When my wife and I flew across the country from Baltimore to the Silicon Valley in 2012 to present a then-fledgling robot project at a Python conference, I had no idea that I’d soon move to this place and never want to leave. Driving around Santa Clara near the convention center where the conference took place, I saw building after building adorned with the logos of services and products I had used all my life — Evernote, Cisco, TiVo — with the tracks of the VTA light rail wending their way through it all. It was thrilling.
We found ourselves returning more and more. While walking through Terminal 2 at SFO and standing on the platform of the AirTrain on one visit, I remember seeing impossibly specific B2B advertisements for tech products like server room cooling systems and enterprise routers. I knew that this was home.
At the time, the weight of the Valley’s new responsibility as a mediator of world culture and information had not yet set in, and the “change the world” and “do no evil” culture was still very present, totally unqualified and unironic. Much about the Valley has changed since then. Much has not changed enough. Yet the Valley remains the tech world’s economic and cultural powerhouse, driving the most consequential (and most destructive) innovations of our times.
The region got America to the moon — and helped it amass the most dangerous arsenal of weapons known to man.
Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland, California that “There’s no there there.” Through a process of collective reworking, the aphorism has come, over decades, to refer to another place: Silicon Valley. And it’s true — the Valley has no focal point, no center. You can drive through it for hours — winding your way from Sunnyvale up past Mountain View (skirting San Jose), through Palo Alto, and on into the semi-industrial gloom of South San Francisco — without ever knowing you’ve passed through it.
The Valley has no center, yet it’s one of the most exciting, dynamic, innovative places in the world. Despite other regions’ attempts to unseat it, Silicon Valley still attracted more venture capital money ($45.9 billion) in 2019 than its three top competitors combined. With $128,308 in per-capita GDP, it is the most productive region in America and the second most productive in the world. It has the highest-paid workers — and the most expensive housing.
Google, Facebook, Apple, Tesla, and Intel all have their headquarters in the Valley, and nearly every major tech company — from Amazon to Nintendo — has a Silicon Valley presence. Oracle and Hewlett-Packard were birthed there, in a Santa Clara office park and a Palo Alto garage, respectively. The region got America to the moon — and helped it amass the most dangerous arsenal of weapons known to man. The Valley brought the world such things as the amplifying vacuum tube, radar, integrated circuits, the relational database, LEDs, the PC, and the iPhone. For tech people, the Valley is the white-hot, beating heart of the universe — and has been for over half a century.
The Birthplace of the Hard Drive is Now an AutoZone Parking Lot
Why can’t Silicon Valley build itself a single decent monument?
As another business we were involved with wound down in 2013, my wife and I made it official and moved across the country to the Bay Area. We settled in the East Bay — perched on the edge of the Valley, yet just a bit separated physically and culturally from it. I love the Valley, but I’m not sure I would want to live there. Being just outside it yields connection, but also enough distance not to be embedded in Valley life. As a trained cultural anthropologist, I value the perspective that this allows.
Even in the East Bay, our rent went up 22% after Twitter and Facebook’s IPOs.
We arrived in California at a pivotal moment for Valley life. Facebook had just completed its IPO, and Twitter would go public a few months after we arrived. There was enough new public money in the Valley that the bootstrapped-startup, live-on-ramen-noodles-and-code-all-night ethos of the early 2000s was largely dead. Yet the world’s collective reckoning with tech’s lack of diversity, moderation problems, monopolistic behavior, and tendency to spread misinformation had yet to begin.
It was a time both optimistic and nostalgic. The previous decade’s Valley life was fading, as newly rich engineers — buoyed by millions in suddenly tradable stocks and options — bought up impossibly expensive homes in San Francisco and decamped from Mountain View and Palo Alto. Even in the East Bay, our rent went up 22% after Twitter and Facebook’s IPOs.
