Searching for the heart of Silicon Valley is like searching for an obscure book on the internet. If you don't know what you're looking for, you might wander for days looking at the glassy exteriors of office buildings. There is no place on the map called Silicon Valley. It's a chunk of Northern California that encompasses Marin County and San Francisco to the north and Monterey to the south, centered in the Santa Clara valley. My tour guide, Paulina Borsook, used to write for Wired magazine. Her new book Cyberselfish is a social critique of high-tech culture. She recalls her first trip to Silicon Valley.
Paulina: "I remember driving around the valley and seeing signs for the companies and going wow! There it is, there it is!"
Intel, Cisco, Sun Microsystems, 3com, Oracle, and Yahoo, they're all here, but they aren't open to the public. The most you're likely to see is a repeating theme of beige stucco and tinted glass.
Paulina: "You're really just seeing signs on the building on the interstate. So if you're coming to see Silicon Valley, all you're going to see is strip malls and office parks."
But a few places do exist where you can glimpse Silicon Valley in action. Our first stop is a little café called Buck's in woodside, a town of sprawling mansions, where billion dollar deals are carved out over blueberry pancakes and Belgian waffles. If any place is ground zero this is it.
At nine AM, the booths are packed with thirty-something execs leaning over coffee and spreadsheets. The walls are cluttered with high-tech artifacts, including a NASA space module and a giant slide rule. Buck's manager Ron Brunson has seen some huge business deals get signed here.
Rob: "Netscape, the AOL merger, just little things. Being in Woodside we have Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, people that live up here."
Larry Ellison of Oracle is the world's second richest man, just $10 billion behind Bill Gates. Steve Jobs of Apple isn't far behind. Ron introduces us to another regular, Michael Goldberg, a local entrepreneur. He has a checkered-shirt and Christopher Reeves good looks. He calls Buck's a salon of the twenty-first century.
Goldberg: "That's what makes Buck's unique. It's one of the few physical points. Yea, there is a buzz and a kind of congregation and a kind of community here that you can experience."
Goldberg is CEO for an Atlanta-based startup, but works at home in Woodside. Just this morning he clinched several deals with venture capitalists.
Goldberg: "I feel enormously blessed and gifted and thankful to all the Americans that have created an environment that has allowed us to experience this flourishment."
If you eavesdrop on conversations at Buck's, you're likely to hear that Silicon Valley is the center of the world, and computers are the solution to all problems. Paulina Borsook is skeptical.
Paulina: "There's a raging attack of narcissism going with this culture of "we're the best thing that ever happened and everybody else should be like us", and I don't think the startup should be the model for all human endeavor."
From Buck's we take highway 101 to San Jose and have a typical Silicon Valley experience: a traffic jam. Ridiculous housing costs here have caused a commuter's hell that rivals L.A. Finally, we arrive at Intel, the world's largest maker of computer chips. They have a gift shop and a free museum that's open to the public. There we find some nifty collectibles, like computer chip key chains and matching earrings.
Paulina: "This is where all the good loot is. We have the Intel Beach towel, it comes in a little plastic tube, a lap blanket etc."
Inside the Intel museum, there are examples of the first computers, and lots of interactive exhibits that teach about how computers work.
Voice of Computer Simulator: "I'm getting requests to get more information to the execution unit, please fetch more instructions miss prefetch, Right away control, I'll check the instruction cache first, no, not there, RAM must have it."
Over by a vintage altair computer the size of a small suitcase, I meet Jefferson, age 14. He builds computers for a hobby, and has come all the way here from LA to see Intel.
Rachel: "How many hours a day do you think you spend on a computer?"
The tech museum of innovation is another place in San Jose perfect for the Jefferson's of this world. Intel's founder Robert Noyse rightfully predicted computers would change the world. In the 1940's Santa Clara was called the valley of heart's delight. Orchards stretched from San Jose to Redwood city. Palo Alto, home to Hewlett-Packard, Xerox, and Stanford, was once a sleepy university town.
Paulina: "What it's transmogrified to being is the most prestigious address. All the Wall Street firms want a Palo Alto address."
Visitors can drive by the garage on Addison street where Hewlett and Packard got started, or shop downtown's pricey boutiques, where upscale is given new meaning. Next we go to another place that's being transformed by high-tech: San Francisco.
South Park is a San Francisco neighborhood that's become a magnet for the newest, hottest multi-media firms. Young dot.com workers in black lounge at picnic tables, grabbing some fresh air before returning to their cubicles. It's here I meet Paulina's friend, Nathan Shedroff, founder of Vivid, a multi-media company.
Rachel: "So what do you think characterizes the geek culture?"
Nathan: "You hear lots of TCPIP, protocol this, people are just talking about work."
Most of what goes on in Silicon Valley happens behind the closed doors of the venture capital firms or in cyberspace. If you want to see extreme wealth, go to Woodside. But if you want to see high-tech in action, you probably just have to hang around South Park.
Nathan: "Yea, you could come here and be a fly on the wall and at least get a sense for the culture if not what's going on in any particular business."
Who knows? You might see the next Bill Gates eating a sandwich. Then again, he may just be another guy wearing glasses. Somewhere in Silicon Valley, I'm Rachel Anne Goodman, for the Savvy Traveler.
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