Silicon Valley And Paradoxes


I often find Michael O Church bracing reading. I don’t always agree with him (we differ both in levels of cynicism and other opinions) but he gets me thinking. Recently he’d posted about how places can’t and shouldn’t want to be the next Silicon Valley since it often didn’t have character, a real sense of place.

I don’t agree with him overall – but the difference is more the intensity of criticism.  That got me thinking about Silicon Valley its traits, and living here. It’s a paradoxical place to live and one that can be confusing even when you live here awhile. Nearly a decade after my move I keep finding new facets to it.

Church’s article made me contemplate the way Silicon Valley doesn’t often make sense. What I came to realize is that’s the very nature of Silicon Valley – a mixed bag of paradoxes. Perhaps that’s what makes it what it is, it’s some kind of Schroedinger’s Region that’s one thing or another, letting it sometimes be two opposite things.

This isn’t always for the best, as it makes the place confusing and challenging for many. I have a friend considering leaving, and have even considered so myself before. When I asked myself if I should look elsewhere, those paradoxes asserted themselves – I’d see the bad and the good existing at the same time, he sensible and the nonsensical occupying the same space.

Since this is one of the geek centrals – perhaps the geek centrals – it may be a place you want to move to, have relatives in, or may do business with. After some thought, I’ve developed a kind of taxonomy of the Paradoxes of Silicon Valley.

Maybe it’ll help us both make sense of it.

No Sense Of Place But Many Places With A Sense

Silicon Valley as a whole is not really a “place” in the sense of having a unified identity,culture, or even identifiable geographic boundaries. Sure, everyone is ready to discuss Silicon Valley, but it seems they’re discussing their own idea of it. Most people’s Silicon Valley is in much in their head as outside.

But no there’s no real deep sense of place and identity. There’s certainly nothing comparable to what I’ve experienced in Toronto, or Chicago, or Boston, or even Columbus (where the “Columbus Identity” subsumes even local townships). Silicon Valley is just a label slapped on a region with similar stuff.

The thing is many places within Silicon Valley have very strong identities, ones they’ll assert at times contentiously. Palo Alto is Palo Alto. San Jose is working to define and redefine it’s downtown. Newark resisted inclusion in a larger township as did Atherton.

Much as California seems to be both a state and a country all its own, Silicon Valley at times feels like a tiny country where the cities can be as unique as states.

Oh, and yes, San Francisco is now part of Silicon Valley in my opinion. But not Oakland. Not yet.*

No Culture, But Only Subcultures

Whenever someone talks about Silicon Valley culture I find it a bit laughable. We have dominant cultures (that come and go). We have trends that affect subcultures. But one culture? No.

Plenty of people may think they’re in Silicon Valley culture, but again that’s just an idea.

Just as cities vary by personality and have strong identities, so do subcultures. There’s your startup types, your company men and women, your creatives, your downshifters, green enthusiasts, local lifers, and more. As a person who moves easily among subcultures, I often find people ignore or aren’t even aware of just how many subcultures there are here.

This can lead to issues as some people assume (or are assumed) to “speak” for Silicon Valley and its culture . . . and that usually goes badly.  Someone doing so inevitably speaks for people they can’t speak for – or takes the blame for things not in their subculture.

What’s weird? A lot of us here act like there is some kind of unified culture. I think it leads to a lot of misunderstandings.

Yes, I do that too.

Different Speeds

I myself used to think Silicon Valley’s sense of “time” was the same for every subculture. It was high-speed, go-go-go. I found out quickly I was wrong, even among the high tech cultures.

People here operate at various speeds. There’s your startup fanatics with no personal life, there’s downshifters who are taking advantage of tech and transport to slow down. There’s high-tech semi-slackers who work hard but learned to not let it dominate their lives.

These different speeds vary among the subcultures – but also produce and increase division. People are honestly surprised that I like to cook and take the time. I’ve met consultants in their 50’s who stepped down from high positions to have more time in their lives. I’ve met people who keep working 60 hour weeks even though they should bloody well retire but they can’t stop.

I wasn’t aware of this until I began to downshift, and then I began to see just how many “timelines” there were in Silicon Valley because I wasn’t alone.

Speaking off . . .

