SILICON VALLEY, CALIFORNIA
Late Autumn 2019
“Ambition is a beautiful thing,” declares Anna.
“Not when it’s mixed with hidden avarice,” I respond, sliding into the two-seater red convertible with its swooping fenders and sleek design.
“If you weren’t so driven, you’d never have moved to California. You’d never have met your husband—your child wouldn’t be here!”
“True … and I loved my career. I wouldn’t trade my experience for the world. I’m talking about the greed of those that make policy decisions. When the love of power and money become violent and deadly, there’s a bad motive behind the scene.”
Sometimes Silicon Valley seems like an emblem of Janus-headed capitalism. On one side harmless and helpful, on the other side a blood-thirsty face.
The recognition that big-tech has “defense” funding at its core became a soul-sucking dilemma for me after becoming a mother. With its link to military operations abroad, it profoundly colors the way I see Silicon Valley today; an ongoing Pentagon project.
“You keep insisting that loss of data privacy and the gun violence we see today have much in common,” Anna raises her face to the calming sun while she starts her car.
I swear there’s a connection. “If we’re not trading guns, we’re trading humanity’s privacy and personal data. It’s not a sudden military takeover, but a gradual subversion into an overthrow of our basic human rights.”
“A coup d’état,” Anna blurts out, her voice revealing a different emotion than her smiling face.
I’d become obsessed with visiting the global tech-hub that pulled me to California so long ago. It would be therapeutic, even with the haunting sensation the high-tech world that molded my career is linked to me recently nearly getting killed.
Grateful Anna had offered to drive to the South Bay in her vintage BMW convertible, I sit in the passenger seat enjoying the wind blowing through my hair. The fresh air and beautiful scenery of swaying palm trees against rolling hills ease the anxiety of that day.
But not the memories….
For a moment, I freeze, and a flashback enters my mind:
The young man sits alone in a corner of the hip café. He is surrounded by electronics, including a laptop, smartphone, Google Glass, and gold-accented earbuds. His hauntingly beautiful grey eyes meet mine. We speak a few soft-hellos, and that’s the last I see of him.
Until on the TV-screen not long after we left the scene, where he’s turned into another sensationalized crazed “gunman.” With no mention of the American business-culture of violence at the helm—including Washington’s expanding drone wars.
It’s been a month since a barrage of bullets killed four people at the Golden Gate Grind, a peaceful, upscale cafe overlooking the San Francisco Bay. An hour before the shooting, we both had been enjoying gourmet coffee and truffles with our girlfriend Julie, in the exact corner of the coffee house where it happened.
The trendy café is a special destination I frequented for sixteen years, the first time while pushing my son Tyler as an infant in a stroller. It’s tucked in the beautiful hills of the East Bay, within a mile of my house.
That beloved neighborhood coffee shop with its lush gardens, fire-pit and relaxing classical music, its cozy little nooks replete with colorful artwork and burlap ceilings— you don’t expect something like a mass shooting to happen there.
Until it does.
Apart from shattering an idyllic community, something inside me ruptured. America’s gun violence hit too close to home—to close my only child, the boy I would die for.
Anna and I remain quiet for much of the car ride, each locked in our thoughts. With the top down, only the music, wind, and wheels churning are heard as we roll into the valley passing the golden-brown hills dotted with palm trees. America’s Ventura Highway floats through the air, adding to my nostalgia. We coast into the heart and soul of computer technology—the place that grabbed me by the heart and soul so long ago. My best career stomping grounds, despite any mixed feelings about its indirect link to the café tragedy.
Silicon Valley—the place which birthed the technology that consumes my only child’s life today… immersing him deep into a virtual world of video game obsession.
Hours later, we watch a young girl spin down the Googleplex campus. It gleams into the distance with robotic statues symbolizing the codename of each Android release. A fairytale-like collection of desserts.
The little girl is no longer twirling, her eyes and mouth wide open. “It’s like Candyland!” she squeals. She runs and touches each plastic statue starting with the cupcake, then moves onto the oversized swirl lollipop, the jellybeans, and lands on the sprinkled donut—disappearing through the hole into the matrix of digitized sweet treats. A female voice calls for her and she jumps for joy skipping back to her Mom.
“Silicon Valley has become a major tourist attraction,” I murmur. “It’s like taking the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland.” Anna nods, her eyes spanning the sprawling expanse of saucer-like buildings and colorful Google bikes.
People flock around the giant search engine’s luxurious campus we had toured, along with other corporate sites in Silicon Valley at my stubborn insistence. We took snapshots at the Facebook “like” sign, checked out the garages many of the tech-giants originated in, strolled through the Computer History Museum. We breezed through the Apple store.
It’s a late Thursday afternoon before dusk. Earlier, I had also urged Anna to drive down Great America Parkway in Santa Clara so I could see where Unabridged Networks once was; to see the now-empty building that had occupied my analytical mind for so long.