The Valley has always been a region of intense contrasts. It’s a place that’s both very serious and very encouraging of strangeness and experimentation — massively wealthy, yet almost entirely devoid of the formality that normally accompanies intense wealth. It’s the kind of place where massive, world-altering deals are often made over coffee at Coupa Cafe or schnitzel and beer at Esther’s German Bakery.
It’s also the kind of place where you can drive past the headquarters of Google — one of the most powerful companies in the world — and casually happen upon a bunch of engineers testing self-driving cars by doing giant, slow-motion donuts around light poles and Porta Potties in an abandoned, dirt-covered parking lot, their vibrantly colored Google Bikes casually abandoned on a nearby sidewalk.
Just a few miles away, other engineers at a place like Lockheed Martin might be developing a nuclear missile guidance system. And every few months, the companies’ engineers might trade places. Supported in part by California’s ban on non-compete agreements, it’s standard practice for Valley engineers to drift from company to company, sometimes as often as every six months.
Companies tolerate this practice in part because it encourages the sharing of ideas and expertise. Like bees flitting from flower to flower, the Valley’s engineering talent constantly moves around, cross-pollinating the region’s companies as they do so. This leads to innovation, but also sometimes crushing group-think which can make the Valley remarkably insular, and remarkably convinced that everyone thinks like those living in Menlo Park or Palo Alto.
Fairchild begat Kleiner Perkins, which begat Google, which begat Uber. And so on.
It also leads to some truly bizarre benefits and perks, intended to keep talent at a given company for as long as possible. On Wall Street, firms can retain staff members in a similarly competitive environment by offering them ungodly sums of money. But in my own experience with the Valley, it’s remarkably true how little money motivates many of the region’s brightest — even as they amass gobs and gobs of it. So companies find other ways.
One prominent Valley company (I can’t say which one, because when I visited they made me sign an NDA, that they printed out and had me wear around my neck on a lanyard until I left) re-created a Disneyland-esque version of downtown Palo Alto entirely within the confines of their own walled-off headquarters. In this fantasyland, the fake streets sparkle and everything is free. The lurking problems of the region — like extreme poverty and homelessness in nearby East Palo Alto — are totally absent from the company’s simulated city, and engineers can sip artisan lattes without the fear that they might encounter someone poor or downtrodden.
Other companies (especially newer ones) compete by offering staff members remarkable levels of freedom and control, even if they’ve just recently completed college (or chosen to eschew it). Unlimited vacation and totally flexible working hours are already staples of the Valley (these largely don’t matter, since Valley employees work all the time anyway), but startups often place even their youngest staff members in charge of huge outsourced teams and millions in venture capital money. It’s a common trade-off to choose between the security of a job at Google or Facebook and the excitement of life at a small startup (or to choose one direction and then switch course every year or so).
The Valley has always been like this. A giant mural at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View depicts a tree, with each leaf and branch representing a different iconic Valley company. The tree’s trunk is Fairchild Semiconductor — the region’s seminal company and the one that put the “silicon” in Silicon Valley. As the tree’s branches expand and rise, they morph from the early semiconductor companies that joined Fairchild in the 1960s (Applied Materials, Intel), to the companies that launched the personal computer in the 1970s (Apple, KLA), to iconic companies of the internet era (Google, eBay) on and up to the third-wave social media companies of today (Snapchat, Instagram).
It’s a visual reminder that the Valley has always achieved a strange kind of alchemy — morphing legacy companies into something new and compelling, and then dismantling them (sometimes only a few decades later) to build whatever comes next. The Valley’s constant churn of people and ideas keeps this process going. One company becomes boring — its hard problems already solved — and so the staff decamp to some new startup (or exit and found a venture firm), taking the best elements of their work (and massive amounts of capital) with them. Fairchild begat Kleiner Perkins, which begat Google, which begat Uber. And so on.
There’s a new recognition in the Valley that tech’s problems are the world’s problems and that not all issues are best solved with software.
Although the Valley has no clear center, it has a variety of regions, each with their own unique physical and cultural geography. The boundaries of the Valley are often debated (the Census Bureau considers the entire San Francisco region to be Silicon Valley), but nearly everyone agrees that the towns of Mountain View, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Santa Clara, Cupertino, and Sunnyvale constitute the Valley’s core.
