Silicon Valley Has Amnesia
Why can’t Silicon Valley build itself a single decent monument?
This article is part of Into the Valley, a feature series from OneZero about Silicon Valley, the people who live there, and the technology they create.
With its basketball and tennis courts, children’s playground, baseball diamond, and soccer field, south San Jose’s RAMAC Park is indistinguishable from any other suburban recreational facility. But there’s something that sets it apart: RAMAC Park is probably the only park in the United States named after a 70-year-old piece of computer technology — the world’s first hard disk drive. You wouldn’t know that from visiting. There’s no informational sign in sight.
The only clue sits across a distinctly un-pedestrian-friendly avenue, in the parking lot of a Lowe’s Home Improvement store. There, in the middle of a sea of SUVs, stands a memorial, a rectangular framework of girders enclosing a small reflecting pool. A nearby sign spells it all out:
“You are standing on part of the former IBM Cottle Road Campus, a pioneering research and manufacturing facility in San Jose. Immediately behind you once stood Advanced Research Building 025, an important laboratory in the 1950s and 1960s.”
If you turn around, all there is to see now is an AutoZone.
Silicon Valley has a reputation for hurtling headlong into the future, for moving fast and breaking things and elevating the concept of “disruption” into a guiding ideology. But the price of the area’s focus on the future may also be a failure to fully appreciate its past. The few existing plaques and memorials that commemorate the region’s history feel like pallid afterthoughts.
San Jose recently approved a plan to spend $1 million building an “iconic landmark” to Silicon Valley in a downtown city park, but the request for proposal for “the most meaningful structure in the history of this hot bed of opportunities” reads like a parody: “Combine the spirit of the Eiffel Tower with the breathtaking gift of the Statue of Liberty, add the possibility of civic transformation witnessed with the Guggenheim Bilbao, mix with the profound power of majestic landscape…” Submissions close April 3.
Take the “birthplace” of Silicon Valley, or rather, the three of them. That’s because no one can agree which one really holds the crown. At 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto sits a modest home with a setback garage. Here, William Hewlett and David Packard built their first audio oscilloscope. Today, a plaque declares that “this garage is the birthplace of the world’s first high-technology region, ‘Silicon Valley.’”
Five miles to the south, at 391 San Antonio Road in Mountain View, sits an office complex currently leased to Facebook. This used to be the home of Shockley Semiconductor, the company that brought silicon transistor technology to California in 1956. Now a few sculptures of diodes and transistors sprout from the sidewalk. Other than that, there’s just a plaque commemorating the “Birthplace of Silicon Valley.”
And then there’s Building 25, IBM’s pioneering research center, now replaced by an AutoZone and a parking lot. Erected in 1956, the same year Shockley set up shop in Mountain View, Building 25 made a clear architectural statement that the future was being designed and manufactured in south San Jose. A whimsical “HydroGyro” sculpture once loomed over an L-shaped pool, evoking fanciful sci-fi imagery that would’ve been right at home on the cover of a contemporaneous Asimov or Heinlein paperback novel. For veterans of the hard drive industry, the RAMAC drive that was designed and manufactured here — the first digital device to make real-time storage and retrieval of information possible — was the valley’s original killer app. But Building 25 is no more.
“From the very beginning, [Silicon Valley] has been peopled… by people from somewhere else. It’s a transitory place that fetishizes youth.”
“From the perspective of 2020,” the architectural critic Alexandra Lange, who once wrote an appreciation of the Building 25 memorial, told me via email, “I would say that [the replacement of Building 25 by an AutoZone] demonstrates that the tech industry neither understands nor appreciates its own past as a physical entity.”
Silicon Valley, says Margaret O’Mara, author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America, is “remarkably uninformed” about its own past. For her, its sense of rootlessness starts with Cold War-inspired military spending that juiced the early growth of the semiconductor industry and the internet. That origin story is uncomfortable for both hard-core libertarian free market worshippers and believers in the Valley’s own myth-making about “think different” entrepreneurial rule-breakers. But it also encompasses something more profound about the mindset of the Valley.
“From the very beginning,” O’Mara says, “it has been peopled… by people from somewhere else. It’s a transitory place that fetishizes youth. There is also an essential placelessness built into the geography of the Valley itself — it’s a string of suburbs that were once farming towns. What is the town square of Silicon Valley? Is it the main quad of Stanford? Is it the main street of Facebook’s original campus?”
Popular culture may have lost its appetite for the kind of self-congratulatory myth-making that has passed for Silicon Valley history. When it was announced, the San Jose memorial project was widely mocked. But sincere reflection on how we got to where we are now is essential for navigating futures yet to come.
“The great danger of ignoring not just history,” says O’Mara, “but the broader political, economic, and social forces that made that history possible is that when you collide with history as the big tech companies are doing now, collide with politics and economics and the social fabric, you are not equipped to figure out how to get out of that.”
There is one destination in the Valley that does, fairly successfully, bring the region’s past into focus. The Computer History Museum in Mountain View is a temple honoring the physical remains of generations of computer hardware that gives proper credit to the role of the military-industrial complex in spurring Silicon Valley’s growth. Walking through its exhibition rooms is a unique experience; the collection of baroque artifacts feels simultaneously futuristic and antique.
The Computer History Museum even has a working RAMAC. I came by the museum just as a pair of volunteers were running the machine through its paces in a demo. They used a contemporary laptop to send commands to a motorized arm that zipped up and down a stack of 24 two-foot-in-diameter spinning platters reading data encoded by an IBM customer in the 1960s. The results were then piped to a large flat screen suspended above the RAMAC.
From an engineering perspective, it was an impressive sight. The first hard drive, still functioning, while the buildings where it had been designed and manufactured were long gone and the people who had created it were likely dead. But there was also an unmistakable irony.
No one at the Computer History Museum was sure what the data being retrieved — a gobbledygook of names, addresses, and long strings of numbers — actually meant. The best guess was that they represented some kind of corporate accounting information. We seemed to be watching the ghost of a company ledger scroll by. The machine “worked.” But what did it mean? No one knew. That much was lost to history.