My heart feels heavy. It’s nearly seventeen years since I left my cushy career in the land of technology and toys. How do I explain such a love-hate relationship to myself and to others? It’s mesmerizing; I must admit. This is where I lived and worked upon transferring to the West Coast. Nothing is the same, yet the memories flood back.
People in chic tailored pieces, statement heels, ankle cropped trousers, silk button-down blouses, or a business-casual look paired with lots of accessories rush around taking care of business. Even the ones dressed down seem straight out of the Stanford Shopping Center or a fashion magazine. I think of the musty Ann Taylor suits hanging in my closet. Good thing for classic design, they may still be in style and come in handy.
I glance at my workout running shoes and feel frumpy. In contrast, Anna wears a camel coat and black skinny jeans paired with knee-high leather boots fitting in with the young workers.
She also had differing thoughts than I did; “What’s up with the futuristic glass buildings everywhere, this ees an earthquake state!” Her hands make a delicate gesture to the huge Android robot poking out of a building, its eyes flashing red. “Eet looks phallic”. I’d never heard her sound so French.
One of those deep hearty belly-laughs that brings tears to my eyes escapes from my lungs. Or maybe the tears were already there. Silicon Valley! “Looks like it was all built by an army of robots,” I respond. The glass domes, a dream-world replete with an R2-D2-like robot smiling back makes me half expect a Star Wars spaceship to land.
There are lots of potential landing sites within this sprawling campus: perhaps on top of one of the seven fitness centers or twenty-five cafeterias, the bowling alley, in the multiple sand beach volleyball courts or huge ledge of the climbing wall.
I am reminded of the stark contrast of Silicon Valley’s excesses to the poor impoverished villages I had walked through back in the 90s on a business trip to China.
But I notice something that hadn’t been here when I lived in the valley; homeless people, going from their office buildings, schools, plumbing jobs, or whatever to their dilapidated RVs lining the eastern edge of Stanford University.
“These homeless people, some have two and three jobs,” a guy had said in passing. “I know a professor at San Jose State University living in her car where she grades papers. There are college students living under an overpass or couch surfing with fast disappearing friends.”
Two teenage girls bump into each other while staring at their cell phones. One of them turns, her eyes holding the unblinking intensity of an owl as she crashes again, this time into Google’s ice cream sandwich statue.
That prompts me to swipe my phone to look at the multitude of photos I took during our day-long tour of the valley I once knew by heart.
I’d taken lots of snapshots of the tall palm trees everywhere I had fallen in love with long ago. The area went from being a simple orchard to the tech-hub of the world to a futuristic Sci-Fi reality.
“You’re crying!” Anna whispered, leaning closer.
“This…” I spread my hands out in front of me. “None of this was here when I worked in Silicon Valley. It’s transformed into… I don’t know.” Visions of me working sixty-seventy plus hour weeks came to mind, out of a cubicle rather than an open workspace. I had a gorgeous view out the window of rolling hills, tall swaying palms, the tips of thrill rides at Great America….
Anna looks at me thoughtfully, then closes her eyes to listen. If anyone understands why I want to play tourist in my pastime intense-and-loved career environment, it’s she. Even more so than my husband and son, the two people I love the most.
She waited. The words are burning in my throat. My inner conflict runs deeper than losing the glow of accomplishment of writing articles published in top tech-magazines—far deeper than the lucrative income I gave up raising my kid.
I turn in a circle taking in the scene. “Silicon Valley today, it’s bigger—a more amplified version.” Google’s honeycomb, eclair, and gingerbread robots stare back at me with smirks on their faces. “It’s arguably more optimistic, yet in a utopian sort of way— a utopia causing dystopia.”
“Ha-ha, welcome to Oligarchy Valley!” a guy overhearing us laughs as he stops his bike. Funny, seeing a Googler say this. I notice a sign reading, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!” by the picnic table. Maybe we should call it Surveillance Valley.
“You’re on a Google-bike, so you must be an employee,” I comment.
He seems to ponder this, “I’m a part-time security guard, a contractor. They let me ride the bikes and get the free lunch—while other employees get three gourmet meals. But if I tried to get a takeout box to bring home to my hungry little kids, I’d get fired.”
He takes off on the cheery rainbow-colored bike, my breaking heart following him. I had to admit the bike-share idea is brilliant.
Anna turns her whole body toward me, “Go on Caryssa, get it all out.”
“I don’t know when it all started… maybe back in 1886 during Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad when it deemed that a private corporation was a ‘natural person.’ Who knows?” I say. “But corporations are more powerful than our country itself, and my beloved Silicon Valley is funding future wars. Silicon Valley is a stronger political power now than Wall Street—or even Washington.”
We both seem to ponder this while soaking in the sunshine and beautiful sights around us. Music and the smell of food fills the air.
“Speaking of funding, you mentioned the last place you want to drive through today is Sand Hill Road, for old times’ sake.” Anna reminded me while sliding her Kate Spade sunglasses over her eyes.