Encompassing Stanford University — which provides a constant stream of highly educated talent to Valley companies — Palo Alto is a college town, as well as the home to many newly-launched startups. It has one of the only true downtowns in the Valley, and University Avenue (its central thoroughfare) is a good candidate for Silicon Valley’s Main Street. Mountain View feels more residential and suburban, but also houses the ever-expanding headquarters of Google, as well as NASA’s Ames Research center and several of the Valley’s defense contractors. Santa Clara is almost entirely commercial and outwards-facing, with the convention center I originally visited in 2012, and the comically out-of-place Levi Stadium, a massive sports complex in a region that largely couldn’t care less about such things.
Sunnyvale and Cupertino are Apple country — the landing place of the company’s sparkly, insular campus, which locals call the Spaceship. Menlo Park is almost entirely given over to Facebook’s headquarters, which is perched on the edge of the Bay and served as the inspiration for Tom Hank’s godawful 2018 movie The Circle.
The nearby towns of Los Altos and Los Gatos are almost entirely suburban, with tony, tree-lined streets flanked by the residences of exited entrepreneurs, CEOs, and the Valley’s wealthiest elites. Foster City and Redwood City are largely the domain of older, more established Valley companies and transplants, like Oracle and SAP. San Jose has long tried to establish itself as the Valley’s major city. It has largely succeeded economically (housing the headquarters of Adobe and Zoom, among many others) and totally failed culturally. Many residents of Mountain View or Palo Alto wouldn’t consider San Jose part of the Valley, much less its center.
Nearly all of the money flowing into Valley companies — at least until they’re public — comes from venture capital firms clustered in one tiny enclave on Sand Hill Road, just north of Stanford’s campus. At a single intersection you can walk around briefly and see the headquarters of Sequoia Capital, Kleiner Perkins, Silicon Valley Bank, Andreessen Horowitz and New Enterprise Associates, among others. An intrepid founder could raise $100 million without getting 10,000 steps on their Fitbit, just by strolling between their offices.
I’m a professional photographer. In 2016, I remember walking near my Walnut Creek apartment, and wondering what it would be like to photograph a cultural moment — to be one of the photographers who was there at Woodstock, or to document the Summer of Love. Then I realized I was in the middle of one. So I grabbed my camera and started shooting. The result was Visualizing the Valley, a photo series documenting Silicon Valley — its people, places, culture, technologies, and constantly-churning sea of institutions and companies. Four years later, the series contains 1,144 photos. I fully expect to work on it for the rest of my life.
In the years since I arrived in California, much about the Valley has changed. The Valley’s impact on every aspect of modern life hasn’t faded at all — if anything, it’s intensified. But it’s a different kind of intensity. There’s an increased awareness of tech’s power, and its capacity to remake and sometimes to destroy. When I first came to the Valley, a company like Facebook could still print letterpress posters in bright red ink calling on employees to “move fast and break things.” Today, the same posters read “Nothing at Facebook is somebody else’s problem” and “Black Lives Matter.” There’s a new recognition in the Valley that tech’s problems are the world’s problems, and that not all issues are best solved with software.
And with that comes a certain weightiness — a sense of responsibility, costs, trade-offs, risks, and dangers. It’s not that the “change the world” ethos is gone. Silicon Valley companies still love creative destruction, and still have absurd ambitions. The ghost of Steve Jobs still lives on, too, and the trope of the asshole/visionary boss remains strong — just look at Elon Musk. The Valley is still on the cutting edge of everything tech.
But with that comes a new recognition that it’s not enough to say “Don’t be Evil.” You have to deliver on that promise with actions — and with boring but important stuff, like good corporate governance and well-designed policies. To their credit, much of this realization has come from the employees of Big Tech companies themselves. Some are organizing, and many more are calling on their companies to take meaningful steps toward more gender equality and diversity — efforts which had basically stagnated over the last several years, to the Valley’s shame.
