New testament to Silicon Valley
Where cash can’t buy cool but pipe dreams can help fuel the GDP
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.