In my previous essay I discussed Silicon Valley and its entangled history in the making. Oddly enough, I did not provide a map of Silicon Valley with its location and highlights. The reason is that no good map exists. It is not that one cannot find a map giving you the location of Silicon Valley, but such a map is based on a too bounded and thereby imperfect geographic, social and cultural definition of what and where Silicon Valley is. So, if it cannot be found on a map…
Where in the world is Silicon Valley?
I will argue that, even if Silicon Valley is not a place that can be pointed out on a map, it is in fact everywhere. I write this as I ride through the Sierra Nevada, the very area that gave Silicon Valley its first gold-powered boost. We are on a family road-trip and, while I am writing on my Chromebook, my mother is checking her Facebook, my sister and boyfriend are listening to an old iPod, NPR is discussing another outrageous Drumpf-tweet and our course is set via Google Maps. Were we to take a road trip in Europe, Asia, the Caribbean or some place else, the scenery would be dramatically different, yet the proximity of Silicon Valley could still be equally felt in the lives of us modern-day explorers that are bound to navigate, orient, be entertained, and travelogue via technologies based in the nowhere valley of silicon — especially since my family and I, like so many of you, are addicted to its services and find it difficult to range too far from the internet cables, servers, routers and broadcasters that deliver them to us.
If we would ask the Silicoids where their valley would be located, they would have an equally hard time answering this question. Not because they would not be able to come up with an answer, but because they view the place they live as we all view our place of habitation: as part of innate, unvoiced mental maps and official and officious toponyms, but not necessarily as an overarching geo-cultural concept. Answers I have gotten to this question range from: “The Bay area, but not Orlando”, “The peninsula, I think, but not beyond the hills.”, “certain spots all the way from San Francisco to San José” or “everywhere you pay upwards of $1000 dollars a month to rent a room the size of a broomcloset” and “as long as you spit and hit a tech startup, you are in Silicon Valley.”
Interestingly, Silicon Valley does seem to have heartlands, places where it is at its strongest. However, here I am sure opinions on where to place this center will diverge greatly as well. Is it the boardrooms of the big tech companies? The Hoover Tower? San Francisco and its hippy culture? The coffee shops where start-ups hammer away on their Macbooks, powering their companies with their passionate dreams and lattes. Like any good “heartland” there are many misconceptions and myths told about what takes place in these hotspots. One of my favourite ones is the “lucky office.” This office was the base of operations for a few start-ups that are now multi-million or even billion dollar companies. It is generally believed that, if you work from there, your start up is bound to reach a measure of success. I am told the owner of this office has become a rich man simply from the rent of this mythical space.
Not much silicon, not much of a valley
Still, what are these places heartlands of? For argument’s sake let us take the more defined yet still fuzzy boundaries of the Bay Area as the approximate location of Silicon Valley. After admitting there is not much of the kind of silicon to be found that can be used for making the chips that power all the tech, the second thing we would have to admit is that it is not even a valley in the sense of how most people would experience one. If you would do a fly over, first, you would see some hills, followed by a relatively smooth curving drop in elevation. Granted, that’s valley-like. This is then followed by flats and a marshy area that gradually transforms into a large coastal bay, ending in the sea to the north. The pattern continues in reverse on the opposite shore. Looking from any of the two widely separated hill ridges towards the bay, we could see that all of this area, especially the flat land, is managed and built upon, hosting farms, ranches, universities, parks, town villas, lovely sub-urban housing, less lovely sub-urban housing, malls, convention centra, industrial parks and, of course, the offices of ICT companies big and small.
There are some great, older maps floating out there on the internet that flag all the big tech companies that were once settled in the Valley. It is like a distribution map of a flock of semi-endangered creatures that can only thrive in very specific biomes. Indeed, the map displays many a once-proud logo that did not survive the struggle for survival. Still, tech companies generally thrive here. This valley provides strength in numbers and a beneficial (tax) climate. There is also a myriad of incubators dedicated to increasing population numbers by culling the weak and only nursing the strongest of tech start-ups to adulthood. These critters are also quite adaptive and mobile. When their contexts changed from the transistor to the micro-chip to the web to the web 2.0, they started moving north. The biggest of them even manage to completely change the social geography of their environments, transforming erstwhile sleepy or even slummy suburbia to the next overheating neighbourhood on the property market.
This place is also quite contagious. Impressed by the success of the Silicon Valley, many other regions in the world have also attempted to create their own places of silica or, alternatively, their own uncanny valleys. Interestingly, the Caribbean Islands seem to be impervious to the magic of Silicon Valley. However, my own people, the Dutch, have bought into the concept with some enthusiasm and have launched Food Valley. A place with international food companies bunched around Wageningen University. India has the unimaginatively named Silicon Valley of India in Bangalore, Dubai has the 100% government-owned Silicon Oasis, the Russians have turned a previous USSR research facility into Silicon Taiga, and New Zealand has Silicon Welley. All of them are corporate forms of Homi Bhabha’s concept of mimicry: as tech-places they are almost the same but not quite (as successful). Still, it shows that, just as the valley supports global culture through its technologies, the world adopts and fosters the valley and its culture.
Of meta-islands and meta-valleys
All of this geo-cultural fuzziness will no doubt bother future archaeologists quite a bit. Archaeologists have very few securities in their scholarly lives. We cannot say with any measure of precision when something took place — a time span with an uncertainty of one generation is something that many archaeologists can only dream of. We can only guesstimate how an artifact was made and used, let alone what the people were thinking when they were doing whatever they were doing with it. We in fact know very few things with certainty, which is why archaeologists are both drawn and averse to storytelling. One of the few things we do know and what we can tell good stories about is where we find things. The geographic security principle is strong in archaeology: there is a whole branch of the discipline dedicated to it, based on archaeologists who have traded in their trowels for Geographic Information Systems-software.
When this geographic security is taken away from us, this can be very vexing. Where and how does one excavate a geo-cultural phenomenon that is both everywhere and nowhere? Caribbean archaeologists can sympathize with the Silicon Valley archaeologists of the future. We too study something that is not easily defined in any geographic or geo-cultural sense. I think this is best explained in a lovely definition of the contemporary Caribbean, by cultural critic Antonio Benítez Rojo. In his book The Repeating Island he refers to the Caribbean as a “meta-archipelago” and as such it “has the virtue of having neither a boundary, nor a center.” This “meta-archipelagic” nature can also be extended to the region’s past, which sees many movements, interactions and diffusions of peoples that are unified in diversity. This has led generations of archaeologists to try to answer the question: “What is the Caribbean?” We haven’t come up with a good answer yet.
To me not knowing what or where my region of study is, is fine. Just as it is fine if I am not able to show the people back home where Silicon Valley is located on a map. Perhaps people who like their definitions clear cut and their geographic boundaries strictly delineated, consider the idea of a “meta-valley” as a weak proposition. Still, I think it is perhaps the only and certainly the most interesting way (future) archaeologists would be able to tell a coherent story of this place. A place that cannot be placed anywhere but which still touches all the lands of earth and even beyond.
Have you found Silicon Valley or one of its ilk somewhere? Let me know on Twitter or in the comments below!