When I wrote my eulogy for Rush Limbaugh back in February, I didn’t intend it to become the first of a three-part series about having to let go of the past. But then came the news that Fry’s had closed down forever. As with Rush’s passing, it felt as though an old friend had been taken from me, and it made me reflect on an era that, I suppose, has faded forever into the past.
For those who never lived near one, Fry’s Electronics was a chain of big-box technology stores centered on Silicon Valley, with locations all over the west coast. Far bigger and with a more complex stock than the likes of Best Buy, it catered as much to tech professionals as to average consumers. In its seemingly-endless aisles were not just the usual laptops, digital cameras, and flash drives, but shelves teeming with motherboards, IDE, ATAPI, NuBus, and PCI cards, obscure interface adapters, plain breadboards for prototyping, cellophane packets of diodes and resistors, spools of crimp-your-own bulk Ethernet cable sold by the yard, CD-ROM blanks stacked to the ceiling, programming manuals for any language you could think of along with some you couldn’t, and components large and small of digital technology of every variety. And the professionals were indeed there. “Gone on a Fry’s run” was a common sign to see posted on a cubicle in tech companies as the occupant set out to find some or another piece he needed for a project. You’d find them in the aisles, sometimes calling back to the office – on a StarTAC in the early days, or an iPhone later on – asking someone there to remind them of some detail of a spec before they made a final decision on what to buy. It was a running joke – but it wasn’t really a joke – that the employees at Fry’s (the “whiteshirts” – more often than not underpaid immigrants from some sunnier clime) knew nothing, but that if you were perplexed, you could just ask a question of any random fellow customer, who was probably an engineer at a tech company and knew a thousand times more than some minimum-wagie who worked there.
And if you couldn’t find what you were looking for at Fry’s, you could try Weird Stuff or HSC – both now gone as well – where the really oddball, obsolete, and off-the-wall items could be had. At Weird Stuff, among working Apple IIIs and ancient Sun 4/60s for sale, was the laptop junkyard, where shelf upon shelf of half-wrecked machines – some without keyboards, others with smashed screens or cracked cases – waited to be salvaged for parts. In the back, sitting on wire racks, were boxes of miscellaneous parts, mostly unlabeled, on the theory that if you knew what you were looking for, you’d recognize it when you saw it, and that if you didn’t know what you were looking for, you were in the wrong store. In the back of HSC, beyond the aisles of miscellaneous electronic equipment that sometimes dated back to the 1920s, there was an entire wall of boxes filled with vacuum tubes – both vintage and new-build from the last handful of factories in Russia and China that still make them – and a cramped workbench where customers could test them to make sure they worked. It was unmanned by the staff; the assumption, again, was that the customer would know how to test a tube by themselves – and if they didn’t, then what were they doing there to begin with?
Those places represented – and survived long enough to become some of the last vestiges of – the old Silicon Valley. This was the Valley of the libertarian-ish techno-hippies who founded it, eccentrics imbued with the do-it-yourself spirit, who fused together both halves of the 1960s that had birthed them – the individualist counterculture of Woodstock, and the hard-charging engineering genius that put men on the moon in the same year. These were the men (yes, invariably, men) who created what will likely be the last great creative outburst of American industry. It was a fleeting, late-blooming manifestation of what Greil Marcus called “the old, weird America”, and, like so much of that America, it is now gone – infiltrated, and then crushed from the inside by the all-consuming forces of woke globalist capital.
But I know what it once was. I saw it myself. I was there at the Great Digital Revolution. On the fringes of it, yes, but there nonetheless. I remember it, and I remember the dream that drove it forward; the vision of a better world that we thought we were creating, before it all turned to ashes in our mouths. And now, as its last few embers die out in an age in which “Big Tech” has become a byword for privatized corporate tyranny, it is perhaps worth a moment to reflect on what that dream was and how it came to such a bitter end.
The idea, at first, was simply to build something insanely great; to create new things that were powerful and elegant and advanced just because we could, and then to see what was possible with them. This spirit of wonder in the air was the same as that which had created the steam engine, built the intercontinental railroad, electrified the countryside, constructed the skyscrapers, paved the highways, and powered the jet age. With seemingly every passing day, something that it had never before been possible to make, suddenly appeared before us. And for a brief time, the media-manufactured parade of actors, pop singers, and sports players who we are presented to venerate was interrupted by someone who was famous for doing something actually useful, as Steve became a rock star in the truest sense of the term (it was an excitement, like Beatlemania, that many have tried to recapture, but never can). Gone, but not forgotten (at least by me) are the days when people around the world would stop what they were doing in the middle of a workday to watch the head of a technology company announce some astounding new product, as they must have stopped to watch rocket launches during the height of the space race. It was a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle, to which I was privileged to have a front-row seat.
