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Silicon Valley Wants a Monument to Itself. Will It Scale?

Our Founder. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Google (San Jose); SSPL/Getty Images (Computer)

San Jose, California, is (arguably) the center of the world’s technology industry. Its city council is looking to make that virtual status into a physical thing, commissioning a monument to Silicon Valley for one of its parks. New York’s architecture critic Justin Davidson and tech columnist Max Read think it’s a pretty iffy idea.

Justin Davidson: You first, Max: What’s your reaction?

Max Read: Amusement, I guess? Far be it from me to stand in the way of rich people parting with their money to build public space or public art. But there’s something funny to me about the idea of building a big monument to the idea of “Silicon Valley,” which I think of as a fairly non-heroic, non-monumental place of endless office parks and fleece vests and food-delivery apps.

Justin Davidson: When I first heard about this, it sounded like a supremely dumb idea. I mean, doesn’t Silicon Valley do enough self-congratulation already?

Then I thought, well how is it different from monuments to other kinds of work: fishing in Gloucester, MA, steel in Pittsburgh, or the state-sponsored aerospace industry in Moscow, or Canada’s National Mining Monument? I mean, who doesn’t want a statue of heroic programmers sitting at their workstations, forearm muscles rippling toward the keyboard?

Max Read: What could be more inspiring than a 9-foot–tall growth-development associate cast in bronze, lifting his soylent to his lips after a hard day’s work?

Justin Davidson: Exactly. I guess what we’re getting at is that whatever this winds up looking like, it isn’t — probably can’t be — a monument to the foot soldiers of a revolution. Mostly because the sacrifice that was required of them was of the prosaic, non-life–threatening variety.

So what, exactly, would a monument accomplish? I guess one possibility is that it’s a kind of geographic branding, like the HOLLYWOOD sign. Here’s a product that’s everywhere and nowhere, so we’ll put up a big sign that says no, it’s actually HERE! Regardless of how deceptive the choice of place might be.

Max Read: Sure — and it makes sense that San Jose, rather than SF or Oakland (which both have their fair share of “Silicon Valley” companies but also clear municipal identities), is eager to build itself an immediately recognizable object. The HOLLYWOOD sign is an interesting comparison because it didn’t start as a monument to Hollywood at all!

Justin Davidson: And because at this point Hollywood the industry isn’t in Hollywood the place.

So is there a point beyond real-estate branding? What message do you think Silicon Valley needs to communicate in physical reality that it can’t do in the virtual kind?

Max Read: I mean, what’s the other occasion for great big monuments? Victory in war, right? The Valley has annexed huge swathes of the American economy; it stands basically peerless among American industries as a generator of wealth. At some point, if you’re a leader in that conquering army, you might think you want some kind of triumphal arch or column celebrating your victory.

And I’ll note, too, that while the Valley generates an enormous amount of wealth, the money is going to many fewer people than it did, say, at the peak of the automobile industry. So it’s not like there’s an enormous and growing new tech-wealth middle class to stand testament to Silicon Valley’s greatness

Justin Davidson: Usually, with military or political victories, there’s a delay, which helps distill what the long-term meaning of that event is. That also guards against reversals or amnesia. So, for instance, the imperial-scale monument to the Risorgimento in the center of Rome was begun in 1885 as a way of pointing out that the new Italian state crushed the pope. There’s insecurity and propaganda built into triumphalism. Here you’re talking about something much more abstract and multiple, which makes it difficult to boil down in a monumental idea.

I mean, what was the opposition, exactly?

The second point you make is about bearing witness: Do we run the risk of forgetting about Silicon Valley?

Max Read: I certainly think there’s a bit of insecurity built into this idea, not just because of San Jose’s relationship to its larger neighbors. I don’t know that we run the risk of “forgetting” about Silicon Valley, in particular, but built into the culture of the tech industry is the idea of disruption and obsolescence: You’re only on top until someone smarter, better, faster, and younger comes along. If you’re resting on your laurels, you’re not doing your job! We’ve mostly forgotten Friendster and MySpace, thanks to Facebook. You can see how that might bleed into thinking about monuments — we should put something up now, in case Shenzhen or Lagos or Manila overtakes us.

