The Google Bus means so many things. It means that the minions of the non-petroleum company most bent on world domination can live in San Francisco but work in Silicon Valley without going through a hair-raising commute by car – I overheard someone note recently that the buses shortened her daily commute to 3.5 hours from 4.5. It means that unlike gigantic employers in other times and places, the corporations of Silicon Valley aren’t much interested in improving public transport, and in fact the many corporations providing private transport are undermining the financial basis for the commuter train. It means that San Francisco, capital of the west from the Gold Rush to some point in the 20th century when Los Angeles overshadowed it, is now a bedroom community for the tech capital of the world at the other end of the peninsula.
There are advantages to being an edge, as California long was, but Silicon Valley has made us the centre. Five of the six most-visited websites in the world are here, in ranked order: Facebook, Google, YouTube (which Google owns), Yahoo! and Wikipedia. (Number five is a Chinese-language site.) If corporations founded by Stanford alumni were to form an independent nation, it would be the tenth largest economy in the world, with an annual revenue of $2.7 trillion, as some professors at that university recently calculated. Another new report says: ‘If the internet was a country, its gross domestic product would eclipse all others but four within four years.’
That country has a capital that doesn’t look like a capital. It looks like beautiful oak-studded hills and flatlands overrun by sprawl: suburban homes (the megamansions are more secluded) and malls and freeways often jammed with traffic and dotted with clunky campuses, as corporate headquarters of tech firms are always called. Fifty years ago, this was the ‘valley of heart’s delight’, one of the biggest orchard-growing regions in the world. It wasn’t to everyone’s delight: Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers movement started in San Jose, because the people who actually picked all those plums and apricots worked long hours for abysmal wages, but the sight and smell of the 125,000 acres of orchard in bloom was supposed to be spectacular.