Beyond this, once the technology itself started to take shape, it began to become clear what its full potential could be. We looked around us and saw that a rich, powerful minority was in charge of every medium of mass communication (it may be hard for those under a certain age to believe, but in their day, CBS, NBC, ABC, and the New York Times formed a cartel of gatekeepers on information and public discourse that were more restrictive than Facebook, Google, and Twitter could ever dream of being), and that we could come up with a way to bypass them, bringing that power to the people by letting them communicate with each other directly, free of any unnecessary restraint. The implications were staggering; a new flowering of free speech on a level not seen since the invention of the printing press. And for a while – the beautiful, dangerous, heady “Wild West” years of the early internet – it seemed that was exactly what we were getting.
And then it all changed; not overnight, but fast enough. It started becoming really noticeable after Steve passed and the Old Guard began to retire. The New Guard – the Mark Zuckerbergs and Jack Dorseys – were clever but not brilliant, completely bereft of the Old Guard’s counterculture streak and eager to suck up to power, unprincipled to the point of functional sociopathy, and guided by no real vision other than their own fortune, fame, and power. These were the wokewashing neo-robber barons; imbued with the social conscience of Ivan Boesky, yet always ready to wave a rainbow flag while their workers (and I don’t just mean the ones in dismal Chinese factories – swing by the Googleplex at 11PM on any given evening and see how many employees are still there hunched over a screen) endure 16-hour days week after week, and whose commitment to diversity began with realizing that foreigners on H-1B visas could be used as scabs that would keep their employees from ever effectively organizing and getting a bigger share of the astronomical profits that the emergent, and ever more-monopolized, Big Tech sector was accumulating.
Even these profits themselves became part of the downfall of the Old Valley. What happened when the Valley started to get rich – really rich – was a microcosm of what has happened to the country as a whole: it has learned that having too much money attracts endless swarms of parasites, grifters, bandwagon-jumpers, glad-handers, and hangers-on, who don’t understand what went into creating the whole endeavor and treat it as one big get-rich-quick scheme, hoping to come away with a slice of the money, power, and prestige that it generates. At first, there were just the usual johnny-come-latelies that show up at any gold rush once the pioneers have cleared the path; for example, the educational faddists (education is a field that is always in the sway of some new fad or another) who suddenly decided that every child should learn to code, so that they could all grow up to become high-level programmers and make $150,000 a year (ignoring that any skill is only valuable because it’s both useful and rare – if everyone can do it, then its value will drop to zero). But then, inevitably, the same leftists who wormed their way into every other important institution in our society showed up, and in typical fashion, once they’d found a way in (mostly through their usual combination of public whining and the threat of legal action), they slammed the door shut on everyone who wasn’t like them.
The breaking point was the Great Meme War leading up to the 2016 election, after which the newly-empowered SJWs who had barged into Silicon Valley like they ran the place and in short order actually did, decided that they were never going to allow a popular uprising of that sort to happen again. Here the crackdown began and the last remaining sparks of the spirit of the Old Valley died. What once promised to radically decentralize instead ended up granting crushing amounts of power to globalist monopolies. What once promised to make government censorship impossible instead ended up making government censorship unnecessary. What once promised to empower the individual led to a supercharged level of groupthink never before seen in human history. What once promised to liberate and enlighten the people left them as slaves staring slack-jawed into their screens. We all had the best of intentions when we started out. None of us thought it would end this way. Please forgive us – we knew not what we did. If we could do it over again, we’d do it all differently.
But we can’t, and here we are, in a dystopia worthy of the cyberpunk stories we all used to watch in the old days for inspiration, without even the consolation of its aesthetics. I finally left Silicon Valley in the last days of 2017, for many reasons, but prominent among them was that the revolution was well and truly over, there was nothing more to see of it, and I wasn’t even particularly proud of what it had accomplished anymore. The news that Fry’s is gone drove home the fact that those optimistic days can never be returned to; that the past is a lost country, just as the future is an undiscovered one.
Yet in the privacy of memory, I can see myself back there, in the days of my youth, enamored with a beautiful vision of what could have been, shared by everyone else in the neon-lit aisles, stacked high with new wonders we were sure would bring us a better world.
It was a fine dream while it lasted.
Pingback: IBM PB5150 to Pandora’s Box | Kay Emig Art