This week it rained in San Francisco and the power immediately blew out. Your tech utopia
Water falling from the sky disrupts the disruptors
The price of success
The final nail in the coffin is that the city, and Silicon Valley itself, has become too rich and powerful. That might sound like a contradiction but it's having some potentially damaging side effects.
Successful tech firms start off as small, scrappy collections of the weird and the talented, with a few business types to keep things financially on the rails. It's been the pattern now for at least 30 years – longer if you include HP.
But as firms get larger, they concentrate less on innovating and more on maintaining market position. Internal innovation carries on but is much less effective, since once you have an HR department and annual assessments a lot of the creative types move on to new ventures. A young Steve Jobs would today be in startups constantly and would be shown the door by more established firms.
But if you're not pulling in a big corporate salary these days then you can't afford to live in the Bay Area and work on that next startup. Average rents in the city are around $3,500 a month for a one bedroom flat and the old, grimier areas of town where hacker groups like Noisebridge and RockIT CoLabs flourished are being torn down to build apartment for Silicon Valley engineers to get bused to and from.
Those corporate buses are another symptom of this. They sprung up because no one wants to live in the south of Silicon Valley: the traffic is a nightmare, and companies can have staff working via Wi-Fi during the commute. It's a logical solution, and a source of real puzzlement to some in the tech community that the buses have cause such a kerfuffle.
Smart does not equal sensible
The bus scheme is actually a good solution to Silicon Valley's transport troubles – but only for the companies involved. The rest of the area saw plush coaches using public bus stops for a pittance whereas everyone else faced punishment for dropping someone off at those same stops. Meanwhile San Francisco is becoming a commuting suburb of Silicon Valley, housing people who seldom visit the wider community except on weekends.
These feelings may not be rational, but they are understandable and very worrying. Anti-tech feeling is growing among San Francisco natives and the locals have a long history of direct action. Faced with an antagonistic populace, firms may look to start up where they are more welcome.
Which would be a disaster, because in the nearly seven years I've lived here there's been a huge amount to love about Silicon Valley and San Francisco. It's got some of the smartest people in the world and they're generally honest and well-meaning.
The city is surrounded by stunning countryside, near-perfect climate for an Englishman (although a bit more drizzle would be nice), a tremendous variety of cultures and attitudes from every zone of the political spectrum, and a food culture that's second to none.
Most importantly, from a tech perspective, it's still the number one place to be. Silicon Valley still has the energy and drive that has made it what it is. For all its growing number of faults the place has that quintessential spirit that lets businesses formed in garages and sheds rise up to become household names.
As the city sweeps away the debris from the storm and electricity is slowly returned, life will get back to normal. Power, and thus internet access, is still out for some parts of the city but some things are getting better.
But there are bigger storms coming, and not just ones filled with rain. The best folks in the tech industry need to pull their socks up (those that wear them) and do some serious long-term thinking if the first 50 years of technological progress in the area is to be repeated. ®
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