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What I love about Silicon Valley

I enjoyed, but didn't fully agree with, TechCrunch's piece Silicon Valley Lost, And Found:

However, in other ways, what drew my mother and my grandfather here is very much alive. A desire for non-conformity and a grandness of aspiration still exists in certain entrepreneurs here. The 150-year-old Gold Rush mentality lingers on in the engineers who show up every year from all over the world to try their luck at starting new companies. The Valley’s unique cultural language around materialism and status persists. While it does get flashier every year, there is still a certain discretion about being well-dressed or having a nice car here, at least compared to New York or Los Angeles.

"Non-conformity and a grandness of aspiration" is what I love about working in tech. I find subversion comforting, so find a lot to love in cities like Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco (just like I enjoyed the anarchic artistic scene in Edinburgh). As well as the cultural environment in those places, which developed independently of the technology industry, I enjoy tech's ability to look at the status quo and decide that it can be made better. Contrast that with many industries, which remain stagnant, or worse, start to see themselves as institutions.

But let's not forget the petty bigotry and wealth-imbalance-related issues that have started to come to a head this year. Or the more-and-more audacious displays of wealth. That "discretion" about materialism that the author discusses is important to me; even in the short time I've been here, it's become more and more visible to me. I'm interested in what I consider to be the "real" Silicon Valley, by which I think I mean the "authentic" one: the one that's about making things better with your skills, rather than people turning up because they think they can make a fast buck.

The difference is illustrated ably, earlier in the article:

Working with bankers and traders also wasn’t the same as dealing with founders, engineers and hackers day in and day out. People were sharp, but they didn’t love their work - not the way my grandfather or dad did. Jobs in banking were a means to accumulate year-end bonuses and holidays. They didn’t spend their spare time messing with a half-dozen oscilloscopes or building makeshift telescopes.

Those people - the folks in the basement with their oscilloscopes and telescopes, tinkering on their own terms - are my heroes. The people with that nerdy tinkerer mentality, and the freedom to pursue it that is still fairly unique to Silicon Valley, are the ones who changed the world, and will keep on changing it.

It's not written about much these days, but out there in the rest of the world, engineers still draw scorn. You hear them being talked about as "back-room guys", with the implications that the other, "normal" people should be front of house. Geekdom is still niche, and in places, taboo. And that's one of the other things that makes Silicon Valley special - here, geeks have freedom to be themselves, outside these constraints. And it turns out that when they have this freedom, they create the world's most valuable companies, develop transformative technologies, and so on.

This is important. What worries me a little about the latest trends are that the engineers have been co-opted into a resource by incoming people with dollars in their eyes. Factories of willing developers are being established based on the promise of the previous generation, and the lottery-like idea that maybe your company will succeed to the tune of millions, or billions, of dollars. As one engineer told me at a well-funded company that will remain unnamed, "yes, you work weekends, but everyone else does too, so your coworkers kind of become your family." That's nothing short of a bullshit deal, and it seems to me that this kind of exploitation risks killing what's special about the Valley. It also perpetuates the inequalities we've heard so much about this year.

But the non-conformist geek engineers are still there, tinkering on their own terms, side-by-side with San Francisco's counterculture, which lives on. It's one reason why I've fallen in love with the community (and its spin-off, Homebrew Website Club). These movements are no less likely to change the world, but they're on our terms, for us and for everyone, rather than the predatory desires of a generation of hopeful MBAs.

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