A History of Silicon Valley

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These are excerpts from Piero Scaruffi's book
"A History of Silicon Valley"

(Copyright © 2016 Piero Scaruffi)

The Selfies (2011-16)

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Culture and Society

The years of the Great Recession (2008-11) witnessed the beginning of a significant migration of high-tech companies or of their employees from Silicon Valley towards San Francisco. One reason was certainly that over the years San Francisco had invested in improving its "look and feel" (especially for young people) whereas Silicon Valley remained one of the ugliest urban landscapes in the world with virtually no aesthetic appeal for young people. San Francisco also offered the convenience of neighborhood stores and decent public transportation versus Silicon Valley's giant malls and chronically congested roads. The Great Recession of 2008-11 had greatly affected the average family, and certainly a lot of the artists and musicians who formed the backbone of San Francisco's intellectual life, while the employees of companies like Google and Facebook had been getting richer, and their purchasing power had skyrocketed.

By the end of that recession more and more Silicon Valley employees had moved to San Francisco. Companies like Google were offering free shuttle rides to their employees from San Francisco to the workplace. This, in turn, encouraged even more young, single Silicon Valley people with good salaries to move to San Francisco.

A tectonic shift in lifestyle was taking place. Silicon Valley had been born between Palo Alto (Hewlett-Packard) and Mountain View (Shockley Labs). It had then drifted steadily south (Lockheed, Intel, Apple). Then the era of software had started moving the high-tech industry north: Oracle in Redwood City; Paypal, Facebook and Google in Palo Alto; Twitter in San Francisco. This may reflect both the age group and the social class of the people involved. The hardware industry (which is, after all, a kind of manufacturing industry) was originally driven by children of the working class (Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, Andy Grove, Steve Jobs) and they tended to be family men. Their natural habitat was in the suburbs. The early software heroes (Larry Ellison, Bill Joy) were also from working-class suburbia; but the post-Internet software industry (the generation of Larry Page and Peter Thiel), on the other hand, was mainly founded by young and single people who were often raised in the upper middle class. They wanted a city life: not "delis" and pubs, but European cheese stores and plenty of evening activities. San Francisco still had relatively underperforming schools compared with, say, Cupertino, but singles don't care for good schools: they don't have children to send to school. It was almost literally a "building" culture (Silicon Valley) versus a "coding" culture (San Francisco).

By 2013 this had become a sociopolitical issue: the free shuttle buses heading for Silicon Valley had come to symbolize the growing income inequality of the Bay. Real estate prices were skyrocketing in San Francisco while ordinary families were struggling to make ends meet. Rent rapidly became unaffordable for most people, causing an exodus of artists and musicians (and, in general, lower income individuals) towards Oakland. They were being replaced by what used to be called "yuppies": young urban professionals with little or no interest in the community.

In 2013 the community began to fight back: protesters targeted shuttle buses in well-publicized events. There was no way to stop the trend, though. San Francisco was home to more high-tech startups than ever in its history. Stopping the commuters from Silicon Valley wasn't going to make a huge difference.

The city was changing. For critics it was becoming "Silicon Valley with bad weather" (a reference to its cold foggy summers). For supporters (and speculators) it was becoming an incredible business opportunity. Silicon Valley, meanwhile, struggled to retain its charisma. It was still charismatic for millions of foreigners who knew it only from books and movies; but anyone living there had little praise for Silicon Valley's poor infrastructure and spartan buildings. Some defended Silicon Valley's plain, unsophisticated, uncultured, sober appearance as representing the spirit of the garage startups.

In 2014 San Francisco, a city with less a million people, received 16% of all US venture investment. Venture capital was clearly moving back from Menlo Park to San Francisco. The number for Palo Alto was still impressive though (4.8%), given how small the town was.

