A new mecca for Silicon Valley

A new mecca for Silicon Valley By Simon Firth The Tech Museum is full of innovative wonders -- just don't expect to see the Valley's darker side represented

By Simon Firth
Published November 2, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Listen to the principal movers behind San Jose's new Tech Museum ofInnovation and it's clear they have high hopes for the city's newestcultural institution.

"It puts San Jose on the map as the capital of Silicon Valley," said San Jose Mayor Susan Hammer at a press preview last week. At the same event, John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe Systems and chair of the museum's board, celebrated the creation of a building that would "put the Valley's role in the global economy into perspective." "Silicon Valley," he reminded us, "is driving a significant part of the world economy." And Peter Anderson, Museum Project executive director, hailed the place as "a visitors' interpretive center for the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley."

The Tech, as its creators like to call it, opened its new and permanent home to the public this past weekend. It is an impressive achievement and promises to be extremely popular. But for the Valley's worthies and boosters, there is clearly more at stake than simply providing the area with a decent science museum.

For one thing, as the mayor's comments suggest, the Tech is the biggest chip yet played in San Jose's bid to be recognized as the headquarters of the obstinately amorphous region that is Silicon Valley. Warnock's hopes for worldwide attention suggest that the Valley as a whole still feels globally underappreciated and is looking to the Tech to help itself get over its inferiority complex. And Anderson's description reveals perhaps the most interesting anxiety of all: that without something like the Tech Museum to visit, there's really no reason for anyone who isn't nailing down a high-tech business deal -- that's most of us -- to come to Silicon Valley at all.

Before asking whether the Tech can bear the symbolic weight with which it has been freighted, it's worth first exploring what the museum actually is. A geometric, medium-size building, painted a bright Southwestern mango and azure and set on a plaza in the middle of San Jose, the museum cost $96 million to build and has been more than 20 years in the making. Inside you'll find an IMAX cinema, several spaces for conferences, groups and school parties, the obligatory restaurant and gift shop and five galleries. Four of these are permanent and are the real core of the enterprise: exhibition spaces devoted to communications, biotechnology, exploration and technical innovation. The fifth is a space for temporary exhibitions called "Center of the Edge," currently occupied by the imaginings of the future-gazers at Interval Research.

The danger was that the Tech, feeling the need to prove itself capable of cultural gravitas, would try to turn its permanent exhibitions into a sort of Smithsonian of the semiconductor. Besides the fact that a funky commercial riff on this theme already exists in the shape of the Sunnyvale Fry's Electronics superstore, that approach would have produced an uninvolving experience that paled in comparison with the growing legions of science and technology museums around the country and the rest of the world.

Understandably, then, the Tech's designers went the other way. Their galleries contain very little of the history behind the technology they feature. Instead, they've adopted the "learn-by-playing" model pioneered by science and technology institutions like San Francisco's Exploratorium, and tried to take it a step further. For the most part they've succeeded -- each gallery is stuffed with exhibits that, for once, really are exemplars of that overused clichi, interactivity.