The world is increasingly aware of Big Tech, too. When Mark Zuckerberg uttered his famous words “Senator, we run ads,” there was a real sense that the world had no idea it was in the process of being swallowed whole by Tech. That’s changed. People are aware, and many are angry. There hasn’t been such a coordinated backlash against tech in two decades, since the famous Microsoft antitrust case of 2001 and the bursting of the dot-com bubble that preceded it.
The Valley deserves some of the criticism that has been heaped upon it. Big Tech produced facial recognition (and gleefully sold it to police agencies and private individuals, in some cases), armed drones, filter bubbles, and the Motorola Razr, among other evils. But much of the backlash against tech probably has to do with its sheer ubiquity and power, and the fact that most people don’t understand it.
Seven of the 10 largest companies in the world are tech companies, according to Mozilla. Tech is everywhere — in our pockets, in our cars, even in our toasters. The Valley set out to change the world, and it’s unequivocally done so. Most people, though, would have a hard time defining what an algorithm is, or describing how their cell phone actually works. That combination of ubiquity and mystery makes it easy to read all kinds of evils onto tech and the Valley — many with deeper, less tractable roots. Mark Zuckerberg may not be the best person. But I don’t envy his job — operating a service that billions of people (and whole economies) absolutely can’t live without, yet absolutely love to disparage, blame, and drag into court.
There’s also been an increased focus on tech in the popular media, and a realization that the insanity and travails of the Valley make for great entertainment. Much of this started with The Social Network, where Jesse Eisenberg played Zuckerberg so well that many people (myself included) find the actor makes a more convincing Zuckerberg than Mark himself.
Writers don’t have to bend the truth much to make the Valley seem strange and dramatic. I find HBO’s hit show Silicon Valley unwatchable, not because it’s inaccurate, but because it portrays Valley culture so well that I find it boring — like watching a documentary on daily life. I already spend most of my time with Valley friends bantering about encryption algorithms and funding rounds. I don’t need to watch characters do it on TV.
Like every other place, Covid-19 has hit parts of the Valley hard. Yet tech has proven remarkably resilient in the face of the pandemic. For all the Valley’s focus on chance creative encounters and dramatic workspaces, tech work has proven surprisingly easy to do remotely. Many of the world’s largest and most powerful companies are now being run largely by an army of people on laptops seated at the kitchen tables (or sprawled on the beds) of their tiny Mountain View or San Francisco apartments. Many Valley companies have grown through the pandemic, and some — like Zoom — have rapidly become household names.
There’s a lot of talk right now about the idea that, with the rise of remote work, the Valley’s best and brightest will decamp in droves to other places (Austin, Texas perhaps). I don’t buy it. The Valley isn’t just a place — it’s a concept, a shared culture, a set of common values, a collection of favorable laws, a massive funding infrastructure, a constantly churning network of talent, and a legacy. The term “ecosystem” is overused. But that’s partly because it’s such a good metaphor for what the Valley has always been.
Other regions will find that hard to duplicate. Like in any diaspora, some will leave. But many will find themselves yearning for the motherland. And many will return. Even big companies that have left the Valley in favor of places like Texas are more setting up a “colony” there than truly relocating, and many have reportedly kept the bulk of their operations in the Valley.
Silicon Valley can be a challenging place. There’s the expense, the sometimes insular culture, the lack of diversity, the traffic. Yet no place on the planet has consistently churned out so much innovation, so much disruption, and so much wealth for so long. Yes, the Valley has introduced existential challenges that the world is only now fully grappling with. Sometimes, the Valley disgusts me. Yet on most days, when I drive through it, I’m still thrilled by the crush of signs screaming out the names of the hottest firms of the moment — now Verb Surgical, Bloom Energy, Tesla. I still love to be in a place where flash memory modules are acceptable dinner party conversation. And I still love those B2B ads that start the minute you exit a plane at SFO and follow 101 down into the Valley.