Justin Davidson: By the same token though, we run the risk — face the certainty — of putting up a monument to last year’s breakthrough. For instance, now everything is about the cloud, right? The most interesting way I can imagine to honor an industry built on insubstantial energy would be to design an equally vaporous monument. The architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro essentially anticipated the cloud when they designed the temporary Blur Building on a Swiss lake in 2002. It was constructed of tiny nozzles that created a fluctuating mist, which moved in the breeze and dissipated. You put on rain jackets to walk out on a jetty into the cloud.

Max Read: See, that would be nice, but I worry that all those literal-minded engineers are going to have trouble with more conceptual ideas. That said, you’re raising one of the key points: If we’re building a monument to something as broad and abstract as “tech” — or even “Silicon Valley” more specifically — what can you possibly make that would encompass all of it? Even the idea of some brawny bronze programmers doesn’t necessarily fit everything into it, setting aside how much programming has changed over the last 40 years.

Justin Davidson: Specifically, how can you make something fixed and permanent that encompasses constant change, fluidity, obsolescence, and ubiquity? That would be an interesting brief for the RFP (request for proposals): Design a memorial that can be updated instantly and often for as long as we choose to support it.

Max Read: [laughs]

Justin Davidson: At which point it will be discontinued.

Max Read: Not many memorials these days require firmware updates, but there’s a first for everything.

Justin Davidson: The serious point there — and the reason I have trouble believing that it would yield anything worthwhile — is that it feels like a monument would have to be abstract to the point of near meaninglessness. Even seemingly abstract monuments — like the 9/11 memorial for instance — have a well-defined and often emotional impulse behind them. Grief, say. Or gratitude toward a supreme leader who’s taken care of everything. I have a hard time grasping what that would be in this case. Other than, as I said at the beginning of this conversation, self-congratulation.

Max Read: Well, not that it will make a “good” monument in most senses, but “Hey, Look at Me” is a very appropriate emotional impulse for Silicon Valley — certainly for the social-media wing of the industry.

Justin Davidson: So a multitentacled creature patting itself on the back, then. Could work.

Max Read: A Monument to the Unknown Influencer.

One thing that occurs to me when I think of the HOLLYWOOD sign and the “charging bull” at Bowling Green, which strike me as the most obvious points of comparison, is that big American industries sometimes end up with the monuments they deserve by accident. The sign is two-thirds of a broken advertisement for an exclusionary real-estate development. The bull was snuck into Manhattan at night. I don’t know that I love either one, but I appreciate how closely they’ve come to be associated with their respective industries. Maybe instead of trying to force a monument, the tech industry just needs to wait and see what becomes one.

Justin Davidson: It also makes me wonder what ruins tech will leave behind. Its impact on what archi-folks call the built environment has been so huge but also diffuse. There are the low Silicon Valley repurposed warehouses, the Apple HQ, the info-powered skyscrapers with their huge trading floors, the post-industrial renovations, the new sidewalk scooter docks — each of these is a different aspect of how tech engages with the physical world, so some truncated chunk of one of them could be tech’s triumphal arch. Maybe a bunch of cables hanging from a ceiling duct.

Max Read: Ultimately “the” Silicon Valley monument may not even be in the U.S. at all — the Bolivian salt flats where lithium mining for batteries is done have a pretty eerie and desolate beauty. As the world scrambles to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, the environmental impact of finding all the lithium required could become a major issue in its own right. I will say that I’m hoping they make this monument, and that it’s visually striking, for one single reason: stock photos. As New York Magazine’s photo editors will tell you, it’s very difficult to interestingly illustrate stories about Silicon Valley.

Justin Davidson: A worthy goal. Seriously, though, that’s the whole project in a nutshell: finding a visual representation of this essential part of human existence that isn’t really visual.

Maybe it’s the statue at Walden Pond of Henry David Thoreau walking through the woods, checking his Twitter feed.

Max Read: See, now that would encompass everything Silicon Valley means to me.

Silicon Valley Wants a Monument to Itself. Will It Scale?