A couple of weeks ago, I was in New York City for a conference, and a local author, hearing where I lived, asked me to describe Silicon Valley.
At first, I wasn’t sure how to respond. In writing about technology for thirty years, I’d steeped myself in the history of the valley (there are those who trace its origins all the way back to the California Gold Rush). But she wasn’t interested in history. She was interested in now. I suppose to outsiders, it does seem like an intriguing place. But like most places, it has two sides. I described both to her.
The most famous side of Silicon Valley is the one of lore, though it is no less real for being famous, because dreams do come true here. The people that live here are dynamically and manically focused on solving problems through technology, of making the future better, so much so that it bristles and sizzles with the seemingly osmotic exchange of ideas and innovation. In that valley, financial lightning can strike in a flash, bestowing untold winnings akin to a lottery.
The flip side of Silicon Valley, I told her, is just as real, but less shiny. It is a valley of overwhelmed infrastructure, of too many cars and not enough roads, of too many buildings and too little water, of too many people and not enough public transportation.
It is a valley where all those untold winnings trigger their own nightmares. People with inflated home values stay put sell to avoid whopping capital gains taxes. Government mandated tax loopholes like Proposition 13 keep people in their houses long after they’re working, or enable them to retain low tax rates by bequeathing those homes to their children. The tech lottery winners drive up the cost of the remaining housing stock. Lines at stores stretch on Saturday afternoons because no one being paid minimum wage can afford to live here.
That was my capsule explanation for this author. I likened it to the original California Gold Rush, where only a few miners struck it rich, and the rest went home empty-handed. But for many – now and then – the air buzzed, and people lived in a time and place that they could tell their grandchildren about.
I neglected to elaborate, but there’s more, and it’s worrisome. Part of this perspective, I admit, comes from our decision to flee the valley for quieter climes, and can be attributed, truthfully, to justification and rationalization for that decision. But still …
The cracks are beginning to show. The winners in Silicon Valley exhibit an excessive level of entitlement and competitiveness, whether it’s beating someone in something as big as a deal or as trivial as a parking space. The losers in Silicon Valley exhibit an increasing level of anxiety, whether it’s trying to pick up a child from day care before penalties ensue or figuring out which bill to pay.
The problem is that on the surface, entitlement and anxiety pretty much look the same. There’s a difference between being desperate and being an asshole, but it’s impossible to discern whether someone acting like an idiot deserves scorn or sympathy. And that makes life extremely difficult, even when you’ve grown up here and seen so many changes transpire already.
It’s easier to just leave, and that’s the saddest part of all.