by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - January 1, 2007) The Fairmont Hotel rests comfortably on a hill overlooking the main part of San José as if it were an antique mosque where CEOs gather at regular intervals to formulate the doctrines that will determine their country's technological future. It has a feeling of old-style comfort but is unquestionably the most deluxe of all the hotels in the vicinity. Its meeting rooms are abuzz with international accents and the atmosphere is charged with the kind of earnestness that you might expect to find at an international summit conference.
Sometimes San José feels like Dodge City after the gunmen had been routed and law and order shakily established by the peace officers. It is still home to gamblers, sharp-shooters, and wheeler-dealers, but today they are more likely to sit on the boards of Adobe, Cisco, and eBay.
I started up a conversation with a thirty-year-old, three-buttoned "suit" sitting in the lobby who was waiting for his limo to arrive. He was wearing sparkling gold cuff links and exuded the air of someone whose every need is catered to by a small harem of attentive women, all of whom graduated cum laude from Ivy League universities -- although none of these helpmates were visible at the time. I never found out his name but I wouldn't be surprised if it was something like Wentworth Parkington III. I try here to recapture the gist of that conversation relying only on memory and a few hastily scribbled notes after the encounter.
"What kind of town is this?" I asked him having confessed it was my first visit. "The greatest little town in the world -- and, by the way, the third largest city in the state."
"Why is that?"
"Because it's the very heart of Silicon Valley and virtually every company here is competing with every other, it puts a premium on ingenuity. The town is crawling with whiz-kids inventing refinements on computer functions, fiber optics, Play Stations, iPods, Blackberries, and so every conversation becomes theoretical, analytical...examining the latest wrinkle in technology. Well, that's more exciting than watching the stock market swing up or down or trading political clichés. It keeps your brain lubricated but more important, it tells you where the action is; who's perfecting what; who's just leapt to the top of the heap; who's fallen behind."
"But isn't it all business-related....isn't everybody just deal-making?"
"Yes they are, but it's not penny-ante, nickel-and-diming, it's cutting-edge entrepreneurship; it's where to stick your venture capital, what's hot and what's not. That's a lot more exciting than quoting the headlines from the Wall Street Journal or the latest article in Click Magazine. You feel you're at the heart of what is being created for the next generation, and that's........sexy!"
"It feels like a boom town, but is it really? It looks like just another example of urban sprawl."
"It's a boom town that respects tradition. Look at this Fairmont Hotel. There's no other place like it -- even in London or Rome. It's got its own brand of royalty -- CEOs from all over the world. I don't know why the paparazzi aren't crawling all over the place."
"Maybe business celebrities don't have the same fascination as Britney Spears, Brad Pitt, or Angela Jolie."
"They're over-exposed popular commodities; they're not the elite. The elite don't get their pictures spread over the tabloids; they own them."
Having been treated to a lecture about the philosophy of technological innovation in a business jargon that left me blinking with confusion, we finally got around to "what I do" and when I confessed I was a writer and knew virtually nothing about technology and really distrusted it, I sensed a subtle withdrawal -- as if one suddenly discovered the person with whom you were conversing had a communicable disease that could be passed on via air currents. But I'd begun my part of the dialogue and felt I had to continue.
"I'd like us to stow all the fancy gadgetry," I explained calmly "and get back to the plume and the inkwell. There's too much information around -- not enough wisdom -- and I believe they're really antithetical. A 'statistic' is a fact disguised as a truth whereas wisdom transcends both facts and statistics."
The look on Wentworth's face suggested that he had inadvertently stepped into dog droppings and was wondering how best to remove its traces.
"Writing, you say," tactfully ignoring the gist of the thesis I had just put forward. "We nourish some of the best technical writers in America, right here in San José."
"I was talking about literature...you know, Melville, Thoreau, Fitzgerald, Hemingway..." The last brought a flash of recognition to his face. "Oh yeah, Hemingway; I read him at college 'Call of The Wild,' right?" (I didn't have the heart to proffer a correction.) "But, I'm talking about technical writers."
"Could you name one?"
"You know, you got me there. I read them regularly but no one name really stands out."
Two alien worlds, I thought to myself -- each rotating in its own orbit. I wanted to feel him out on the New Billionaires who had come out of Silicon Valley, the new wave of philanthropists inspired by Gates and Buffet, but the limo had arrived and he was whisked away so quickly it almost demeaned the cordial conversation we had been having. I walked out in search of the city Wentworth had celebrated. Leaving the sumptuous confines of The Fairmont on a rented bicycle rather than a stretch limo, I tried to persuade myself it was a good thing to expose oneself to different points of view, but as I wobbled unsteadily down the hill, I thought, there are some twains that never meet.
When it was founded in 1777, San José's original name was El Pueblo de San Jose de Guadalupe. In 1850, after statehood was achieved, it was designated as the first state capital. In the 1950s and '60s it was largely a bedroom community that housed a lot of transient farm workers; eventually, the technicians of the burgeoning new technology industries arrived. In 1979, the City Council finally acknowledged its Mexican ancestry and added the diacritical mark on to José. By then the community had become highly multi-racial and Hispanics were not as prominent as they had been before. In terms of employment, they were being superseded by Asians. By 1990, with the influx of the multinational corporations, it had been transformed into a boom town and rightfully earned its title as the Capitol of Silicon Valley.
The façade of the city -- calm, placid, imperturbable -- barely reveals the intrigue and rivalry that goes on between major companies such as Intel, Oracle, Apple, AMD, etc. There is fierce competition for the high-powered engineers, many of them Chinese and Indian, who frequently move from one large corporation to another, divulging the secrets of their previous employers to their new ones. These alleged betrayals often wind up in the courts and cause a good deal of bitterness among the major players. "The atmosphere," according to one technocrat (who prefers to remain anonymous) is "like that of the Gold Rush. Avaricious people scrambling for bigger and more valuable stakes creating a zealous but joyless atmosphere."
During the frightening economic downturn, when many of the employees were paid in stock options, several million jobs were lost. It all stabilized after 2002 but, according to insiders, it never entirely recovered. Knowledge is more than just power in a city like San José, it represents veins of gold which, if acquired, can bring instant and astounding wealth, but if claims are jumped or the markets plummet, heartbreaking defeats.
All the inner turmoil is barely visible within the city proper with its Jazz Festivals, endless conventions, jam-packed restaurants, and slick hotels, but the reverberations can be felt in the factories and laboratories of the Fortune 500 companies that inhabit its suburbs.
Like Wentworth so aptly said: this is where the action is, but a less likely place to be the hub of the technological future cannot be imagined.
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