From the Gold Rush to Silicon Valley: How Does the Tech Boom Represent A New Western Dream?

Photo: Wiki Commons and Wiki Commons

By Maria Judnick 

A Hungarian friend of mine recently told me about the work of a late nineteenth century German writer named Karl May.  His novels – so popular in Europe that they still annually attract over 300,000 fans to a festival in May’s honor – feature adventurous characters exploring exotic locales: Asia, the Middle East, and the Wild West.  When my friend migrated to the United States in the 1980s, as a tribute to May’s influence on her father and herself, she planned a road trip following a California route outlined in one of May’s novels.  To her utter surprise, she discovered many of the remote stops still matched descriptions published more than a half century before.

That story itself is interesting.  But there’s one more incredible detail – Karl May never visited his locales until after his books were published.  Instead, maps, travel narratives, guidebooks, and even local novelists’ descriptions helped his vivid imagination get the story right.

I was told this story while on a retreat for Western writers.  Sure, the spirit of the frontier was well-represented by all the farmers, horse breeders, naturalists, river guides, and local Oregonians I met there.  But since there were hardly any Californians in attendance, the state was hardly discussed.  What happened to California’s reputation as a wild place?  Would Karl May still write about us?

Kids who, like me, grew up in California tend to fall in love with the romanticized (and incredibly oversimplified) fourth grade history narratives of the state: the missionaries converting the natives; the early explorers and settlers’ epic will to survive; the thrilling tales of Russian trappers, Spanish ranchers, outlaw cowboys, and crusty sailors; and – the most important period leading to our statehood – the rag-tag bands of wannabe prospectors (forty-niners) who poured into California, searching for gold and the American Dream.

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From these rugged beginnings, agriculture and commerce thrived, cities named after saints and characters alike boomed and California became the place of dreams.  And so this “last stop” in the Continental United States became a land of the possible, the different, the adventurous, the bold, and the innovative.  Of course, as the myth goes, these things can only be achieved with a mix of a little bit of luck and a whole lot of work.

As a native of the Valley of Heart’s Delight, I think the reinvention story of Silicon Valley’s tech sector offers a new kind of dream – one that just happens to share many similarities with the old pioneering spirit. The connections are intriguing:

  • They stake their claims: Just like the old miners who, with enough rope, posts, and middle of the night shenanigans, could “claim” any land as their own in the lawless early towns, the number of lawsuits over which company created a technology or who controls a new digital market would gladden the face of any pugnacious prospector. Just look at all the potential courtroom battles as people like Steve Jobs sent challenges to other companies to keep the engineers responsible for his goods.
  • They create useful innovations: The most famous of the early entrepreneurial success stories is that of a man named Levi Strauss – the inventor of the blue jeans.  Having first set up a moderately successful dry goods business in the wild California territory, Strauss quickly discovered a better market: making sturdy pants for miners with his patented metal rivets that wouldn’t rip while they worked.  If the dot-com bubble taught the Silicon Valley anything, it’s that companies that can fulfill a useful niche – like eBay – but also have a sustainable business model can thrive.
  • There are boom times…and busts: Sure, people are lured to California with the promise of “easy riches.”  Tomorrow’s site or the next product just might be the Mother Lode… or another money drain.  Of course, with a state motto like “Eureka!” there have been some great success stories in Silicon Valley.  But pick any long-time tech company and you’ll discover they weathered out some lean years before the next big innovation saved them.  Don’t forget that before the quirky iMac computer was introduced in 1998, Apple faced a long period of decline.  Other companies have not been so lucky; there’s a reason California has always had a lot of ghost towns.
  • It takes a maverick: Long before the term got associated with an Arizona senator, mavericks dotted the Golden State.  Many of the early forty-niners were not well-educated or respectable men from the East Coast; they were immigrants, adventurers, and people down on their luck looking to support themselves by harnessing the gifts of nature.  In the Gold Rush, it didn’t matter who you were; the gold dust you had could change minds (although racism and discrimination still existed).  Flash forward and some of the craziest dreamers and college dropouts tinkering in their parents’ garage attract attention thanks to the history of unconventional success stories of little companies like Microsoft, Apple, and HP who changed the landscape of the Valley of Heart’s Delight forever.

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While these stories represent the part people love to hear, there’s always the bad and the ugly we don’t fully know yet – the environmental impacts, the clashes between the old and new Californians, and the unintended consequences of rapid change.  However, while folksongs may not be sung about the tech legends, a new sort of heroic figure emerges from this wilderness, a young techie clad in jeans and a hoodie sitting in a cubicle in yet another anonymous office building dotting this urban landscape, hoping to strike it rich. Perhaps Karl May would never consider writing about them, but it will be interesting to see what history books make of these new California stories.

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