Have you ever been to Paris?
Have you ever walked down the Seine, watching the Eiffel Tower light up the night sky and being met with architectural wonder after another? A million poets have tried, and failed, to describe its beauty. So I'm not even going to try—it's pretty as hell, alright?
In Paris, you can sense you're walking in a place that once was the very center of human civilization. There's a million and one traces of its former wealth and glory. Statues abound. Gold-leafed domes pierce the sky. Wherever you go in the City of Lights, you can tell that its inhabitants were once the masters of the universe.
Now I'd like you to contrast this with today's economic center of the universe. Here, you'll find no statues, no grand boulevards, no breathtaking architecture. Just overpriced coffeeshops and bland office buildings.
A couple of days ago, this tweet started making the rounds.
Based on the 12,000+ likes, it struck a nerve. It sure did with me.
It reminded me of the first time I visited the Valley. I took a cab down to Palo Alto and was astonished to see how bland everything seemed. As far as I could tell, it was no different from any other place I'd visited in the US.
This was where the future was being built, in nondescript office buildings?
This was where thousands of the most well-paid professionals commuted every single day, on potholed traffic-chocked highways?
This was where some of the wealthiest people in the world lived, in remodeled mid-century suburban homes?
If San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley, were its own country, it'd have the second-highest GDP per capita of any place on Earth. With $128,308 per capita, it'd be trailing only behind Qatar. Not bad for a city that has next-to-no natural resources to exploit.
Seriously, the wealth concentration here is insane. One in every 727 people in San Jose is a so-called Ultra-High Net-Worth Individual (UHNWI), meaning they've got more than $30 million in assets. And if we include the greater San Francisco Bay Area, it's the place with the second-most billionaires per capita. Hell, San Francisco alone has one billionaire for every 6,400 people living there.
But this is the interesting bit about Silicon Valley.
Driving South from San Francisco to San Jose, you'd be forgiven for thinking you're driving down any other highway in the US. You're met with fast food drive-throughs and billboards galore, as well as dozens of nondescript office buildings.
Look, there's another one on your left. Three-story buildings, bland facades, massive car park. Same shit, different office park, right?
But without looking at the massive sign out front, you would've never guessed that you just drove past the headquarters of a $350 billion-dollar tech giant. You just saw the Facebook/Meta office.
If Silicon Valley is so busy building the future, why is the Valley itself so… bland?
As Marc Andreessen puts it, we need to build. But despite all the talk of building a better world, it seems like the denizens of Silicon Valley have completely forgotten to build a better and more beautiful physical world right where they live.
Paris was once the wealthiest and most powerful city on Earth, which resulted in architectural marvels, lush public gardens, world-class museums, and a streetscape that is the envy of any other city on Earth.
What does San Jose have? You know, besides million-dollar mid-century suburban homes and overpriced coffeeshops? Sure, there's a ‘downtown’. One that's dissected by a 12-lane highway and is smaller than some Walmart parking lots, by the way.
So where are the expansive treelined boulevards, where are the beautifully-appointed parks?
And the same goes for the offices where the future is being built.
Take Facebook's/Meta's headquarters as an example. It's a giant office park, that's it! They've given the buildings a coat of paint and added some walking paths to give the college campus vibe—but it's still the old Sun Microsystems campus that was built in the 80s.
Just look at it, more than 50 acres of land to play with and one of the wealthiest companies on Earth dedicates more than 2/3rds of it to… parking?
Granted, their newly expanded headquarters just across the road is a lot more efficient when it comes to land usage. But it's still a monolithic construct, sandwiched between a six-lane highway and Belle Haven, a suburban neighborhood where the average house price is around $1.1 million.
An architectural marvel it may be, a valuable addition to the community it most certainly is not.
Apple is not doing much better, whose new headquarters sitting on a 175 acre lot is damn-near inaccessible on foot and is off-limits to the public. It definitely bucks the trend of nondescript office buildings, but that's about the only thing it's got going for it.
It seems radical to me that people in SV can be so laser-focused on building a better tomorrow when they're in their offices, yet completely disregard it the moment they're done for the day and get in their car to go home.
Building the future should also involve building up the physical environment around us. Building a better tomorrow doesn't just stop the moment we step away from our keyboards or leave our offices.
There are massive trends at work in the world of urbanism at the moment. Dissatisfaction with urban planning has boiled over since the pandemic. Walkability, mixed-use, and car-free development have become the rallying cry of millions.
Even Paris, the former center of the universe, is getting on board. Millions have been invested in barring cars from the city center, increasing housing stock, and generally making public life more pleasurable. So why can't the Valley do the same?
How many people would opt to live in San Jose if it weren't the tech capital of the world?
Let's take away the venture capital funds, the tech giants, and the industries that have sprung up around it. Would people still move out to the Valley? Is it that enjoyable to live there?
We can't treat building the future as an abstract concept. Something ‘out there’.
Building the future includes solving the world's biggest problems. Combatting climate change, helping humanity expand into space, and maybe even helping humans live forever. But building the future also includes making your roads slightly safer, your town slightly nicer to live in, and having housing that's affordable to all.
How much more could Silicon Valley accomplish with a population twice as large, thanks to affordable housing? How much more enjoyable would work be in offices that enhance the landscape, not detract from it? How much better would life be for the thousands of tech (and non-tech) workers if their streets were the envy of the world—as Paris’ once were?
What a future we'd build then.