Focus: Silicon valleys breed plastic lifestyles

Focus

My misgivings began 25,000 feet above San Jose airport. At that height, Silicon Valley was an ugly, brown smear beside the bright water of San Francisco Bay, about the colour and shape of an over-ripe banana. At 10,000 feet it looked like a 60-mile long strip mall running all the way from San Francisco in the north to San Jose in the south.

At 5,000 feet I noticed that the traffic on the clogged highways wasn't moving. I was making the journey from New York with a view to perhaps settling in the area for a while and finding a job. With more millionaires per acre than any other spot on the planet, and as the place where the "New Economy" is being invented, Silicon Valley had glamour. If not untold wealth, it at least held out the promise of something interesting for me, a British ex-pat who has been living happily in the US for more than four years working in the media.

Three months later, I was a refugee on the plane back to New York, only too glad to get out of the place. This is why. My first discovery on the drive from San Jose airport was that Silicon Valley really is a 60 mile long strip mall: a relentless procession of junk buildings, junk food joints, chain stores and parking lots. Now America's eleventh largest city, San Jose was not even in the top 75 a decade ago.

The Valley's population has soared by 30 per cent in less than 20 years to more than two million as people have flocked to join the technology boom, and it hasn't coped well. There is no "there" there. Burlingame, Redwood City, Palo Alto, San Jose merge into one vast meaningless conurbation, a classic example of the unplanned suburban nightmare at which California excels.

It is completely appropriate that the centre of Palo Alto, the spiritual heart of Silicon Valley where Stanford University resides, looks like the kind of shrink-wrapped cliche of a suburban high street that Walt Disney would dream up.

Outside the airport, I joined route 101, the valley's main commuter artery, and immediately got stuck in a traffic jam. Virtually every car had only one occupant. In a place with precious little public transport, where you have to drive to the store for milk, you die without a car. Fifty miles in each direction is a perfectly normal commute for Silicon Valley folk.

The only way to beat rush hour traffic in some places is to get up at 5am. Leave 15 minutes later and your commute time will double. I soon discovered not only that the normal state of valley traffic is to be stationary, but that without a mobile phone you are not taken seriously.

The next problem: find somewhere to live. After New York I was prepared for small apartments and high prices. I wasn't prepared for all that plus the dubious privilege of being squeezed between route 101 and some lego- like business park, with a bruising 30 minute car ride to the shops and bars.

The pressure of population together with the proliferation of absurdly rich people in the area has pushed house prices up by 31 per cent in the last year, nearly two and a half times the national average. This year Palo Alto overtook Beverly Hills as the most expensive place in the US for property. A typical four bedroom family house costs $843,500. Yet competition among buyers is cut-throat. It is the only property market I have encountered where apartments regularly sell for $100,000 more than the asking price. Rents are equally crippling. I kept wondering how people afforded it, until I learnt that the average Silicon Valley salary is $80,250 - more than twice the US national average, making it possibly the highest on earth.

And the pressure on salaries is still upwards. The unemployment rate is 0.3 per cent. A recent study found that the local technology industry is currently about 160,000 jobs short of what it needs. As I devoted myself to penetrating this pulsating careers market, I gradually and reluctantly concluded that these high rewards were really compensation for the ghastly lifestyle suffered by the valley's denizens.

We all know about the techno-geeks who work 18 hours a day, live on cold pizza and sleep on the floor beneath their desks. But you may not have heard about the lives of the tens of thousands of non-technical people - the media, "creative", managerial, sales and administrative cadres which form the majority of the Silicon workforce. Every day, more arrive by the plane-load.

Ten years ago, Hollywood was the trendy place for MBA graduates to sell their skills. This year, however, two thirds of Harvard's MBAs headed out to the technology industry with dreams of becoming multi-millionaires before they were 30. Most of them probably didn't have a clue what they were letting themselves in for.

For a start, their chances of cleaning up are not nearly as good as you might think. Only about one in 10 start-ups get further funding or make it all the way to the stock market. Of the companies that do get funding, less than half actually make a profit.

While that is not necessarily an obstacle to obtaining an insanely high stock market rating, it raises the chances that your company's share price will slump below the issue price six months after flotation.

To break into the charmed circle, you will have to attend a minimum of three or four networking occasions per week - conventions, societies, lectures - usually in the evening, which will take the place of any social life. You will shake innumerable hands, hoping that at least one of them will belong to someone who might be useful to you.

You will distribute your business cards like confetti. If you are successful, you will eventually get poached away from your employer to a "brand new start-up" offering bucket loads of options. You may even raise some money to do your own start-up - but don't count on it, because every other young MBA in Silicon Valley is trying to do the same thing.

Your working day breaks down something like this: three hours driving, three hours networking, eight hours face-time at the office. It's a punishing schedule. If you are a heterosexual male the picture is particularly grim. If Silicon Valley resembles some Muslim country where the women are all in purdah, it is because high technology is probably more male dominated than any industry since coal mining.

A dating agency called American Singles recently arranged an event in San Jose to which women from all over the US were invited to meet the thrusting but frustrated young men of Silicon Valley. The women turned up in their thousands. Unfortunately, American Singles had made the horrible mistake of organising the event in the same week as the Comdex convention over in Las Vegas, the biggest high-tech jamboree of the year.

After three months of observing this lifestyle, I found myself muttering over and over: "Life's too short, Life's too short." So I booked my flight and packed. Or course, I nearly missed the plane because of a traffic jam on the 101.

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