Essay: The Function of Wealth in Silicon Valley

Readers of this blog will know that I take grave issue with the dominant culture - or lack thereof - in my hometown of San Jose, California, the self-proclaimed "capital of Silicon Valley."  Like many people, I have a strong love-hate, push-pull feeling about my town. Living in other parts of the country has given me some extra perspective on the place I am from - a place that I mostly took at face value well into my twenties. I know what San Jose once was: a near-paradise of sorts, lush with fruit orchards and craftsman-style houses, both of which were still visible in remnant forms when I was growing up. And I know what San Jose is now: a crushing, treeless sprawl of imagination-free tract homes and shopping centers, and a Mecca for the consumption-obsessed.

Everyone knows that Silicon Valley is a place where people earn above-average wages, and where it also costs a lot to live.  Necessities may be more expensive than elsewhere, but necessities aren't the problem. It's the luxuries that baffle the mind and disgust the senses. In Silicon Valley, money is wasted on a gargantuan scale, on things that do nothing but depreciate in value. Instead of property, art, or travel, people tend to "invest" in cars, electronics, trips to Vegas (which do not count as "travel"), and other nonsense.  Even in this economy, Silicon Valley remains nothing if not an enormous accumulation of wealth. That wealth is visibly tied up in the
outrĂ© symbols of conspicuous consumption - gargantuan and grotesque houses, expensive cars,  tasteless glitz and glam and bling worn on the body, and snide, obnoxious, entitled, socially-unacceptable behavior of many varieties. 

Look around you. Everyone is driving a BMW, a Lexus, or a Mercedes - if not a gas-guzzling, herpes-infected SUV of some kind. People grocery-shop at Whole Foods and Draeger's and Andronico's. Everyone has a gigantic television with a surround sound system. People own a lot of recreational equipment: gigantic RVs (houses on wheels, with all the conveniences of regular houses, only powered by huge amounts of fuel), jet-skis (those idiotic, noisy relics of the 1980s), power boats, and dirt bikes. These vehicles do not, as their owners and proponents will say, encourage an appreciation of nature or exposure to the great outdoors.  They are merely obscene, obstreperous noise-makers designed to advertise the wealth and testicular insecurity of their owners.

At the same time, Silicon Valley is marked by a dearth of fine arts institutions, a cash-strapped and land-poor parks system, and terrible architecture.


This is what the so-called "triumph of the nerds" has wrought. Geeks might be bright, creative, interesting people. But their sense of civic duty or pride is zero, and their taste is worse. They pour their money into selfish, absurd trifles at the expense of their neighbors' quality of life. They live on hillsides and shut themselves off from real life. Their wives are made of plastic and their children are soulless misfits.

Since the geeks' money is tied up in material garbage or sitting in a bank someplace, it has not - and never has - found its way back into the valley that gave it to them in the first place. Our schools and other institutions suffer because of it. Our culture is a big fat zero. My experience working for area non-profit organizations taught me that the generosity of our local population is a prickly and elusive beast; raising money for cultural institutions in Silicon Valley is a challenge of demoralizing proportions.


I'm not just talking about "charity," either. I'm talking about something much bigger and much more important. I'm talking about the vision necessary to make good use of wealth. That vision starts not with charitable organizations, nor with corporations who want to make a good name for themselves by funding some cause or other. The vision must start and be owned by individuals who have the means to make a difference. They must first understand the size of their estate and the potential their wealth represents. Maybe these geeks should be forced to take the undergraduate courses that they skipped before having access to six-figure salaries and stock options: sociology, economics, art history, and geography. Then maybe they will begin to be equipped with the skills and knowledge necessary for the building of a great society.

This is, ultimately, a typical "new money" problem. People who suddenly find themselves rich literally don't know what to do with their money and are prone to wastefulness. Indulgence is understandable - for a while. But we are past this point. Silicon Valley residents at all income levels must be made aware of the potential of the vast resources we have access to, and those resources must be turned toward the greater benefit of what should be a robust and rounded culture. A great society doesn't require a utopian superstructure to manage class divisions; it requires the wealthy to understand that they bear the burden of a special responsibility - not necessarily the redistribution of their wealth, but the responsibility to make use of it for the greater good.


  1. Anonymous6:25 AM

    This is a powerful and important piece of writing. Thank you.

  2. Anonymous1:19 AM

    Couldn't agree more. The more we go on with technology the more it seems to me it's like nerds having put a spell on the world to become like them. What a pity!

  3. Anonymous8:47 PM

    What a great script, It is awesome. I know a little about silcon valley, california. but not like this broad perspectives. One thing I would like to say is that it is sad to learn that always the rich gets richer, and the poor gets poorer, as the bible says. And that the silcon valley can be the perfect model to theme of the bible.