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In Pictures: Silicon Valley's tech culture - 'We just want to be alone'
From a distance, Silicon Valley may look like a center for technical innovation. But it's more than that. Look closer and you'll find a home for social outcasts, radical libertarians and nerdy geniuses who dream of fleeing society entirely and building their own tech-utopias.
Silicon Valley is home to social outcasts, radical libertarians and nerdy geniuses who just want to be left alone. But their isolationist tendencies go beyond just wanting some space from the rest of the world. They dream of fleeing society completely and building tech-utopias. Seriously. We're not making this stuff up: Signs of such isolationist behavior are rampant, from self-contained campuses to virtual-world PC games to escapist events such as Burning Man. There are even cries for outright secession.
Will the Silicon Valley Secede?
Balaji Srinivasan, co-founder of genetics startup Counsyl and a Stanford University lecturer, outlined plans for a techno-utopia at Y Combinator and seceding from the government in order to free technology innovation. His words were warmly received by the crowd, reported CNET. While Srinivasan's plan likely won't happen anytime soon, his proposal sheds light on Silicon Valley's counterculture.
"The best part is this, the people who think this is weird, the people who sneer at the frontier, who hate technology, won't follow you there," he says. "We need to run the experiment, to show what a society run by Silicon Valley looks like without affecting anyone who wants to live under the Paper Belt," which refers to environments governed by, say, the U.S. government.
Set Sail to a City in the Sea
In 2008, former Google engineer Patri Friedman and tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel founded The Seasteading Institute. Their vision is to build an ocean city off the coast of northern California that lies outside U.S. boundaries. The Seasteading Institute is hoping, somewhat optimistically, to have this self-sufficient city floating by 2015.
"We want people to have freedom to experiment with new ideas and this is the last territory in which they can do that," The Seasteading Institute senior director Randolph Hencken told The Huffington Post last year. He added, "Right now, if you don't like your government, it can be nearly impossible to just get up and leave."
The Burning Man Culture
Every year San Francisco Bay Area denizens scramble to get tickets and head off to the Nevada desert to be a part of a hedonistic community that values radical art and self-expression above all things. It is escapism at its finest. The week-long event culminates with the bonfire of a wooden man. It's not just free spirits who attend, either. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google Co-Founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, and venture capitalists and startup entrepreneurs have made the journey to Burning Man.
A Brave New (Google) World
Silicon Valley workers want to live in their own snow globe, and tech companies have bent over backwards trying to accommodate them. No company is better at this than Google. The Google campus is a world unto itself, with free gourmet food and services such as haircutting, laundry and exercise equipment. Google also provides free transportation, in the form of Wi-Fi-equipped busses, for employees commuting from San Francisco. It's a Google world after all.
Don’t Let Laws Get in the Way
Despite Google's tech version of Disney's "It's a Small World," Google CEO Larry Page wants even more isolation, self-reliance and freedom from the tyranny of, say, public health regulations. Speaking at the Google I/O developers conference this summer, Page said:
"There are many, many exciting and important things we can do but we can't do because they're illegal or not allowed by regulations. As technologists we should have safe places where we can try out new things and figure out the effect on society and people without having to deploy into the normal world. People who like those kind of things can go there and experiment."
Jobs' Vision: Apple Goes Where No Company Has Gone Before
One of the last acts of Steve Jobs was to get approval to build Apple's "spaceship" campus in Cupertino. The council gave its approval, and Apple plans to have its grand opening in winter 2016. The preliminary design of the campus has sparked considerable debate. Among the isolationist theorists, the campus looks like a castle and a moat or a spaceship on the verge of taking off.
The spaceship analogy, in its simplistic form, is also "a little scary," Steve Yamaguma, president and creative director of Design2Market, a long-time Silicon Valley design firm serving tech companies, told CIO.com. "A spaceship lands and later takes off into space. It has a sense of being temporary."
SpaceX Wants to Relocate to Outer Space
There is no doubt that Elon Musk is a man of vision and action. He brought PayPal and electric cars to the masses. He's also CEO and CTO of a company called SpaceX, which made history in the spring of 2012 as the first privately held company to send a cargo payload aboard its spacecraft to the International Space Station. But this is just the beginning. SpaceX's ultimate goal is to enable people to live on other planets. Think: Mars colony.
Elysium Is More Than a Movie
Apple's "spaceship" campus, The Seasteading Institute's floating city, and Elon Musk's dreams of outer space all conjure the image of Elysium. In the movie, two classes of people exist in 2154: the rich and smart people who live on a luxurious space station called Elysium, and the poor souls who toil on an over-populated and run-down Earth. Perhaps this is what Silicon Valley techies had in mind all along.
That Pioneering Silicon Valley Spirit
Whoa! Let's pull back on the reins, and get back to reality. Where is this isolationist culture coming from? Adventurers throughout our country's history have looked to the lawless and ungoverned west, not only for riches but also a little elbow room. Go as far as you can go, and you'll find yourself in Silicon Valley.
Topographically speaking, the valley, too, is set off by dusty mountains and a foreboding coastline. This insular piece of fertile land has cultivated some of the most unique and successful companies in the world: Intel, Cisco, Oracle, Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter.
Didn't We See This in a Computer Game?
Among Silicon Valley techies, one of the most popular and time-honored PC games is Sid Meier's Civilization. The goal of the game is – surprise! – to create an empire that stands the test of time. Using exploration, warfare and diplomacy, players decide on how to build a civilization. The latest version, Civilization V: Brave New World, was released earlier this year. There's just no better way to build your virtual utopia.
Life Going According to 'Office Space'
The movie "Office Space" has become a cult classic among Silicon Valley digerati, probably because they can relate to the lonely cubicle life, oddball co-workers, out-of-touch management and, of course, those damn TPS reports. But the hero for most techies wasn't Peter, Michael Bolton or Samir, rather it's Milton, the abused employee cast off to the basement to work with no pay. In the end, we're cheering for him as he finally escapes to a tropical beach on the company's dime and finds his utopia (although with bad customer service).