No One Has Enough Time – But We’re Not Always Helping

Almost everyone here complains about how they don’t have enough time. I see some exceptions among downshifter-types and the younger folk who haven’t bought into the idea always-busy-is-good. But mostly, it’s “I don’t have enough time” with slightly different variances in wording.

The paradox is that it seems we work in a place that’s based on acceleration and the use of time. New products come out and the stockholders expect churn and change. Attempts to make things faster and more efficient seem to just make people want to move even faster.  You use the ability to do more to . . . do more.

No, I’m not sure I get it either.  I think I’m kind of a hypocrite in this regard.

Everyone Has A Plan But There Is No Plan

There’s a lot of development in Silicon Valley. Well, where there’s space, or space made by knocking stuff down.

New apartments. New buildings. Old buildings being torn down to make new things. Rebrandings and promotions. It’s pretty dynamic (and frankly, the construction companies are probably welcoming this).  For a place where it seems even parking space is at a premium, we’re pretty willing to build.

You can see there are plans there. Some cities are “outposting” as I call it, adding new apartments and shopping to areas to improve them. There’s construction of new apartments near public transport. San Jose is working to promote it’s rather nice downtown. People have plans.

Then you step back and realize people have plans, but for an area this tight, this crammed together, this active there’s not an overall vision.

Now that’s nots surprising. The train system itself is split in two between Caltrain and BART because of past arguments. There’s some questionable decisions about roadways and weird passes and zoning. This area is not exactly known for cooperation among its components.

But overall, it’s kind of stunning how there doesn’t seem to be a goal that has much long term planning for the whole area.

My biggest concern now is the growth of apartments in specific areas. It seems to be driving prices up (short form- a lot of apartments in an area seen as desirable seems to increase prices short-term). I’m concerned the quest for new, accessible housing is going to drive people away based on expense. I smell a potential collapse on the horizon – or a horrible hollowing out.

(And this doesn’t even count San Francisco’s messed up housing system).

But there’s no plan here.

It Can’t Last Forever, But We Act Like It Will

I’ll say this outright – at some point Silicon Valley is going to hit some bumps. They may be many and small, there may be a big one, there may be a few big ones. But at some point the current state is going to end, and end with some pain – the question is how much.

I’ve been most concerned about:

  • A housing crunch/crisis. At some point people can’t afford some of the new housing, which will further drive people away/to the outskirts. In turn this could depress the market as noted.
  • The SF startup scene seems overheated and I’m expecting a bubble to burst.
  • A lot of companies are riding high right now, but high expectations can mean deep disappointment at the slightest provocation.  That could lead to a nasty cascade effect as investors and people get jumpy.
  • There are a lot of places cheaper to live and work in. They may not be “other Silicon Valleys” but enough of them can make not being here tempting.
  • Political and environmental issues come to the fore. We’ve got a drought. We’ve got potential earthquakes. The world has many crises. How well we weather these is something I wonder about.

At some point the party will be over, maybe not for long, but it’ll be over for a time. I’m concerned enough that, just in case, I have a basic relocation plan if the valley hits the economic skids. At the same time, I could see it take 20 years for something to go truly wrong.

But I rarely meet people who think about this. Sure there are pundits and writers and various voices who talk about it, but the problems always seem to be ignored or tabloided. Then they’re easily filed away and ignored.

I don’t expect Silicon Valley to go away or becoming a crater of economic disaster. I do expect enough for a sobering effect

So That’s It

That’s the real paradox of this place. A place that’s not a place but has places, a lack of a unifying culture with many cultures (many of which are awesome), a lack of a plan but much planning, and the likelihood things’ll slow down at some point.

It’s an awesome, amazing place, Silicon Valley. It’s also got its paradoxes and problems. It’s not for everyone.

Really, in the end it’s for someone willing to ride out the issues, of the disjunctures in culture and place in order to reap the benefits. It’s for those who can take the risk the issues of poor planning and erratic economic issues for the profits and potential, and all the cool stuff.

It’s not a place. Silicon Valley is an activity. Less a noun, more of a verb.

Problems aside, I do love it. Even in my “bug out” plans, most places I’d go really have their own Silicon Valley in miniature because there’s so much here that’s an amazing.  Then again, I make an effort to be aware of and navigate the paradoxes.

That’s not for everyone.  You have to decide if it fits you, as does everyone else.


– Steven Savage

* Your opinions may vary but I’m right.