Musk and Zuck, Or Life in Silicon Valley

To me, living in this place is a curious place of dreams. Much has been said about how the internet was born here, how every idea is the precipice of a fortune, something to be leapt upon and invested in. But I don’t think that’s the way it is.

Rumors are flying that Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta, and Elon Musk, the head of Twitter and who knows what else, are negotiating the terms for a fistfight. Er… cage fight? Maybe a martial arts fight?

Last weekend, Musk all but confirmed the arrangements reported, among other places, in Forbes and Fox Business.

 And then, reports came out that Zuckerberg is calling it all a distraction. You can read about it, for instance, on CNN or Politico.

Of course, “reported” is a bit of a misnomer because it seems that all that has been happening is that they each have been putting out information on their own platforms: Musk on X (or twitter or whatever it is) and Zuckerberg on Meta’s Threads. And yet it hits the media as “breaking news” on the top news and business websites.

Last week, when I was out walking through the neighborhood, I saw one of those low-flying planes carrying a banner behind it. First, I heard it and with its slow grinding motor, I knew immediately what it was, and so did Quinn, who was with me.

The banner was flapping directly behind the plane, although from where we were, we couldn’t yet see what it said. Quinn joked: “It must say: Marry me, right?” What else does a person want to proclaim in the skies?

“Probably,” I said, lightly imagining a happy couple.

As it got closer, we had to make out the letters backwards. 

“Sucks” was the first word we could make out. “Zuck sucks….something

“Zuck sucks. Elon will win.” All caps. 

I had to explain to Quinn what it was talking about, and actually it was funny that I even knew. But someone I know at CrossFit knows someone who knows someone who refereed Mark Zuckerberg in a jiu jitsu fight, so when news struck that Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk might actually stage an actual fight, this hit a nerve and managed to then hit the chatter during my CrossFit warmup.

Two men who fight in the ethersphere by sending hostile messages to the public about one another’s companies now want to “take it outside” which in this case, might mean a staged event against the backdrop of Roman ruins and bring their disagreement, the rivalry between their companies, to an opportunity to physically maim one another. It’s supposed to sound all professional and legitimate even though it sounds to me like two powerful men looking forward to punching each other. 

But I don’t necessarily want to talk about the match, I want to talk about the banner that I saw. I found it— funny. Who is proclaiming what, to whom, and for what purpose? The reason that “marry me” is the proper message is because only someone very intimate could make sure that a person saw it. Nobody can make a person look at the sky, so if you want to write something menacing to a person you don’t really like, it seems like a very poor use of resources. Elon Musk might be unhinged, but this doesn’t really seem like his style to put up— at least not one solitary airplane on one solitary day, and I promise you the skies haven’t been blanketed by these planes.

What is it trying to say about the match? Or what does it actually say about what it’s like to live in Silicon Valley, alongside billionaires like Musk and Zuckerberg?

It’s a funny thing to live in a place and then try to describe it, because the first thing that it seems is always going to be “normal.” That is, unless you lived somewhere else and have some grand contrast to draw. Because no matter where you live, there are going to be babies and old people and schools. People are going to go about their daily lives by shopping and cooking and going to restaurants, and watching movies and falling in love, and listening to music. The sidewalks could be in more or less disrepair and different concentrations of homeless people, but that doesn’t get to the heart of what a place is like.

Recently, I was reading the book of essays Interior States by Meghan O’Gieblyn, and she gives me a different picture, from where she was living in South Chicago in her 20’s, but meant to speak about the midwest as a region:

Any news of emerging technology was roundly dismissed as unlikely. If I mentioned self-driving cars, or 3-D printers, one of the men would hold up his cell phone and say, “They can’t even figure out how to get us service south of Van Buren.”

For a long time, I mistook this for cynicism. In reality, it is something more like stoicism, a resistance to excitement that is native to this region… To live here is to develop a wariness of all forms of unqualified optimism; it is to know that progress comes in fits and starts; that whatever promise the future holds, its fruits may very well pass by, on their way to somewhere else. (7) 

It is curious to think that a place might natively have a resistance to excitement, but if something like that can live in a place, then Silicon Valley must surely be its foil, where enthusiasm and certainty about the next thing thrums through life. 

If, somewhere in the midwest, people are shaking their heads about the Musk-Zuckerberg fight, saying to themselves or each other, “it’ll never happen,” however, reasonable, that is not what they are doing here.

Here in Silicon Valley, they are amped up. “Wouldn’t that be so cool?” they say at CrossFit. And “who do you think would win?” while weighing Zuckerberg’s reported discipline and training against Musk’s reported extra-70 pounds. 

This is the place where we don’t have to imagine self-driving cars. The lot where they are stored is right of San Antonio Road, and they pull out all the time, while the humans in the formerly-driver seats hold their drinks with both hands and nod to me as I look at them curiously on the road. 

For many years, when they saw them, my kids would shriek “spy car!” and then duck, hoping to avoid being photographed and documented, their privacy invaded. Eventually, it was too often that they had to play this charade. I never did manage to explain that the cars that drove themselves and the cars that photograph the whole world aren’t always the same ones. The spinning camera on the roof was too much of a beacon, imploring them not to trust, that nothing can be trusted here. They are natives to the area, all of them born here, so maybe they know this more authentically than I do.

To me, living in this place is a curious place of dreams. Much has been said about how the internet was born here, how every idea is the precipice of a fortune, something to be leapt upon and invested in. But I don’t think that’s the way it is. It’s not the faith of dreaming and making it come true, there’s no billboards that proclaim something as grandiose as the idea that if you will it, it can come to fruition. You’re more likely to be told, with great seriousness, that it is a lot of work. That your dream will require business plans and far, far too many meetings with casually dressed men in fancy offices, that it is about the substance of your plan after all, nothing personal, and nothing that you could dress up with fancy words or pantsuits to make it seem more like it is. This is a place which is serious about good ideas, not snake oil. But when it comes to a good idea— why not

It’s about the business plan, about the ability to make a fortune. The pragmatism and clear-eyed dispassion of talking about a billion dollars of novelty probably isn’t matched anywhere else on the planet. This is one of very few places where quite that much money evaporated overnight. And it’s not “easy come, easy go” so much as it is a conviction that steely eyed assessment of an idea’s potential is the antidote.

And you know, it’s funny, because it’s not like there aren’t plenty of examples of this not being quite right. From the 2000’s bust that took away all of the adorable puppet commercials to the more recent bust of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes’ being carted away to jail, or even the indictment of wunderkind Sam Bankman-Fried, it’d be easy to become more cynical. But in Silicon Valley, those are just discounted anomalies that don’t threaten the story.

But I suppose, somewhere in the midwest, they’re just as incorrigible, that any recent advance is still going to be met with a cautious, “we’ll see,” is the same thing that can’t constrain the enthusiasm here.

As they ask me at CrossFit, “Ariella, you into crypto yet?” 

“Me? No, never,” I say, trying to explain why I don’t buy into investing fads.

“I dunno,” they say back. “It seems just to be going up.”

Rules of gravity don’t apply around here. Housing prices just go up. The falls haven’t been big enough or lasted long enough to bring them down. There’s always someone marching in, bills in hand, to pay more than the last person. It’s always a good time to buy around here. There’s someone who funds a big banner flying in the sky proclaiming their favorite in a fight that might not even happen.

And things may not fall, exactly, but if there is a fight between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, something is going to go down. Someone, that is. 

And maybe that’s the blood lust for a fight. If Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg get into a ring, or a cage, or a Coliseum, the audience isn’t going to leave until one of them goes down. Someone falls or the fight isn’t over.

How unlike life around here, where everyone always wins.

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