Despite the high-tech invasion, San Francisco was increasingly a city of contradictions. San Francisco was a place in which people already lived in the future. They could hang out with their friends even when they were alone, thanks to social media. They inhabited a "sharing economy": they could book a weeklong stay in a cool apartment through Airbnb, which had disrupted the hotel industry, or hire a luxury car anywhere in the city through the mobile app Uber. However, instead of using a bullet train to travel somewhere for the weekend, they were trapped in a city with below-standard transportation. Instead of paying with their smartphone they still paid with credit cards. Their Internet connections were the slowest in the Pacific region. They proudly streamed movies at ridiculously slow speeds. They took buses that ran on diesel and, if they ever wanted to visit Berkeley across the Bay, they took a medieval-style subway called BART, and, if they ever wanted to visit Silicon Valley down south, they took a medieval-style train called Caltrain (or, worse, "express buses" that were slower than the average run-down bus of a developing country). There were neither multi-layered monorails nor magnetic-levitation trains (not to mention good-looking skyscrapers. The people who worked in the high-tech industry self-congratulated all the time about how futuristic their lives were (one reason being that they rarely took a vacation that would allow them to check how the rest of the world actually lived). Ironically, it was the people who "didn't" work in the high-tech industry who realized how "low-tech" the Bay Area was, because those were the people traveling for vacation in Asia and Europe.

The culture around the Bay Area had changed a lot in terms of sharing information. In fact, the new corporations had created a kind of police state in which employees were not allowed to say anything about their project (and often not even "what" project they worked on).

And, of course, the spreading of the high-tech industry had created a mono-culture that increasingly had no clue who Kafka or Monet were, that was wiping out decades of avantgarde music and legions of eccentric artists and performers.

It was emblematic that in 2015 only one art gallery remained at the fabled address of 77 Geary St, a multi-story building that had hosted several galleries for at least three decades. It was emblematic of the whole art scene around Union Square. Philanthropists abounded, but they were not interested in the arts. In 2012 Sergey Brin (Google), his wife Anne Wojcicki (23andMe) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) joined forces with Jack Ma (Alibaba) and Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner to establish a new international award, the Breakthrough Prize, for math and science; hardly a way to encourage young people to become artists.

A glimmer of hope came in 2015 when Silicon Valley venture capitalist Andy Rappaport and his wife, Deborah, acquired some abandoned warehouses at 1275 Minnesota Street and turned them into a new cultural center. In 2016 the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art expanded to become the largest museum of contemporary art in the Americas.

Burning Man had become a tourist attraction for boring nerds and rich European kids. In 2015 the city hardly noticed the centennial of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, although two years earlier Leo Villareal had built the world's largest light sculpture. In 2011 Autodesk acquired Instructables, a portal for do-it-yourself projects founded in 2005 in San Francisco by MIT Media Lab alumni Eric Wilhelm and Saul Griffith. At the same time Autodesk launched its own artists-in-residence program, located the renovated Pier 9 of San Francisco's port.
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A net beneficiary of the exodus of intellectuals and artists from San Francisco was Oakland. In 2013 a group of technology hackers, political activists, scientists, artists and writers renovated a building in Oakland, renamed it Omni Commons, and turned it into a free space for building an interdisciplinary community. Among the early tenants were the poetry publishers Timeless and Infinite Light, the hackerspace Sudo Room, the biohacker space Counter Culture Labs, and the film-making collective Black Hole. In 2014 Oakland launched its largest revitalization project since World War II, Brooklyn Basin, an entire new neighborhood by the sea (incidentally codeveloped with a Beijing-based company, Zarsion, the largest investment by China in California ever).

Increasingly, the great demented ideas were coming from other cities, not from the San Francisco Bay Area. For example, it was New York University students Sam Lavigne and Amelia Winger-Bearskin who organized the first "Stupid Hackathon" in 2014, a one-day hackathon devoted to create projects that have no value whatsoever. For example, Sam Lavigne built a Google Glass app that makes the user vomit, while Miklos Pataky and Carl Jamilkowski wrote NonAd Block, a browser extension that blocks all web content that isn't an advert. The idea spread rapidly to Europe and to San Francisco.

click here for the other sections of the chapter "The Selfies (2011-16)"
(Copyright © 2016 Piero Scaruffi)

Table of Contents | Timeline of Silicon Valley | A photographic tour | History pages | Editor | Correspondence