What is the secret of Silicon Valley

Digital / breaks

You can't actually see Silicon Valley. Not as a landscape, because the word "Valley" in this name has the less specific meaning of ...


You can't actually see Silicon Valley. Not as a landscape, because the word “valley” in this name has the less specific meaning of “area” (as in “Ruhr area”), there is no valley and no depression. In space, Silicon Valley is nothing but a series of small or medium-sized communities that are strung about twenty kilometers north of the metropolis of San José. They are located on the southwest side of a peninsula between the Pacific and the Bay of San Francisco, which begins in San José and ends in San Francisco. There is also no equivalent to the architecture of earlier industrial revolutions in Silicon Valley. Anyone who knows the postal address of “Google,” “Apple” or “Excel” will end up discovering a building with the corresponding logo somewhere along Silicon Valley, inconspicuous in any case and mostly disappointing, at least for someone who has an “electronics” Fan ”wants to be.

Five minutes from the house where I live, for example, is the headquarters of “Facebook,” and I walked by for years without realizing that the strands of the social network converge there. Sometimes I thought it was really high time for a renovation of the rather shabby property and the local company shy away from potential costs. There were absolutely no fantasies of Mark Zuckerberg and his Chinese girlfriend. And such fantasies would hardly have had any clues. Faces like that of Steve Jobs (especially) and Bill Gates have meanwhile been memorized, but they are more everyday faces, like the many Indian and East Asian faces of Silicon Valley, American faces that are typically not typical for anything. Mark Zuckerman looks like the proverbial nerd, at the meeting of the World Economic Forum he wore an applied Northface jacket, and to comment that understatement is the trend here, that sounds like a violent over-interpretation. Accordingly, it was difficult for the interpretive Jobs biographer to draw any further conclusions from the fact that his hero and his family lived in a house (not even completely renovated), the purchase price of which was light years behind the possibilities of a multi-billionaire.


The point is that the industrial and cultural revolution of Silicon Valley happened as a revolution of immateriality - “Les Immatériaux” was the (as we understand today) visionary title of an exhibition that Jean-François Lyotard put on at the Center three decades ago Pompidou of Paris reacted to the first symptoms of the electronic age. This age has subordinated the attention structures, the time budgets, perhaps even the desires of contemporaries - and at least also their body language, as you can see every time on the way from the aircraft to the baggage claim when two thirds of the passengers use the I- Phone at ear and sprinting through halls and corridors while speaking in a low voice. Nothing has shaped the world as much and certainly as lastingly as Silicon Valley, but what has now changed is only expressed in symptoms. The reason, the trigger and the inventor genius for the last human revolution remain as invisible as their "valley."

I knew a colleague who wanted to write the authoritative history of Silicon Valley. In the meantime he has left the university in the middle of the invisible valley and lives and teaches in the southwest of the country without - as far as I know - the book has been finished or even published. Otherwise I would have looked there for answers to the questions that target the secret of Silicon Valley. Why did that energy develop there, around (at that time still misshapen) electronic calculating machines, which made the first intuition about an industry and about industry a true cultural revolution, compared to the Mao's communist “cultural revolution” like a children's birthday party works with painful consequences? This first question is as unanswerable (because it is overly complex - and therefore banal) as the question why Gutenberg invented movable type in Mainz, of all places. "Coincidence," you say with a shrug, or "Contingency," as an intellectual with slightly furrowed eyebrows - and then send you the next, more interesting questions. How is it, if Silicon Valley is a non-place, that the second phase of the revolution also took place “there”, the Steve Jobs phase, so to speak, with which inventions first became a form of life? I mean the Apple screen and the mouse, I-Pod, I-Phone, I-Pad - and whatever may come next. Because you don't have to live in Silicon Valley at all to work “there” and learn “from there”. Why did Mark Zuckerberg come to the Pacific coast from Harvard? Or the reverse of the same question: why are there in heavily industrialized Germany (in the “land of the gear industry,” as I recently heard an influential German magnate say), why do electronic inventions never arise in Germany? On the other hand, why are agencies springing up into the world in Silicon Valley every day promising “contacts” to the streams of visitors who are eager to learn and sell? Finally in abstract question form: why of all things the revolution of immateriality remains so obsessively tied to Silicon Valley as its (non-) place?

I don't know of a good answer to this question, although I would like to quickly play through the standard answer. The main question is for me - and because the question has no answer, I am writing about the “secret” of Silicon Valley. What makes Silicon Valley so unsurpassably productive and (therefore) so puzzlingly attractive? One has often spoken of the “lateral” (meaning: non-hierarchical) organizational forms of work in Silicon Valley - and these conditions may have something to do with that invisibility and that unpretentious style, which is more the absence of style than that which is always stylistically ambitious understatement. The difference in faces, bodies and accents loses some of its distinctive sharpness on the American west coast (of course it never disappears entirely). And because such sheen (or mildew, whatever you want to see) of neutralization has settled over the local culture, entrepreneurs do not show their superiority, while on the other hand it does not make typical “little employees” resentful when they know how many thousand times more the company founder earns per day. The neutralizing effect, which almost eliminates “social tensions”, continues with the very largest companies and the very richest entrepreneurs launching start-ups and thus potential competitors of the future like small plants. Under such conditions, a good idea never has to forego the chance of its realization - and yet: could the structural conditions of Silicon Valley and their consequences not also develop in the immateriality of electronic communication, without any connection to a location?

On some days I imagine that the energy of the (non) place can be felt like a small but permanent earthquake. But could I ever have that feeling if I didn't know how Silicon Valley changed the world? Is there something objective “here,” something that's in the air or rumbling underground? It is difficult to seriously imagine such a reason (in a double sense). It cannot be due to the radiant luminosity of most of the days. Although the North American west coast has fascinated the world for the third time - after the gold rush and after Hollywood.







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The secret of Silicon Valley

By Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

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