The Technium

The Missing Monuments of Silicon Valley

Today I got a great question from author Joel Dietz, who asked me, “I’m curious why you think California tech culture has never left a legacy of monumental artifacts? The only thing notable in the region is the Stanford mausoleum;  compare this to any previous epoch of human civilization, including the Carnegie-Rockefeller era.” 

That is a great question. There are many assumptions behind the question, and I tend to also assume them.

The first assumption is that there is a Silicon Valley tech culture. Wired magazine began 30 years with the unconventional premise that this tech culture was beginning to be born, and that it would eventually become dominant. At that time in the early 1990s, it was hard to see this culture and it was definitely not mainstream. I define this culture by its eagerness to explore the world, and to investigate the human condition, by making things. It would investigate our mind not by the science of cognition nor art and literature, but by making artifical minds. What you can’t make, you can’t understand or tame. This culture also saw the world in terms of making solutions. The humanities were the first culture, and the sciences were the second culture; I called this the nerd, and third culture. Part of Wired’s agenda was to make nerds cool, to both create and celebrate the celebrities of this emerging culture. We would make heroes from the geeks, and put them on the front cover. The transformation of someone like Bill Gates from a geek who was constantly ridiculed to someone who will probably be remembered for his philanthropy and not Windows, is very much in the mold of a Carnegie, and one indication that there is indeed, finally, a tech culture.

And that culture has its core in California, and its anchor in Silicon Valley, but it has outposts along the whole west coast and in places like Austin, TX. So this nerd culture can blossom beyond the borders of routes 101 and 280, but much continues to be born within the Valley.

The second assumption is that cultures need to build infrastructure. In some ways this is one of the definitions of civilization: the accumulation of infrastructure. There are civilizations in our deep past, like the ones that native American peoples built, whose infrastructure was not made in stone, and so their contributions have been erased, as those people were erased. But on average, remaking the environment to increase options is what civilizations do, and that means they tend to build, and often build big.

It is true that SV is almost absent the monumental, and uniformly full of two-story suburban sprawl. If there really is a new nerd, tech culture, whose fountainhead is in the notional Silicon Valley, why don’t we see the typical big, monumental artifacts in Silicon Valley?

Here is my answer:

  1. On average, people way beyond the borders of SV have an definite allergy to building anything big. Big is currently unpopular everywhere, (except in parts of Asia), not just SV. Monumental is out of fashion.
  2. It’s still early in the SV civilization. Rome didn’t build much in its first 40 years.
  3. However, in its first 40 years SV has built one of the grandest, largest, most awesome public works and infrastructure projects ever built in the history of the world: The Internet. Like all software (what SV does) it is intangible, but very real.
  4. There are two unique and monumental physical structures that may outlast the generations who built them, Apple’s Park Ring, and Long Now’s 10,000-year Clock.

A tip of the hat to Matt Mullenwag.


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