Rant: The Myths of Silicon Valley

California is the capital of tech but all is not perfect in the Valley

Silicon Valley is an odd place. Once, not long ago at all, it was full of orchards and a centre of fruit farming; today, it’s remarkably difficult to get a glass of fresh orange juice. Its towns vary between the pleasant and the pretty awful. You might visit San Jose with the Burt Bacharach tune in your head, expertly sung by Dionne Warwick, but you’ll leave with the memory of a low-rise, middle-class hellhole with nothing going on and nowhere to go. The whole area is ribbon roads with a changing roster of tech companies that act as hives for the world’s tech workers. The rather good eponymous TV show Silicon Valley depicts it as full of genius coders and rapacious VCs. The truth is duller as the hordes of middle men and women serve the corporate monsters and those startups that aspire to usurp them.

Little wonder that everyone is ditching the place for the delights of San Francisco, the local fulcrum of civilisation, a few miles and yet a world away from the faceless architecture and utterly diurnal Valley. Frisco, as nobody except wide-eyed tourists, calls it, is a powder-blue skied relief but it’s the Valley that obsesses politicians, entrepreneurs and others all over the world. That’s because Silicon Valley is really not much to do with silicon, especially as the hardware side of the US tech industry has bowed to the towering margins of software. It’s really Money Valley where flipping companies has become a simple methodology that every local teenager can explain in a wireframe model with added PowerPoint effects.

As long as Silicon Valley has reigned, outsiders have wanted to mimic it because money breeds money. The idea of building a living, breathing ecosystem obsesses the world. You don’t need oil, minerals or even a fancy credit rating: the ones and zeroes that built Oracle, Google, Adobe and a thousand others don’t care. But you do need to do other stuff: fund startups, link to universities, have lawyers, mentors and lots of bright people to hand.

It sounds easy but it’s not. Even today, Silicon Valley has a Teflon-like resistance to competitor geographies that have some but not all of the ingredients for success. Today though things are changing. Israel, London, Paris, Berlin and many other places are attractive hubs and very often that’s because they’re offering a different experience. London can’t compete with Silicon Valley for sunshine hours but it does offer an alternative to the technology-obsessed, money-grasping monoculture of the Valley. It is attracting people who can code and know how to build startups and raise funds but it also pulls in designers, the media, the world’s biggest financial services centre and the global interchange of Heathrow.

Other people who are young, bright and ambitious are looking elsewhere: to Latin America with its state funding or to Asia, Africa and the Middle East because people can help their homelands, help the needy, conquer bigger challenges than shaving  a millisecond off a Wall Street transaction... or just have fun. Silicon Valley is still enormous but it feels old hat for many technology entrepreneurs who prefer the smaller fields elsewhere.

 

Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect