Reclaiming Silicon Valley
Careless misuse of a name marginalizes a storied history and an indispensable present
In 1986, the following sentence appeared on the first page of a book about Silicon Valley:
The name “Silicon Valley” is a widely used pseudonym for California’s Santa Clara Valley, one of the world’s largest centers of high-tech manufacturing, which is located approximately 50 miles south of San Francisco and Oakland.
The appearance of this sentence in The High-Tech Career Book by Betsy Collard was my doing: as a proofreader at William Kaufmann, Inc., the book’s publisher, I flagged the fact that the book had casually adopted the term “Silicon Valley” without specifying what it meant. In my twenties and in my first job out of college, I remember being genuinely concerned that someone reading the book might pull out a roadmap (we had those back then) and look for a place called “Silicon Valley” — which they would, of course, never find. The author’s response to my margin flag was nonchalant: “Have the proofer write something up and we’ll slip it in somewhere.” (Or words to that effect.) And with that, something I’d written was printed between the covers of a book for the first time.
Being a native of the Santa Clara Valley, born in San Jose long before anyone ever conceived of a “Silicon Valley,” I was a homey back in 1986 and I’m a homey now. I eventually landed in high tech myself and spent 30+ lucrative years in the field before retiring last year. As such, I am increasingly concerned to see media outlets nationwide casually misuse the term “Silicon Valley” as convenient shorthand for some or all of the five tech giants Facebook, Google, Apple, Twitter, and Amazon. Obviously, these five companies not only make a lot of money and employ a lot of people, they also dominate our internet-driven society and culture, and thus require a lot of news coverage. But Twitter and Amazon are not now and have never been located in Silicon Valley, and using “Silicon Valley” as a blanket term for these and other non–Silicon Valley outfits like Microsoft raises two key issues — beyond the fact that it just grates at a homey like me.
First, it’s just factually incorrect. “Silicon Valley” — as the name clearly implies — is a place, not an industry or a business model. Our internet replacement for those aforementioned paper roadmaps, Google Maps, has recognized this, and not only takes you to the Santa Clara Valley when you search for “Silicon Valley,” but provides you with a nice description of the place, not unlike my description from 1986:
Silicon Valley, in the southern San Francisco Bay Area of California, is home to many start-up and global technology companies. Apple, Facebook and Google are among the most prominent.
Note that the “high-tech manufacturing” of my 1986 note has become “global technology companies” in Google’s update. This not only makes sense, it points up the fact that Silicon Valley has evolved, and is no longer beholden to the silicon manufacturing that gave it its name.
Which leads us to the second issue: Including outliers like Twitter and foreigners like Amazon in “Silicon Valley” marginalizes the true valley institutions and smaller concerns that make up the core of one of America’s most vibrant local economies. Tech stalwarts like Adobe, Cisco, eBay, and PayPal have all held fast to their Silicon Valley roots even as they expand globally. Western Digital continues to operate a manufacturing plant in South San Jose, and dozens of smaller corporations and startups dot the valley floor from Great Oaks Parkway all the way to the Bayfront Expressway. Hewlett-Packard — arguably the corporate founder of Silicon Valley — has committed to retaining a strong presence in Palo Alto and San Jose, even as it begins its relocation to Houston.
To those still throwing shade at me, I’ll admit I’m fixating here on a sense of place. Who gives a hoot, you might ask, where your impersonal tech behemoth sits? If that’s you asking, you’ve made my point for me. Because every place in this country that gains any amount of recognition, whether it be New York, Boston, Chicago, or Silicon Valley, is so much more than the industry or industries that drive it. New York is a global center for financial services, health care, and traditional publishing, but it is also home to Greenwich Village, the Highline, and a revitalized Brooklyn. Similarly, Castro Street, Murphy Avenue, and San Pedro Square are as important to Silicon Valley as any Googleplex or Apple spaceship. Tech behemoths are not, by definition, impersonal — far from it, I would say, and that’s a debate we can leave for another day. But even if they were, there is culture and movement outside their walls that deserves to keep its hard-earned moniker, and not have it reduced to an epithet for one particularly notorious corner of the tech industry.
Having worked as an editor — work that has involved both conforming to style guides and developing and maintaining them — I know that the Washington Post and the New York Times actually take questions like this seriously, and that there were most certainly conversations about what I’m calling this misuse of the term, “Silicon Valley.” These conversations led to a decision to use the term this way, so I’m just issuing a faint call from out here in the cyber-wild for a change of policy: respect the place, respect the people, respect the companies that have built and maintain the tech infrastructure on which we all rely. Most of all, respect your readers by working just a little harder to come up with a term that is both accurate and considerate.