Geek Gods

    30 March 2013

    Most children grow up worshipping footballers or pop stars. My idol was Robert X. Cringley — a four-eyed alpha nerd, driving a red 1950s Ford T-Bird with a Macintosh computer resting on the passenger seat. This was the opening scene from Triumph of the Nerds, the TV series that changed my life. Cringley was a debonair US technology columnist, who in 1996 took viewers on a journey through the history of the personal computer. His was a world with a new god — technology — and a new holy land.

    As an eager seven-year-old, I dreamt of Silicon Valley, and living there. It was where the nerds from Cringley’s series — cheap haircuts, ill-fitting clothes and all — seemed to inherit the earth. It was a place where college dropouts started the world’s largest companies, where empires were built in a few years by sweat and a determination, where nerds, dreamers and risk-addict investors with open chequebooks collided and changed the future.

    So last month when I touched down in America for the first time, I was keen to discover what is unique about the Valley. I began in San Francisco, which bears little relation to its technological neighbour, but there are points of reference. I made first for the South of the Market district, where the vast Museum of Modern Art and Yerba Buena Gardens exemplify Steve Jobs’s much-imitated philosophy of design — that simplicity is the ultimate elegance.

    My second mission was to find some nerds in their natural habitat. Sightglass Coffee is a hip entrepreneurial gossiping shop owned by Twitter billionaire Jack Dorsey. People drink strong lattes (ordered using iPads, naturally) while boastfully discussing ‘where our next million will come from’. The techies here — all skinny red trousers and lopsided haircuts — could be from east London, although in Shoreditch this kind of talk would be pure fantasy, fuelled by seven pints. In California, these conversations are actually serious. ‘I don’t even know what it does, but it’s something to do with HTML5,’ said one gaggle of bores. ‘But it’s only a matter of time before Google show up and we’re set for life.’

    Silicon Valley is south of the city, north of San José, in a place which was once apple orchards. My first stop is the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Largely funded by one of the world’s most successful nerds, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, the building is home to thousands of objects, from a dotcom-boom Ask Jeeves inflatable to a replica of Charles Babbage’s 1830s Difference Engine. I arrived just in time for a demonstration, and the machine was a steampunk feast, although the lecture on how it is powered stretched even my enthusiasm. Some things are too nerdy even for nerds.

    Just around the corner from the museum is the intergalactic headquarters of Google. Known as the Googleplex, after an extremely large number, the googolplex (1010100), this 26-acre campus is a wonder. Pasty geniuses go between the brightly coloured buildings on Google bicycles. They even have a 22,000-seat outdoor amphitheatre. No wonder the company receives 1,000 job applications for every position.

    Next was Palo Alto. At first glance, it appears to be an ordinary sleepy town: bare trees, deserted sidewalks and tidy houses. But this is the nerve centre of Silicon Valley. On the salubrious University Avenue, you find organic food stores and antiquarian bookshops alongside one of the first Apple stores. Steve Jobs lived here. Mark Zuckerberg still does. More importantly, Palo Alto is home to Stanford University.

    As a student guide led me through the vast campus, I recalled from Cringley that Stanford was where it all began. In the mid-1930s, Professor Frederick Terman advised two students, David Hewlett and Bill Packard, to build their own electronics firm instead of signing up to a life of conformity. They did just that, setting up shop in a garage on Pacific Avenue. The green and brown shack has been lovingly restored by the HP Corporation and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Over a locked gate, I gazed at it in awe.

    Nearby, I found another Palo Alto landmark. La Jennifer Way is where Facebook came of age. Remember the bungalow  Zuckerberg and Sean Parker of Napster shared in The Social Network? It still has the swimming pool and the broken chimney, but now it is inhabited by a new set of entrepreneurs busy developing interactive technology for political campaigning.

    Heading out of town, I spotted a cluster of unassuming offices on Coyote Hill Road. To the sophisticated nerd, the complex is instantly recognisable as Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center — or PARC. Here, everything we recognise about modern computing was invented. Graphical interfaces, networked computers, email inboxes, laser printers and mice were all nurtured at PARC. Some of the world’s top scientists still live on site. Unfortunately for Xerox, Microsoft and Apple borrowed all of their innovations.

    My visit to Silicon Valley would not be complete without seeing the two homes of Apple. The drive to Infinite Loop in Cupertino was burnt into my mind from endless replays of Cringley’s programme. Down Interstate 280, exit at De Anza Boulevard, a sharp right onto the Apple campus. The buildings may lack the distinctiveness of Google or Stanford, but seeing my favourite company’s mothership brought home to me just how unique it is. The place has an incredible atmosphere; you sense that the people who work here are fiercely proud of Apple and are determined to continue innovating.

    In the window of the top-secret design lab in Infinite Loop 2 are mysterious new devices. Are those chairs being carried out of Infinite Loop 3? Or are they some new iChair? I became a little over-excited and had to calm down in the Company Store, where I bought an Apple mug and hoodie.

    After the giddiness of Cupertino, Crist Drive in Los Altos looked rather dull. No:  2066 on this typical American street is the childhood home of Steve Jobs, the annex was Apple’s first office in 1976. No doubt Ashton Kutcher will be visiting Crist Drive in his upcoming film jOBS, which comes out later this year. A sign (designed, I saw, in Microsoft Publisher) warned me not to get too close.

    Wearing my Ray-Ban glasses, driving a 2013 Toyota Corolla, and with an iPad Mini lying on the passenger seat, I headed back to San Francisco for the last time. The sun was setting over the Santa Cruz mountains, and my Triumph of the Nerds odyssey was over. Yes, Silicon Valley had been everything I imagined, and more.

    Illustration by Mitch Blunt