Valhalla of the Idiots Savant
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March 01, 2000

I recently moved from Manhattan, which I assumed to be America's zenith of solipsism, materialism and arrogance, to California's famed Silicon Valley. I have been surprised.

Don't get me wrong: people here are nice. But the flip side of this is a thin skin that makes you guard everything you say. People freak out if you are aggressive or sarcastic. Worse, they seem to have forgotten what sarcasm is and take you literally.

And they are arrogant - indeed more arrogant than New Yorkers, though differently. New York arrogance is an investment banker who thinks he's better than the rest of the world because he has money. Silicon Valley arrogance is a computer nerd who thinks the rest of the world is irrelevant because he has a mouse. People like him are going to leave the rest of the world behind in a cloud of dust, dontcha know?

The root of this is that so many of the companies out here are run by entrepreneurs for whom the company is not just a company but their principal creative expression in life. You don't dare treat their precious baby like just another corporation. There is a whole level of insufferable preciousness about the glory of marginal little halfwit companies that is virtually unheard of anywhere else.

Silicon Valley's fatal flaw is that it is an environment optimized for one thing only. Because there is only one industry here, all the people are interested in that one thing. And they just keep meeting other people who are interested in the same thing. This quickly makes them conclude it is the only important thing in the world.

New York may be dominated by Wall Street, but it has other industries like the arts and media and fashion and diplomacy, so people are constantly confronted by other people who don't care about their little corner of the world and don't mind saying so. Everyone is stimulated and kicked around and forced to have a broader view of the world and what goes on in it. Living here, I have even come to miss - what a thought! - the resentnik Village Voice leftist political nutcases who abound in New York, simply because they perform the valuable service of puncturing self-satisfied capitalist narcissism.

Of course, Silicon Valley is much better-run, cleaner, more efficient, and generally more pleasant than New York. But this warm place disappoints, nonetheless - particularly given that it represents the technological cutting edge of the planet. The propaganda is that Silicon Valley is giving birth to a whole new world. But in fact it's just a well-landscaped technological ghetto.

It's amazing how ignorant of other things people with advanced technical knowledge can be. This place is truly the Valhalla of the Idiots Savant. What's worse, they think it's weird that anyone would want to carry anything around in their head that didn't have something to do with the job. God forbid you'd want to know where the country you live in came from or why your culture is what it is. The few exceptions to this - it's acceptable to be an expert on Star Trek lore, for instance - only prove the rule. (Science fiction is the true literary culture of this place - the source of mutually-recognizable references and images.) I suspect a lot of nerds here secretly despise present-day society for not being advanced enough, and feel they were born too soon. People here know a lot about history; it just happens to be history that hasn't happened yet.

The profession of computers seems to corrupt people's understanding of the real world. In this virtual world, where everything is frictionless, the inhabitants forget that there's a real world which operates according to very different rules. In a computer program, you can pretty much design things the way you want. What works on paper, works. Even the hardware types, who succeed in cramming more transistors onto a chip with each passing year, come to assume that all problems are susceptible to technological brute force. Or to "innovation," which is a mantra here. If these people ran the government, they'd change the Constitution more often than their socks. If ceaseless change is good in the computer business, it must be good everywhere.

Silicon Valley people are actively hostile to non-technical intelligence. For example, I suspect the bosses don't want their employees to be savvy about politics, or they might start asking difficult questions. Not that this place is a Marxist hellhole of exploitation, mind you - even the lower technical people are decently well paid. But they get screwed, nonetheless. The Information Technology Association of America is lobbying for the unlimited right to import cheap foreigners to replace all those expensive Americans. And the rank-and-file don't complain about it.

Firstly, the rank-and-file are just too dumb about politics - and too trained in the mantra that politics is irrelevant - to organize to protect their own interests. Secondly, they identify with their employers because they all expect to be stock-option millionaires one day. Thirdly, their minds have been sozzled with the kind of vague libertarianism that doesn't have the sense to ask whether the freedom of a foreigner to take their job is really the kind of freedom that anyone with more sense than a white mouse would ever support.

Of course, these "libertarians" are the same people who ran crying to Uncle Sam when some ugly Neanderthal from Seattle ate their lunch. But you can't expect philosophical consistency from people whose idea of philosophy is Robert Heinlein.

