Heart of Blandness: A Walking Tour of Silicon Valley
We all know Silicon Valley, whether we want to or not. It's where the carefully cultivated children of privilege go to make immense amounts of money -- not so much by selling goods and services to regular people, for a profit, but by selling companies to other Silicon Valley companies. It's a Ponzi scheme that nobody there really complains about, because everyone is pretty wealthy at the start. Failure in "the Valley" usually means a buyout, or exile as a consultant or freelancer, still providing a standard of living far beyond what 90 percent of Americans will ever enjoy.
Silicon Valley is also marketed as The Future of Humanity.
But as a human landscape, it's a crushingly boring sunny suburban slab of freeways, fast food, traffic, and long smoggy boulevards of faded retail sprawling out to endless housing developments of sand-colored stucco boxes. It's Phoenix with milder weather, Orlando minus the mosquitos.
Tech-loving travelers come from around the world to see Silicon Valley, but there's nothing to see -- no Times Square, no French Quarter, just low-rise office parks and security guards circling the parking lots. Could anything be gained by walking from corporate landmark to corporate landmark? Maybe not, but two days of walking always beats two days of looking at a computer, even if I'd be walking from technology company to technology company. [...]
Take a tour of Wall Street and you'll find dozens of fancy restaurants where you can order a steak and a martini and listen to traders bitch about their bosses and their wives. Silicon Valley doesn't encourage lunches "off campus," so every big tech company has a master chef overseeing a menu of delicious and fresh food. The employees have no reason to leave -- gyms, coffee, even haircuts and routine car maintenance can be handled without leaving the mothership.
This makes the employees entirely dependent on the company for every aspect of life. And it ensures that the surrounding neighborhoods are completely starved of people and decent places to eat. The restaurant closest to Apple's world famous headquarters at One Infinite Loop is some dubious Marie Calendar's-style mall diner called "BJ's." Within a few blocks, it's all liquor stores and check-cashing joints and freeway overpasses.
The Facebook office park is surrounded by marshland, at the edge of the unfashionably rundown East Palo Alto, but again the campus is so insulated from whatever's around that it hardly matters. You drive in, you park, you leave when it's time to sleep. Across the giant boulevard is a construction site -- the new Facebook campus, a self-contained rectangle that might as well be on an island -- and a mini-mall with a taco stand, a nail parlor and a Jack in the Box.
This is one of many times when I realize that walking the entirety of Silicon Valley is not illuminating at all. Nobody at Facebook walks this rotten road with its mile-long run-down apartment complexes and the Comcast bill collector leaving shutoff notices on the doors. Nobody at Facebook cares about East Palo Alto's terrible murder rate. Besides, that will all be fixed in a few years, when these last "bad neighborhoods" are recolonized and rehabilitated by the pioneering young couples making ends meet on combined annual salaries of $250,000.
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