“You mean vulture capitalist? I heard a bunch of them moved to the city, but let’s head into Palo Alto anyway. I could use a fashion upgrade at the Stanford Shopping Center.” I felt passé all-day wearing my running shoes, jeans, and poncho.
As we walk across the middle of the campus, I stand in front of the giant T-Rex sculpture. “Anna, take a shot of me in front of this, please, I’m a tech-dinosaur!”
Crossing Amphitheatre Parkway towards the park, a twenty-something woman compliments us, “love your casual-chic look, girls.”
“We’re still fashion-savvy within the tech-elite,” I laugh.
As Anna steers her vintage BMW convertible north on the 101, I relax under hot waves of afternoon sunshine. The striking brown hills of San Jose flash in the distance against the swaying palms, framing the valley with a golden embrace. That nostalgia remained, almost a longing for the Silicon Valley career I left behind.
“I’ve always loved this cool retro-mobile, what year is it?” I ask.
Anna pats the dashboard, “It’s a 1971 model, the 507. Pierre bought it at BMW France before we even married. It was looking somewhat beat up, but he’s babied it ever since.”
We travel onto the Embarcadero exit toward Stanford University. “Do you still want to stop at the shopping center?” Anna asked, French accent gone.
But as soon as we turn onto Sand Hill Road, I say. “Let’s go check out that commotion.” There are rows of tents and chairs set up on the grounds with a center stage and PA system. When we got closer, I can see the undeniably zippered V-neck sweaters and tailored suits of Venture Capitalist. I’d seen nothing like this on the side of the road. A Starbucks or restaurant, yes, but not outside.
“What should we do?”
“Pull over to the curb. Wow, I know one of those guys, it’s Sean Coleman. He worked at Unabridged Networks,” I say.
“He worked with you?” Anna turns the engine off.
“Not really, he was at the company after I was, before the acquisition chewed up the company and spit everyone out. Last I knew he was bowing to the Federal Division working contracts for the Army, Navy, and Homeland Security so he could pay his fancy city rent and drive his $60K Beemer. I’m going over to see what up, want to come?”
Anna sighed. “I’m an artist Caryss. Go ahead, cure your curiosity.”
“The VC community would be interested in using art as a political weapon—”
The sun casts a glare off the stage. Everywhere are whispers of “revolutionary” and “leading edge.” Or about that next two-hundred-million-dollar round of funding to change the world.
As I neared Sean, I overhear his conversation: “I’m the head of external affairs of the CIA Venture Capital firm, keynoting this conference. But I also founded a software start-up and would like to pitch to the VC panel.”
“You each get half an hour. Do you have your pitch deck and the externals affairs angle ready?” The young bearded man dressed in a fancy cowboy shirt responds to Sean. Not the standard VC fashion statement I remember.
Sean had his back to me, and I decide I don’t want to intrude. As I’m turning to leave, I catch his attention. “Caryssa Flynn?” he asks, eyebrows arched high above his eyes. “What brings you here?” His gaze travels down my body, to my worn-out Nike’s back to my tangled hair and tired face.
“I toured Silicon Valley with a friend.”
“Your old stomping grounds? Seems odd.” Sean could not look me in the eyes, his focus darting around the grounds as if ferreting out the first seed to feed his arsenal of technology.
“So, I hear you’re a big VC for the CIA now—”
“Look Caryssa, I don’t need a lecture before I speak.”
“So is this your first attempt, a seed round—”
“I have funding already.” He looks at his Rolex.
He hesitates, making no eye contact. “DARPA.”
It doesn’t surprise me he got funding from the Defense Advanced Research Agency, the Darth Vader of defense. “Tell me, will you be pitching to them?” I point to the sign for SoftBank, a funding stream for Saudi arms deals. “Or them?” I refer to a VC firm funding smart-guns and linked to the NRA.
“I’ll fucking pitch to whatever investor will fund my idea, now if you’ll excuse me.” He walks off, shoulders back, and head held high. I didn’t even have time to share my near-death in a coffee shop, linked to the technology sector he pitches.
“Well, that looked like it went over like a fart in church.” Anna started up the engine, the vintage BMW purring to life.
I laughed. What else could I do? “We should have stayed at the utopian Candyland of global madness.”
We travel a few miles until we see bumper to bumper RV’s lining El Camino Real Ave. More employed homeless people, by the youthful looks and backpacks possibly college kids making the difficult choice between a roof over their head today or a career tomorrow with the hopelessly high rent in the area on top of soaring college tuition.
Sad to see, with other nations offering free higher education to their citizens.
Anxiety hit me like a ton of bricks. The emotional connection of Silicon Valley pulling me to California for my career and being at the root of my biggest concern as a mother today; the resources spent on defense versus the social good of our society, runs deep.
Again, this day reminded me of my long-ago business trip to China. Back to the almighty computer chip at the center of our nation’s techno-crazed battlefield.