Chicago Sun-Times

New tes­ta­ment to Sil­i­con Val­ley

Where cash can’t buy cool but pipe dreams can help fuel the GDP

- Silicon Valley · Business · Simon & Schuster · HBO · San Francisco · Donald Trump · Sheryl Sandberg · Game of Thrones · California · Stanford University · Gilroy, CA · Peter Thiel · Leland Stanford

All the money, buzz and self- con­grat­u­la­tory talk about chang­ing the world won’t make the sun­lightchal­lenged young wizards of Sil­i­con Val­ley cool. That’s the main con­clu­sion from Alexan­dra Wolfe’s new book, Val­ley of the Gods ( Si­mon & Schus­ter, 256 pp., eeeE out of four).

These nerds with money carry on much as the cast of Sil­i­con Val­ley has done in three sea­sons on HBO.

They pile into large houses from San Fran­cisco to Gil­roy look­ing for af­ford­able places to live in one of the na­tion’s most ex­pen­sive hous­ing mar­kets, as they try to con­vince them­selves that sleep­ing on a freight pal­let in a garage is worth it to be­come the next bil­lion­aire on the strength of a busi­ness plan to mine as­ter­oids.

They throw off their par­ents’ dreams of them at­tend­ing col­lege in fa­vor of a grant from bil­lion­aire Peter Thiel, Don­ald Trump’s fa­vorite tech mogul, so they can pur­sue their own dreams.

If it works, they be­come some of the world’s rich­est men, given most of the peo­ple here are men. These lar­val vi­sion­ar­ies don’t seem to know what to do with women, even if Sh­eryl Sand­berg is lean­ing in on them. They then in­dulge their ev­ery fan­tasy, such as throwing them­selves $ 10 mil­lion wed­dings with a Game of Thrones theme.

“The bil­lion- dol­lar com­pany that would ‘ change the world’ was the Sil­i­con Val­ley ver­sion of Wall Street’s ‘ num­ber’: the fig­ure that bankers bandied about to de­scribe how much money they planned to make,” Wolfe writes. “But here the af­fec­ta­tion was noble as­pi­ra­tion.”

And in this val­ley where Ja­panese and Mex­i­can farm­ers once grew plums and veg­eta­bles, the as­pi­ra­tions and af­fec­ta­tions sprout wildly.

As he com­peted for a Thiel fel­low­ship, young Jonathan Burn­ham burned brightly with his dream to mine as­ter­oids in space. “No­body laughed,” Wolfe writes. “Burn­ham then ex­plained that his goal was to de­velop space in­dus­try tech­nolo­gies to mine as­ter­oids and other plan­e­tary bod­ies such as comets for gold and plat­inum.” He got his fel­low­ship, spent it and re­al­ized there isn’t much of a mar­ket for as­ter­oid min­ing right now. Wolfe, a staff re­porter for The Wall Street Jour­nal, starts slowly here. At first, she seems en­thralled by these paragons of hoodie fash­ion and their big dreams. It’s hard to be­lieve she’s se­ri­ous when she writes, “Even more than a test­ing ground for star­tups, Sil­i­con Val­ley, to me, is a larger lab­o­ra­tory of cul­tural ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, where the only thing that’s im­pos­si­ble is to pre­dict.” By book’s end, as Wolfe tracks the Thiel fel­lows through their of­ten­tor­tured paths through the new econ­omy, it’s clear she’s half- se­ri­ous. She cap­tures the ab­sur­dity of this brave new world, pierces the hype but also con­veys the dreams and the pas­sions that can shape a world’s econ­omy. Maybe the pi­o­neers of the rail­roads, elec­tric light bulbs and au­to­mo­biles sounded this way dur­ing their times. Many eco­nomic pi­o­neers do. Le­land Stan­ford helped build the na­tion’s first transcon­ti­nen­tal rail­road. He be­came gov­er­nor of California and founded a uni­ver­sity, Stan­ford, where many of to­day’s fu­tur­is­tic ty­ros learned their craft. Eco­nomic dis­rup­tion comes full circle here, and Wolfe shows how.

 ?? SIL­I­CON VAL­LEY BY JAMIE TRUEBLOOD, HBO, VIA AP ??
SIL­I­CON VAL­LEY BY JAMIE TRUEBLOOD, HBO, VIA AP
 ?? MARK SELIGER ?? Au­thor Alexan­dra Wolfe is a re­porter for The Wall Street Jour­nal.
MARK SELIGER Au­thor Alexan­dra Wolfe is a re­porter for The Wall Street Jour­nal.
 ??  ?? The HBO se­ries Sil­i­con Val­ley, star­ring Ku­mail Nan­jiani, left, Zach Woods and Thomas Mid­dled­itch, could be a com­pan­ion piece to Val­ley of the Gods.
The HBO se­ries Sil­i­con Val­ley, star­ring Ku­mail Nan­jiani, left, Zach Woods and Thomas Mid­dled­itch, could be a com­pan­ion piece to Val­ley of the Gods.

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