Among the many, many things you can do at the Tech is make a movie in its Digital Studio; design your own roller coaster, and then get to ride it in a VR simulator; have your head scanned; practice keyhole surgery; or race down a virtual bobsled run and see your effort compared to the fastest run on that course. Almost every exhibit has something to press, click or manipulate. Nearly all are well thought out -- teaching you something while providing an entertaining experience of sometimes surprising substance.At the relatively mellow press preview, where the wait for the coolest experiences was brief, this was all a lot of fun. It will be interesting to see how much fun it is when the place is invaded by hordes of overexcited school kids most eager to play at the same stations their peers are most keen not to leave. But the admirable idea behind all the interactivity is that every visitor to the museum will have his or her own unique experience. This ambition extends beyond your physical visit: Eventually, you'll be able to access the results of your head scanning or roller-coaster designing through the Tech's Web site and manipulate them at home at your leisure. If dealing with the enthusiasm it generates will be a challenge for the Tech, maintaining its aura of up-to-the-minute relevance is also going to be tough. The place will receive quite a pounding from its young visitors' happy and energetic explorations, and the museum has had to allocate a larger than usual budget for ongoing repairs. Furthermore, like other modern museums of science or technology, the Tech must cope with the fact that its subject is forever changing. Its pricey interactive exhibits need a reasonably extensive shelf life to be cost-effective; but the minute they are installed, a clock starts ticking that will soon make them look as dated as the original Tomorrowland. This pressure is felt all the more keenly by a museum in a region where change is an ever-popular mantra and Moore's Law is gospel. The fact that the Tech is in, and of, the Valley and has friends among the Valley's biggest and most successful companies means it can hope to receive gifts of the latest technology. But it has also sidestepped the expectation that it will always be showcasing the very sharpest of technology's cutting edge by focusing less on the products of the high tech industry themselves than the process by which they are created. Hence the museum's full title -- the Tech Museum of Innovation. And in aiming to capture what is significant about Silicon Valley, this is perhaps the right choice. If you are looking for a distillation of the Valley, you won't find it so much in objects as in attitude. As far as it goes in highlighting how scientific know-how can be married with creativity to produce innovative technological solutions to our problems, the museum is right on the mark. Designing the best roller coaster, you learn, is about providing the biggest possible thrills as much as it is about applying your understanding of physics.But the Tech doesn't tell the whole story, either. For instance, innovation also has a lot to do with money and politics. And while exhibits like the one where you design a human-powered vehicle teach you to consider the cost of materials when designing your dream machine, overall, the Tech seriously downplays the role of money and power in the innovation equation. It doesn't teach you, for example, that you can invent the most cost-efficient human-powered vehicle in the world -- but still be beaten by a team with an inferior product that is better funded and that has more powerful friends than you do. That the Tech chose to ignore this part of the story is arguably not simply a result of its need to create an educational experience that is also popular and entertaining. It's also very likely a reflection of the considerable stakes the various power brokers of Silicon Valley hold in their new museum.San Jose certainly has a big stake in the project. It is California's third largest, but one of its least celebrated, cities. Palo Alto -- home to venture capitalists, Stanford University and most of Silicon Valley's best restaurants -- is where the deals get done and where the Valley's glamour, such as it is, tends to reside. San Jose is hoping the Tech will be the knockout punch in its long-running campaign, sponsored for the most part by the San Jose Redevelopment Agency, to wrest our attention southward. It already has a convention center, a rebuilt repertory theater, a Museum of Art, a Children's Discovery Museum, sports arenas and a rejuvenated state university campus. Now it has the Tech, too.Perhaps San Jose is hoping that, having provided Silicon Valley with a museum that glamorizes the Valley, the city will get to be its capital because, like Lear's elder daughters, it has most loudly declared its love. But even if San Jose can now call itself the Valley's heart, the Tech is under pressure from the Valley as a whole. It is supposed to convince the rest of us that we should be paying the Valley the attention and respect it feels it deserves but still doesn't get.As San Jose's redevelopment efforts show, while Silicon Valley may want to be seen as special, it also craves the conventional symbols (art gallery, theater, museums and so forth) of civic worth. The Tech is meant to bridge these two desires -- to be a permanent museum that curates the Valley's uniquely dynamic "state of mind." To a considerable degree it succeeds. It tells a story about what the Valley does that is engaging and accurate, up to a point. But the pressure to impress the rest of the world might also help explain why the version of that story it tells is such a filtered one.Just as success in the Valley is as much about money and power as ingenuity and technical ability (if you still think the best technology always wins, Valley engineers have a one-word retort: Microsoft), it is also born of other, more complicated and less socially admired character traits: single-mindedness, obsessive secrecy and the desire to be very, very rich. For all the rhetoric that Silicon Valley churns out about its extraordinary self (which informs the narrative of the Tech), a visitor might expect its innovational energies to be directed to all aspects of life there. You might imagine that the area surrounding it would be full of people living in houses of innovative design, pursuing excitingly new ways of living, sharing the fruits of their research. But if you drive through the characterless tracts of offices and residences that lie beyond San Jose's downtown; if, stuck in traffic, you peer through the smog to glimpse endless suburbs; if you listen to residents' stories of horrific house prices, long work days, paranoia about the competition and two-hour commutes -- you get a very different impression. There are other forces at work here, too.The main thing such a look reveals is that the innovation the Tech celebrates is surprisingly narrowly focused. The Valley's vaunted creativity has yet to be brought to bear on many of its most pressing problems -- unaffordable housing, poor transportation, a deteriorating environment and a culture with little room for much more than work. But perhaps, at least, the Tech gives tourists a reason to come to Silicon Valley. Certainly, if you are interested in understanding the Valley there needs to be a place like the Tech to visit -- because its real landmarks, like Apple, Sun, Cisco and Oracle, won't let you in. And if the Tech is the kind of quasi-visitor's center that its executive director hopes it will be, it is one that tacitly acknowledges this reality. It seems to be trying not so much to orient you for your visit to the wider region as to be the entire visit -- to obviate your need to go any further. Could the Tech experience be reason enough to come to Silicon Valley? It is a lot of fun. And it most likely will attract the adoring visitors that the Valley's movers and shakers hope for it. If you're the sort of person who will fly to Monterey only to see its cool aquarium, or trek to Cooperstown and back just to see its Baseball Hall of Fame, you'll leave the Tech -- and the Valley -- happy. But if you are going to the Tech to get a flavor of the Valley -- as the Valley's boosters clearly would like you to -- beware: It is nothing like the real thing. And that's too bad. Perhaps precisely because the Valley doesn't fit our usual definitions of a tourist destination, its vast nowhereness is worth visiting. It is a significant place -- one where ideas and objects are being developed that are changing the world -- and it is often held out as a model to be emulated. If the rest of us are going to be living and working in our own versions of the Valley model, we surely ought to know what to expect. San Jose's new Tech Museum of Innovation is going to remain an essential stop on any Silicon Valley tour. It will teach us a lot about the genuinely creative and admirable innovations that the Valley has brought the world. But the new museum also demonstrates how much of Silicon Valley's own life and culture its much-vaunted talent for innovation has yet to touch.

Simon Firth

Simon Firth is a writer who lives in the San Francisco area.

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