Silicon Valley: a parable
We have all heard about the “Silicon Valley” miracle. Not long ago, Silicon Valley found itself at the centre of the world, a job- and money-making machine fueled by the popularity of the Internet and technological innovation. Those days are a distant memory now. Now, the Center of the World has become a technological Rust Belt.
The streets, once throbbing with energy, are empty and quiet. Empty new buildings stand like bleached mausoleums in the sun with big, indiscreet “AVAILABLE” signs slapped on them. A full 20% of the valley’s jobs have been lost since March 2001 and hi-tech jobs continued to be lost as companies downsize or outsource jobs to Asia. No one in the Valley can figure what to do to bring back the golden era.
However, most people not local to the area are unaware of the previous history of this area. The past 200 years have been tragic one of genocide, environmental destruction, greed, trickery, and exploitation. In 1776, at the time of their first contact with the Spanish explorers originally who were looking for gold, Santa Clara Valley was an untouched Eden with maybe 10,000 Ohlone Indians. By 1830, the peaceful, basket-weaving peoples who had been living there for over 10,000 years had completely disappeared, killed off by epidemics and the mission system. In 1848, the land, originally part of Mexico, became part of United States. Americans, many of whom were failed gold-seekers from the mother lode, started to pour in and acquired Mexican cattle ranches, often through force and trickery. The rich alluvial soil—some of the best in the world– proved ideal for orchards. The Valley during the spring was a canopy of white blossoms—“The Valley of Heart’s Delight.” An orchard of another type grew around the seeds planted by William Hewlett, David Packard, Fred Terman, and other researchers at Stanford University. Today, Hewlett-Packard is one of the world’s largest producers of computers and electronic measuring devices and equipment. The names of the branches of the tree are familiar: Stanford Industrial Park, Varian, Apple Computers, Intel, Yahoo, CISCO, Netscape, etc.
Creativity leads to innovation, and innovation leads to prosperity. Prosperity attracts restless, bright, often unscrupulous people, with often troubled and unhappy pasts, from all parts of the world. The old-time farmers sell their farms off for a king’s ransom and move. The orchards were bulldozed to make room for subdivisions and industrial parks.
Beneath the high-tech sparkle laid a hidden underbelly of inequality, environmental devastation, and exploitation. A recent study of the Silicon Valley economy found that hourly wages of 75 percent of Silicon Valley workers were actually lower in 1996 than in 1989. Meanwhile, between 1992 and 1997, income for the top 20 percent has increased by 32 percent. The diverse workplace does not necessarily mean equality of opportunity. You see very few Hispanics or blacks in the hi-tech crystal palaces.
Silicon Valley has 29 Superfund sites–toxic sites slated for cleanup by the federal government. This is more than any other area in the country. High-tech manufacturing created 24 of the 29 sites; 18 are tied to the computer chip industry. At one time, the largest mercury mine in the U.S. was located in the New Alma den hills in the back of San Jose. Mercury, which is used to separate silver from base ore, seeps from this 100-year year old open sore and poisons the Guadalupe River and San Francisco Bay. The Hispanic hamlet of Alison lies partly on a landfill created by the dumping of asbestos-lined pipes in the 1950’s by the Certainteed Corporation.
Will Silicon Valley ever regain its prosperity? Alternatively, it is like some new Atlantis being destroyed by its greed while its inhabitant scatter to the four winds. No one knows. Maybe, a large no strings attached investment, such as Leland Stanford’s bequest that help found Stanford University, would help jump-start the economy. However, maybe, the problems faced by Silicon Valley are those, which cannot be solved by money alone. The entrepreneurial individualism, which has made the unnatural growth of the Valley possible, had, in the process, destroyed the social fabric that holds a society together. The issues facing Silicon Valley today are social ones—pollution, growing income inequality, ethnic tension, unemployment, high housing costs, and a limited state budget. These problems had always been there, but were ignored and have worsened during the most rapid increase in wealth in history. Maybe, one day, the people of Silicon Valley and California will wake up and have the political will to spend the money needed to fix these problems. However, no one really knows.
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