I recently watched a little bit of a documentary called ‘Sunderland Til I Die’, about a fairly minor English soccer team but more about its meaning to its home town, a city that was once the thriving home of a major ship-building industry but has since fallen by the wayside, relegated by history just as its soccer team was relegated by poor performance. I know little about the city, the team, the history (or England for that matter) but it struck me as a classic test case of How To Make A Ghost Town. Step One, depend on one single industry. Step Two, wait for that industry to decline.
It’s a tricky business, though, predicting future ghost towns. Before the industry exists, its technology may not even exist, at least not in its future form. People had been building ships for centuries, but not always the kind of ships they later built in Sunderland. You also have to predict the location of the future ghost town – why Sunderland, for example, and not some other city on a river by the sea. Timing is another issue the ghost town prophet needs to consider. Some industries may thrive for centuries, others merely decades or less. Then there is the descent, how long it will take for the town to become its ghostly future self. Will the town revitalize itself, take on some new industry, some new form in order to stave off its destiny? Some cities go through many cycles of re-invention before they eventually fall prey to the inevitable. Some even last for thousands of years.
Test Case: Silicon Valley
Way back in the early 1980’s I was working in a bookstore in San Francisco and at one point was tasked with putting together a computer books section. At that time there were not very many computer books on the market, nor were they in much demand. Most of them concerned MS-DOS or Lotus Notes, Basic and C Programming. There was no Windows or Mac at the time. There were no personal computers. That was all shortly to change. Silicon Valley was still home to some cherry orchards and had not yet become the household word it soon became. I was not interested in computers and I hated that little section in the bookstore. I knew nothing about anything in any of those books and nobody was buying them anyway. It seemed like a total waste of time and resources to bother with.
Fast forward a couple of years and I started teaching myself how to program in Basic and C, and I had bought a little PC (suckered by the Microsoft ads featuring a Charlie Chaplin character) and was doing little things on the command-line, very proud of myself.
Fast forward a couple of years and I had a modem and was hooked up to CompuServe at some insanely low baud rate, waiting hours to download a text file containing instructions on how to make opium from home-grown poppies (asking for a friend!), and then I bought an Atari ST with built-in midi ports and was writing automation tools for computer-generated music composition.
Fast forward a few decades now and you find me working on the top floor of a brand new blue glass building in the heart of Silicon Valley, writing programs in languages that did not exist five years ago for a company everyone in the world knows and uses on a daily basis.
Am I living in a future ghost town? Certainly. No doubt about it. The only question is when.
At some point no one will be building computers or phones with silicon, metal, glass or rare earth minerals. They may be woven into the atoms in cloth or embedded into our bodies as stem cells. Who the hell knows?
At some point no one will be sitting at a keyboard writing software using programming languages. Nerve endings and brain waves will provide all the controls required.
At some point these brilliant campuses with their open floor plans and free cafeterias will be indistinguishable from the abandoned warehouses and shipyards of Sunderland.
When will Silicon Valley become a ghost town in the future? According to the way we act and build and plan every day, the answer is “never”. According to history the outcome is anything but that. From the vantage point of 1981 San Francisco the question would have seemed just weird.