They can afford a lot of stupidity. Money covers this place like a dull haze, sharpening appetites and dulling wits. There's a real charade going on here with "non-hierarchical workplaces." This means that, although the actual salary differentials are the same as in any other industry, everyone wears T-shirts and lunches at the same burrito joints and we pretend we're living in some brave new world. I just want to know, in a world where CEO's dress like golf pros, what do golf pros dress like?

The odd thing is, while this is all done in the name of easy-going tolerance, you don't dare put on a suit and tie. I've tried, and you find yourself apologizing to people, as if you had used overly correct grammar in front of the uneducated.

The whole tone of Silicon Valley is very un-American. There is no consciousness of national identity at all. Silicon Valley people wouldn't know what to do with such a thing. Americans are just another ethnic group. And why shouldn't they be? We don't care about physical space anymore, now that we have this virtual cyberspace, do we? National borders are surely irrelevant.

Of course, they find out to their puzzlement that you can't download the one thing that everyone in America wants: the single-family suburban house. The old hierarchies have a nasty way of reasserting themselves in a mountain-hemmed valley with a limited supply of buildable land.

Silicon Valley people really do think that this is the first speculative boom in the history of capitalism, the first group of instant millionaires, the first time lives were changed by technology. And they have preposterous ideas about the size of the social changes their technologies are bringing about. I have yet to see a single significant social change brought about by the Web, for example. I recently heard someone say that the world financial system was going to be turned on its head because it was now possible to send $100 million from NY to London at the push of a button. I asked him when this had first become possible. He guessed 1982. No, that would be 1866, when the transatlantic telegraph went on-line.

Silicon Valley people assume that the more advanced a technology, the bigger its social impact has to be. This is of course first-order nonsense, as anyone can see by comparing the effects of the Freon air conditioner - without which America would have no Sunbelt - to the moon landing, which had no social consequences at all. It's all part of the assumption - a kind of breezily warmed-over Engelsian Marxism that doesn't even know that's what it is - that technology is what really drives history. Everything else is either entertainment or just a sideshow of people squabbling over the products of the machines.

This leads to a breezy confidence that, since technology is ultimately what matters, and they understand technology, they don't have to worry about anything else. I had someone tell me the other day that politics is "irrelevant." Of course, this fellow didn't think about the fact that everything he does, starting with the very fact that California is (for now) part of the United States and not Mexico, and a capitalist country, is a product of politics.

A popular silly idea around here is that the Web will soon usher in direct democracy. This in a place that has one of the lowest voter participation rates for any area of comparable affluence in the country. Go figure. Maybe Silicon Valley people will care by then.

Which may not be a good thing. All that money could make these people politically influential, but they're not that bright with how they spend it, as shown by the way Bill Gates, after feeding liberal causes for a decade, got bitten by Clinton's Justice Dept. Should have asked for a receipt for all that protection money! Not everyone here is liberal, but the affluent liberalism you do hear from people has a depressing naiveté about it. They genuinely believe that the Democrats are the party of compassion, and say things like, "I'm rich, and I want to help the less fortunate." And rich people naturally assume they have great judgment about everything else, so they're adamant in their opinions. I'm quite sure some even think it's desperately original to be rich and liberal.

There's speculation that the vast wealth being piled up in Silicon Valley may soon produce a cultural efflorescence akin to the boom in art, music and architecture that accompanied New York's rise to prominence in the first half of the 20th century. I doubt it. People here just aren't interested in such things. Some of the big fortunes here will end up in charitable foundations and some of this will wind up in the arts. But this is likely to happen in San Francisco, which is where interesting people here move to when they've made their pile.

The only conclusion can be that for the foreseeable future, Silicon Valley will be a very efficient production platform for a certain kind of useful machinery. But in terms of making something of itself uniquely interesting as a human community, forget it. All those things are really, in economists' terms, externalities. And this place is just too efficient to allow any.

P.S. If you want an accurate depiction of what Silicon Valley is like, read the novel Microserfs by Douglas Coupland. It's all quite true.

Robert Locke (email him) is a former associate editor at (archive here).

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