Friday, September 01, 2006

silicon valley soliloquy

I just came back from a drive through Sunnyvale and memory presses on me. This is not truth, this is a dream, a metaphor, an ornately carved box into which the essence of Silicon Valley will be laid.

The late eighties to late nineties was a weird time in Silicon Valley. It really could be defined as the cocaine era, or perhaps the second cocaine era of the twentieth century. Circumstances had a few parallels to the Roaring Twenties too: strong stock market growth and what bluestockings would call loose behavior. That cycle started in the decadent teens; engineers swapping wives and smoking a lot of dope started in the late seventies.

We graduated to coke because we needed that shit to stay up and write the most beautiful pieces of code, design the coolest boxes. It was the secret fuel that drove all this groundbreaking innovation. We came in to work at eight and stayed till midnight, slept at desks, played with toys supplied by the company, ate gourmet goodies stocked in the kitchen, drank at the St James Infirmary, screwed women in the tree-bordered parking lots of smaller companies, which didn't have security guards cycling through.

And as cokeheads often eventually implode, so went the Valley. Where the Infirmary was now stands a hotel that looks less than three years old, but has that lineless, boxy, cheap look. The companies began to expect employees to live at work because we loved our work. But shortly after that, we started to wake up and realize we'd get paid the same whether we put in forty hours or a hundred. Of course, working forty would put you on the shit list, the first wave to get the pink slips. But there was always another place around the corner that could use a good engineer.

And then India showed up, with their great, intense, jangling minds plunging into software. What the hell was Mumbai? It didn't matter, because the CFOs realized they could pay these guys a quarter of what they were paying us. Four of them working together made better code than a single American engineer stuffing his nose with blow and enjoying an intimate, exclusive relationship with his SparcStation.

The bottom line. The love of the dollar above all other things killed the Valley. The entire place became an investment. A big government contractor is gone, replaced by Lowe's Home Improvement. The strip malls have gotten bigger, as if they hadn't been enormous already. Families with kids populate the sidewalks, back to as it was in the fifties.

People who did things for the love of doing them got the ax. People who understood the entire job of creating a machine from the circuits to the user interface got compartmentalized into one thing or the other. The HP Way got dug up and obliterated from the map for an overpass made of paper.

I grew up there, professionally speaking. Driving through tonight, the aura is gone. The mad-scientist joyride of innovation, the fucked-upness, the charisma, the surge, are all gone. Silicon Valley is not a place. It was a segment of time, and that time is over.

No comments: