The Wild West Show

Peter Hall realises he’s living in an East Coast Victorian time warp when he takes a trip to Fremont in Silicon Valley. Despite crystals, astrology and apparent air-head hedonism, technological innovators are changing things so fast he can’t keep up with

As a first-time visitor to the fabled Silicon Valley last week, I was struck by the curious sensation of being somehow behind time. In the most physically apparent sense (having awoken at some absurd hour of the morning) I was three hours behind US eastern time, and eight hours behind Greenwich Mean Time. In the most familiar sense, traffic in the bay area around San Francisco is bad enough during rush hours to guarantee late arrivals to meetings. And in the most bewildering sense, Silicon Valley is ahead of us all. To the extent that the region produces most of the tools that designers currently use, the west holds the keys to our future.

As Richard Rodriguez points out in a recent issue of Harper’s magazine, the West Coast is not infrequently viewed by East Coasters as the home of the future. “College sit-ins, Malibu Buddhism, skateboards, beach boys, silicon chips,” he writes. “The price Californians pay for such flattery is that we agree to be seen as people lacking in experience, judgement, and temper.” The same might be said of the British attitude towards the whole of the US. And yet, the settlers of the New World bring knowledge of the old with them; it is they who are, in a sense, the more experienced. Likewise, the West Coast settlers brought a knowledge of the East Coast with them as they moved across the country. Rodriguez thinks it no coincidence that Los Angeles should have produced the cynical, hard-boiled tone of literature known as noir.

Silicon Valley offers a distinctly American version of a futuristic landscape. Everywhere is accessed by air-conditioned cars. Everything is designed to be seen from a car, the low-level architecture, the building signs, the manicured verges, the orange trees and the trash hidden out back. This is a car culture with no sense of its ecological impropriety, because there is apparently no practical alternative. Even among the alternatives. A few years back, the California Government ambitiously decreed that two per cent of all new cars sold by the end of the decade should be “zero emission”, therefore battery-powered. One stretch of freeway near San Diego is being earmarked as a test site for computer-controlled driving, whereby drivers relinquish their vehicles to an automated road that sets the speed and spacing to maximise throughput. It is a car culture with a vision of a car driven future, uncompromised by concurrent ecological thinking.

Driving over the Dumbarton Bridge across the bay, I was surprised to see mountains looming up in the hazy, ochre distance above Fremont. It was an encounter with nature startling enough to make me turn off the air conditioner and wind down the windows.

Back in the future Fremont were the cool and unrevealing offices of Syquest, maker of what was – until recently – the standard fast removable storage drive for designers. But Syquest’s future is looking a little hazy. Thrown into a tailspin by the soaring success of the famous Fitch-designed Zip drive, the corporation is fighting off bankruptcy. The future of data storage is small, fast and cheap.

The next day at the Seybold trade fair in San Francisco, Olympus demonstrated its Sys removable optical drive, priced at around $100 more than the Zip, but with greater longevity and reliability. The future may not be Zippy, but Syssy.

The future of new media design, too, is changing, with forthcoming design tools like the intuitively organised Net Objects Fusion eliminating any need to learn hypertext mark-up language (html) for the Web. In Silicon

Valley, there is talk of little else but software applications that allow designers to work unhindered by technical concerns. Just when we’d all learned to stop saying multimedia and to deftly apply the savvy term new media, new media is starting to sound like a retro-futurist moniker, like New Wave, or Art Nouveau, or New Romantic. New media is already old media, and new new media is Internet TV, Virtual Reality Modelling Language and singing and dancing interactive 3D graphics.

I flew home to New York later that evening, and buried my head in a book to avoid watching the in-flight movie, Mission Impossible.

I established to myself that I was flying forward in time to get back to the relative old world of the east. Through the future and into the past. Needless to say, it was difficult to sleep.

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