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Illustration by Jeremy Russell


Beyond the Valley of the Silicon

By Annalee Newitz

LAST NIGHT, I found myself trapped between two dotcom parties being thrown in a San Francisco bar. One--to which I had actually been invited--was for Whatissexy.com; the other was for the weirdly titled Zupit.com, whose name is bewilderingly spelled with an accent mark over the "u" that could not actually be reproduced in a URL or the version of Microsoft Word in which I'm composing this column.

Zupit, as a rather drunken VP informed us, is in the on-line encryption/games/distribution biz. Yet another multimedia entertainment delivery e-commerce startup, I thought to myself jadedly, sipping drinks from one of the full-service, dotcom-funded bars.

That's when the trouble began. Zupit's little packs of promotional debris looked exactly like the ones from Whatissexy. Both were nestled in shiny white bags topped with puffs of multicolored tissue paper. When I accidentally scooped up a Zupit bag, I was accosted by someone who cried, "Put that down! That's not for you!" (Don't worry, dear reader--I managed to abscond with a worthless Zupit hat and pen.)

Meanwhile, the Whatissexy people had nubile, velvet-clad cuties handing their promo stuff in a positively promiscuous way. "Would you like a bag?" they kept asking everyone in the bar, brandishing their free wares. I'm certain that several Zupitoids left that party with pussy-shaped lapel pins and an adult-themed CD.

It was a typical San Francisco evening.

San Francisco has been called the bedroom community for Silicon Valley, and maybe that's true. After all, who wants to sleep in the smog-wreathed sprawl south of San Bruno when they can commute to a place full of "culture"? For just a few bucks, Caltrain will whisk you from the silver buildings of Redwood City to the, uh, bricks-and-mortar world of San Francisco.

But at this point, how much of a difference is there really between SF "culture" and SV (fill in whatever the opposite of culture is to you)? Silicon Valley is simply more overt about its total devotion to high-tech capital, with its row upon row of buildings that look for all the world like they've been created by a full polygon engine and deluxe texture-mapping software. San Francisco is secretive; The City hides its corporate drones and cubicles in random places, where you might not anticipate them. Except in certain areas like South Park, the industry is covert. A trashed warehouse could be full of squatters and artists or, upon further examination of those brand-new back doors reinforced with Super Secure Alarms, a bunch of multimedia Netniks.

Ever been inside the offices of a San Francisco startup? Gorgeous. Soaring walls, funky paintings, distressed brick and retro iron beams. And the websites they build! I compulsively return to Fire Engine Red and Phoenix Pop and Razorfish, just to see what sorts of pixellated glamour have come wafting out of their studios in the past three weeks.

LucasArts--a digitally driven capitalist machine if ever I knew one--is going to build a "green" campus in the Presidio. Think of it: trees, ocean, clear air, quiet. And hundreds of employees, devoted to the production of images that convey: trees, ocean, clear air, quiet. On the green hills, among the Victorians, San Francisco has manufactured an industry that hides in its own virtual light.

Silicon Valley, mired in toxic waste and freeway fumes, does not hide its cyberugliness nearly so well (except maybe in Mountain View). Nor does it pretend to have any sort of "culture." It's citizens--at least, those who can afford it--are unapologetically plugged into anything that will allow them to escape: They travel in climate-controlled cars, wear earphones that lead to MP3 players and spend all day sucking up Web glitter on full-color 25-inch monitors. They are using media the way some lucky home-owners use San Francisco. It's their portable bedroom community, the nice place where they relax after work.

The strange thing about San Francisco is that members of its dotcomigensia don't really want to escape, except perhaps from seeing all those people in Hunter's Point who don't give a crap about digital anything. Outside, it's beautiful. On-line, it's beautiful. As recent BART station ads for yet another tech job fair proclaim, "It's like Woodstock for capitalists!" Not to sound too much like Tom Frank, but what's wrong with this oh-so-pretty picture?

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who occasionally gets preachy.

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From the March 23-29, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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