural artifacts.

My guidebook’s shopping section leads off with a whole discussion on them.

San Jose is the last large California city I will see, so I want to see whether reality matches the stereotype.

I ended up at Valley Fair because the local visitors’ brochure describes it as the largest in Northern California.

I found it surprisingly normal.

Aside from the huge size, it has exactly the same stores I’m used to from home.

Unlike Lenox Square in Buckhead near Atlanta, this mall could be anywhere, just like the rest of the buildings in Silicon Valley.

Since engineers are not known for conspicuous consumption, I shouldn’t be that surprised.

This mall did have one thing that was ….. interesting.

Most people by this point are familiar with the Apple Store, sleekly designed retail stores that sell Apple products.

These stores almost have a cult following; during a recent sale my local store set up velvet ropes at the entrance to manage the huge line.

Valley Fair has one.

One floor up sits the Microsoft Store.

It’s just what it sounds like, a store selling devices that run Microsoft software.

Apple supporters often accuse Microsoft of ripping off Apple’s designs, and this store is no different.

Its look is as close to an Apple store as possible without directly copying it.

The store has the same layout, almost the same color scheme, similar light fixtures and other furniture, and the Microsoft logo is even in the same place as the Apple logo.

Walking past felt like seeing some strange alternate universe, incredibly familiar yet different.

After the mall, I drove south to Santa Cruz.

The highway goes up and over the Santa Cruz Mountains.

At this time of day it has lots of traffic.

It also has tight curves and steep slopes, so my mountain skills came in handy.

Along the way, I had another rite of road trip passage of sorts.

Although it is not marked, I crossed the famous San Andreas Fault for the first time.

The fault sits where the North American and Pacific tectonic plates slowly push past each other.

This particular crack in the Earth's crust has caused much pain to California over the years in the form of earthquakes.

Two of these destroyed San Francisco (in 1906, see San Francisco Modern) and Santa Cruz (in 1989).


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