Au revoir, Silicon Valley

On August 20, I’m moving from Silicon Valley to Toulouse, France. My rock-star wife, Jen Schradie, got a three-year post-doc at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Toulouse. We are bound for la Ville Rose where I will have to learn French, find a job, and perhaps even more daunting, will also have to finally try to understand what ‘confit’ is.

If you’re like me, your first reaction is no doubt: “France? But they don’t have Netflix in France!” Ah, but not to worry! Netflix has announced its service will be available in France later this year. Orange Est Le Nouveau Noir!

My departure from Silicon Valley, and my job as a tech journalist at the LA Times, will hardly make a dent in a region where tech journalists seem to be spawning faster than tribbles. I leave the U.S. knowing that while journalists and news organizations are scurrying away from covering boring, useless stuff like state legislatures, there are 1,000 people on standby to write a blog post if Jony Ive barfs out of his nose.

In the short-attention theater that is Silicon Valley, it seems so long ago that I landed a job at the Mercury News in 1999 to cover telecommunications. After proposing to my wife in front of the copy machine in the Durham, NC bureau of The News & Observer newsroom (true story!), I dragged her out to San Francisco for a one-year trial period.

Fifteen years, two kids, and one mortgage later, I find myself feeling lucky to have spent so much time in such an extraordinary place. There are a few images and stories, though, in particular that stick out.

There was, of course, the dot-com boom and bust, with its ice luges and crazy parties and senseless startups. Only a year after I landed, the Nasdaq tanked and lines of 20-somethings stood outside U-Haul rental offices trying to get a truck to take their stuff back to their parents’ house in Kansas.

In the middle of that chaos, there was the Y2K “bug.” The Merc, rolling around naked in the piles of cash from dot-com ads, flew me to Wellington, New Zealand just a couple of days before the new Millenium to witness the start of the global apocalypse. On New Year’s Eve, I stood in the parliament building that had been converted into a war room, next to the prime minister, as the clock struck midnight and exactly nothing happened. Not a street light flickered. Nothing. I filed a grand total of five paragraphs from New Zealand and then went bungee jumping (true story!).

I spent a couple of years covering the California energy crisis. More than once, I sat in a conference room being lectured by Texas energy execs on how the root of the state’s problems were a bunch of hippie-socialist-tree hugging activists in California who didn’t understand free markets. Nope!

For the pure bizarro factor, though, it’s hard to beat spending an afternoon in one of those San Francisco apartment high rises that towers over the Bay Bridge talking with a leading Singularity figure about the coming robot uprising. In dead serious tones, he mapped out how he believed robots would take over the world within the next two decades. His only goal in life, he explained, was to teach the robots empathy so that when they took over, they would be kind to us future human pets and servants. Heavy stuff, my friend.

Of course, in many ways, it feels like I’m leaving at a moment when things have come full circle. Tech is booming. Activists are marching in the streets to protest evictions. Everyone is talking about a bubble. When things start to feel like déjà vu all over again, it may be as good a time as any to step off the carousel.

But while I’m excited about the unknown ahead, I can’t say I’m any less fascinated by this region that I leave behind than when I arrived.

Yes, there is plenty about Silicon Valley that is rightly deserving of parody and criticism. It’s not the meritocracy it imagines itself to be. The digital utopianism borders on the delusional. The lack of women, Latinos, and African-Americans in tech is an embarrassment.

And there is no denying the current hiring boom of tech workers is fueling a growing social inequality that simply can not be sustained over the long run. Don’t kid yourself: This is not some boom that will deflate like it did in 2000. Big companies are stuffing thousands of workers into gigantic campuses with no end in sight for reasons that have nothing to do with their stock prices. At some point, those people will be buying homes in Antioch, where it won’t make sense for them to spend five hours on a charter bus every day to get to and from Mountain View. This region simply doesn’t have the infrastructure to sustain this furious growth. But no one likely has the courage to say, “No more!” So I expect it will continue, driving housing costs into the stratosphere and turning more and more local towns into traffic-clogged parking lots.

And yet, despite this host of problems, Silicon Valley remains one of the most amazing places on the planet. Silicon Valley didn’t just survive the dot-com bust, it came roaring back. It’s hard for me to imagine any other region bouncing back from that kind of economic collapse.

When I was telecom reporter in 1999 and 2000, the center of the mobile revolution was Finland, Sweden and Japan. Not anymore. Thanks to Android and Apple, the valley became the epicenter of the mobile industry. What other regional economy has the ability to reinvent itself so quickly? And to do it over and over and over again?

And yes, the dot-com mania was excessive way back when. But for all the silliness, Silicon Valley actually got a lot of things right. Pets.com may still be the butt of jokes, but loads of people do, in fact, order their pet food online. Webvan may have been a catastrophe, but plenty of people order groceries online and get them delivered. And people may have been mistaken that brick and mortar stores would be instantly vaporized, but a decade later look at what’s happened to book and music stores. Silicon Valley is often right about the future. Where it goes wrong is predicting how fast and widespread these changes will be. And that often leads to the irrational exuberance that grips the region from time to time.

It’s also hard not to appreciate a region that is so infused with people who are so darn optimistic about the future. Granted, as a journalist prone to cynicism, it can be hard to be surrounded at times by a bunch of young, smiling entrepreneurs who are convinced they can change the world. Because, of course, most of them are fools, and they are wrong. And yet, there is a certain infectiousness in that attitude because belief is a powerful thing. And because a very tiny minority of them will actually have a big impact on our future.

Some of them will go on to start Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or whatever. Or one or two of them will start the business that derails a giant like Apple or Google, easily the two most important business stories of my time in Silicon Valley. Watching those worlds get turned upside down never gets old.

But while my job has been to cover the business of technology over the years, it is not really the businesses that defined what Silicon Valley has really meant to me.

Instead, the heart and soul of this place are the things embodied by the Maker movement. I think this, as much as any gadget, piece of software, or social networking site, is Silicon Valley’s most important export to the rest of the world. I still remember attending my first Maker Faire in 2008, and it was a mind-blowing revelation.

People building robots in their garage. Urban farmers growing their own food. People assembling and programming their own computers. It was an eclectic gathering of people who seemingly only have one thing in common: They make things.

As a culture, we have dangerously lost touch over the years with the way the world works, whether it’s how our food is grown, how a computer works, how and where our clothes are made. As we became more disconnected, it makes it easier to ignore the environmental and social problems that flow from how our stuff gets made.

The Maker movement reminds of us of our power to create and control the world, and the impact we can have on it. It’s an idea that reminds us of the simple pleasure that comes from creating things. It’s an idea sparked and led, not by giant corporations, but a loose affiliation of regular folks. And not surprisingly, it’s an idea that has exploded into smaller Maker Faires around the world and inspired related programs in hackerspaces and in schools.

Watching my kids build a circuit board, or build a hydraulic robot out of syringes and popsicle sticks will be among my fondest memories of my time in Silicon Valley.

The Maker movement is the type of thing where it becomes easier to cast cynicism aside and believe that the future could really be a better place. And that Silicon Valley could actually play a big role in making that happen.

I’ll be rooting for that, but for the next few years, I’ll be doing it from afar.

Au revoir, Silicon Valley. À bientôt.