TABLOID NEWS SERVICES, INC.
Bus Tour of the New Economy
[July 31, 1998] -- Europe and Asia are filled with earnest young planning bureaucrats, from Budapest to Bangalore to Bern, who lie awake at night dreaming of how to develop their own national rendition of Silicon Valley.
It has become a ritual of sorts in struggling countries for deputy mayors to cut ribbons over grim concrete fields and declare that the new Free Trade Zone will be the "Silicon Valley of Transcarpathia," or wherever.
These poor souls should be forced, as I was recently, to ride the #20 bus from San Jose to Mountain View, Calif. Nobody except the New Economy's losers will ever board public transit in Silicon Valley. This place was built for luxury cars.
As a tour of this New Economy, you can do no better than riding the #20. The bus winds right past Netscape, Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed Martin, and nearly half the companies on the NASDAQ exchange. But as a vision of the future, the three-story glass mall campuses, endless parking lots and surrounding planned communities are enough to make one long for Stalinist housing blocks and bars that only serve bathtub vodka.
There are no bars within a 10-minute drive of my father's condo in Santa Clara, which is inside an almost-finished faux-colonial gated community called "Nantucket." Nor can you find any shop or stand that sells a daily paper. There is a Spanish-style mall complex called "The MicroCenter," with two coffee shops, a Kinko's, several restaurants, a huge AMC multiplex and a computer superstore -- but no newspapers, unless you count the Micro Times and other freebie computer rags.
The only signs of commerce along route #20 are the sporadic corner malls, with their Wells Fargo banks and Carl's Jr. hamburger shops. The only signs of human activity are low-wage Mexicans taking their lunch in a local park, or Xenosys employees fighting over a parking space at the nearby TGIF's.
More disturbing is the utter absence of anything beautiful or inspired. In Silicon Valley you can drive past rows of million-dollar homes and clusters of billion-dollar software firms without seeing a single handsome building. The gated housing parks -- Bella Vista, Mansion Grove, etc. -- look like dressed-up tract homes ... and sell for a half-million per unit.
Sitting on the bus, I tried to work out whether it mattered that the generals and lieutenants of the New Economy had no taste. After all, vacuous suburban sprawl is nothing new in California, nor is vulgar wealth. By most measures the state seems to be doing just fine, and you can always live in San Francisco or something if you really insist on walking to your daily transactions or seeing the odd foreign film.
Just then my ears zeroed in on a monologue being given by the woman sitting in the front seat of the bus.
"You know, I've got over a thousand movies on video," she said in the general direction of the bus driver. "But they're taking up all the room in my apartment, so what I'm hoping to do is get them all on laser disc to save space."
It was 1:30 in the afternoon on a Thursday. "Team members" from Internet Video SVC, Collabra Software and Performance Solutions were driving back from lunch at Coco's.
"Did you see Titanic? I saw Titanic four times; I'm going to get that on laser disc. I bought the soundtrack and that's really good too. Did you see the one with that girl from the TV show, what's it called ... you know the one with the comedian guy who does the phone commercials?"
The woman, who seemed to be in her 30s, had a little arm-crutch deal and a slightly glazed look. Maybe she was handicapped and couldn't work, maybe she was recuperating from some injury, maybe she had taken the day off.
Whatever her story, she is Exhibit A of what economists like to call "America's enviable domestic market." With bus riders around the country eager to gobble up every crap-steak dropped on their plates, and buying each upgrade of their technological systems of delivery, Hollywood studios can rely on basic levels of return almost regardless of how costly and putrid, say, "Godzilla" turns out.
This knowledge feeds a publicity/media beast that sustains the majority of glossy magazines, and has led directly to the tripling of celebrity coverage in newspapers and weeklies over the past 20 years. A Martian landing in a Silicon Valley supermarket checkout today would probably conclude that the most significant citizen of Planet Earth is Mel Gibson. Where there were once newspaper companies, now there are entertainment/news/technology conglomerates whose primary function is to make the bus riders get off at the multiplex stop, or at least at Blockbuster.
But the consumers are trained so well, most have absolutely nothing else to talk about. And when the many bubbles on this seven-year economic boom finally start to burst in the coming months, the tragic consequences of creating a dumb, entertainment-eating underclass will take a huge bite out of the Silicon Valley and even Hollywood itself.
It theice but to move to where the population is more qualified and cheap, like Hungary or India. Hollywood, no longer guaranteed an automatic domestic audience, will be forced to cut expenses by shooting films elsewhere.
This likely outcome was avoidable, but the smart people who should have known better have long ceased having any ethical problems with getting rich by producing garbage for the overfed, dumbed-down masses.
The L.A. Times recently reported that every principal involved with the production of "Lethal Weapon 4" -- with the probable exception of Chris Rock -- had absolutely no enthusiasm for the project, but dragged themselves through it anyway, for the promise of easy money.
When the Day of Reckoning comes, let the first brick be thrown at Mel Gibson's head.
TABLOID news editor Matt Welch used to laugh at the socialists. He still does, but it's no longer especially funny.
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