E-MAIL FROM THE VALLEY

E-MAIL FROM THE VALLEY - Now that Silicon Valley's stock no longer rides so high, we can say what we always thought: it is not all it's cracked up to be. Despite press hype, immigration and an extraordinary infusion of venture capital during the boom, Sil

by NICK DENTON, founder-chairman of Moreover Technologies; e-mail:nick@moreover.com or visit www.nickdenton.org
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Now that Silicon Valley's stock no longer rides so high, we can say what we always thought: it is not all it's cracked up to be. Despite press hype, immigration and an extraordinary infusion of venture capital during the boom, Silicon Valley never made it as a world city.

San Francisco may be picture-postcard pretty, the restaurants exceptional, the hiking, skiing and sailing close by. In Berkeley and Stanford, the area has two world-class universities. It has a lead in the world's newest industries: software and biotechnology.

And Silicon Valley, home to blue-chip corporations such as Intel, Oracle and Hewlett-Packard, and to the densest concentration of venture-funded startups in the US, is an amazing commercial success.

Until recently, this business miracle sustained Silicon Valley's reputation as one of the world's leading business centres. For Frank Quattrone, the CSFB banker behind some of the most lucrative and controversial public offerings of the boom years, Silicon Valley was 'God's own country'.

Rubbish. And now I, and Silicon Valley's formerly muzzled critics, can say so without being told: 'Oh, you just don't get it.' Strip off the gloss of transient boomtime wealth and Silicon Valley is revealed: geographically, culturally, socially flawed. It may be a fine place to work all hours getting rich, but it offers less for those rebuilding their lives after the internet bubble.

For a start, Silicon Valley itself is a jumble of suburban office parks and mini-malls, sandwiched between two freeways. People keep a second apartment in San Francisco rather than spend their weekends in the Valley.

Ah, yes, San Francisco. The blandness of the Valley would be bearable if San Francisco were a true metropolis - if there were a West End to compensate for working in Slough. But San Francisco is dysfunctional, and here's why.

It is ungovernable. The city of cute cable cars has abandoned large swathes of its centre to 5,000 vagrants, mostly alcoholics, drug abusers and the mentally ill. Advocates for the homeless, taking San Francisco's famed tolerance to extremes, defend their lifestyle choice. Mayor Willie Brown has given up. Imagine New York before Rudy Giuliani took over, but more corrupt and lethargic.

Supposedly cosmopolitan, San Francisco is in fact a collection of separatist ghettos. Mexicans live in the Mission, gays live in the Castro, Chinese out in Sunset, and transient yuppies in the Marina; and they all avoid each other.

The city is entirely lacking in glamour. The old money is inbred, and the new money is too geeky. The pretty people are in Los Angeles or Miami; the intellectuals are in New York; and the carpetbaggers left as quickly as they came. San Francisco's Clift must be the only Ian Schrager hotel where visitors pitch up with their tradeshow tote bags.

Culturally, the city is still eating out on its reputation as home to Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg. That was nearly 50 years ago. In the meantime, San Francisco has produced Danielle Steel, and that's it.

The Ballet is world-class, I am told, but there is something cringing about San Francisco's pride in stuffy European arts, as if it were still a raw frontier town hankering after the latest fashions from Paris.

None of that would matter if one could be guaranteed a good dinner-party conversation now and again. But few entertain. Guests call to say they are stuck at work, or leave at 9.30pm pleading an early start.

And conversation tends to the bland. What passes as witty in London or New York is more likely to meet the reaction: that guy was interesting Only in San Francisco could interesting be a term of disparagement.

The main reason: San Francisco is not a metropolis on the scale of London or New York. It's home to fewer than a million, and the Bay Area's five million people are dispersed. Neighbourhood groups tend to oppose new building.

Oh, yes, and the weather isn't that great. Silicon Valley has a nice Mediterranean climate, but evenings in San Francisco are uniformly chilly, while summer days in the city are too often fogbound and miserable.

So why does this matter? Well, now that instant wealth has evaporated, Silicon Valley has to compete on new criteria: transport, environment, entertainment, as well as business infrastructure.

During the boom, the region attracted thousands of highly educated professionals from the East Coast and from Europe. Now many of them are leaving because they miss the buzz, wit, and bustle of a big city. San Francisco never quite achieved critical mass.

And who'll be left? The anti-social geeks, and the obsessives for whom the dream of changing the world is compensation for the lack of metropolitan amenities. The people who made Silicon Valley, in other words. As for me, Silicon Valley remains the place to build a new business, but I won't pretend any more that I love it.

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