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Tech’s New (Geographical) Frontier: ‘Silicon Prairie’ (nytimes.com)
46 points by ChrisArchitect on Nov 21, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 33 comments



I live in NJ now, but grew up in Northern VA, and went to school in southern VA. I went back there a little while ago, and realized something. Bare with me, it's a half-baked theory, but I think it may be on to something.

There are a lot of anti-intellectual places in the US. They drive out their smart people, who don't want to hide their intelligence on a daily basis. They have to leave: every time you hear a nonsensical but popular argument, it hurts not to say something. You can only do that for so long. Now some choose to stay, mostly by learning to suppress (or avoid learning/thinking about) intellect in many areas, and then focusing all that in a small area. That way, they can fit in with everyone else at 90%, and fit in other people's ontologies as |normal +x|. Of course, that means living a mostly-lobotamized life.

My concern with Silicon X-type articles are when they're happening in areas that may be anti-intellectual. Are these funding vehicles for the few "closet intellectuals" (if you'll forgive me for using the term) who don't want to leave, combined with a larger population who only see the outputs (jobs, spending, fame, etc.) without understanding or caring about why the original Valley formed?


I also grew up in Northern Virginia. I now live in NYC.

I hadn't considered the broader effects of this sort of migration, until I recently read "The Big Sort", a brilliant book written in 2009 that describes how like-minded people are "sorting" themselves through migration. One way to quantify this effect is to look at the number of "landslide counties", i.e. the number of counties in the US that preferred a presidential candidate by more than 20%.

You can see a map showing how these landslide counties have sharply increased here (the top map is from 1976, and the bottom map is from 2004): http://www.thebigsort.com/maps.php

What's happening is that voters are moving with their feet to be with more like-minded people. This skews many counties towards a particular direction (either Republican or Democrat). Further, as counties tip one way, the minority viewpoint gets suppressed in just the way you described (e.g. if you're a Democrat, why bother voting for Governor in Texas).

One thing that surprised me in the book is that not every state is homogenous. The author lives in Austin, so he spends a lot of time talking about how all the liberals move to Austin (and conservatives move out). So even in the bastion of Republican Texas, there is a liberal enclave.

Looking at Des Moines, it seems that Des Moines is a similar liberal enclave. For instance, in 2008, Des Moines, Iowa voted for Obama over McCain with a 23% margin: http://www.city-data.com/elec08/DES-MOINES-IOWA.html

So it seems like there are a fair number of liberal enclaves in conservative states. To give another example,"The urban core of Kansas City consistently votes Democratic in Presidential elections": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kansas_City,_Missouri#National_...

So even if it's true that "Silicon X'es can only happen in liberal pro-intellectual areas", there seem to be enough liberal enclaves in conservative states that Silicon X'es could possibly arise.


Sounds like someone sufficiently motivated enough could use something like https://www.google.com/insights/consumersurveys/elections/da... to predict or promote more Silicon X'es.

Caveat: just looking at one characteristic of a given geographic location (voter preference) is definitely limiting though.

Edit: added the caveat.


It's great to see so many NoVA people here on HN. It gives lots of hope that NoVA is a great place for the kind of audience that HN caters to. There's actually a fair amount of startups here...but for whatever reason they don't seem to rate high enough with the SV/NYC scene to get lots of coverage.

I think with the pretty good schools, something like the highest per-capita population with college degrees in the country, a very large government, biotech, commercial and publishing market and significant investment in fairly decently priced office space, stable housing prices (relatively) and hopefully improving public transit and being just on the southern end of the NoVA<->Boston corridor, one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse populations in the world it's surprising that it's not more prominent. D.C.'s also a great cultural scene, ridiculous museums, and the ring right outside of the city is a fantastic place for young single folks to live with the city center developing in a great way.

But yeah, once you get too far south or south west you end up in confederate flag waiving anti-intellectual redneck country pretty fast.

Strangely, there's a ton of West Coast companies with fairly large office presences here, but a deeper dive into them and you'll find they are almost exclusively sales offices -- sometimes with a services and integration team, but almost no serious development.


It's amazing how different Northern VA people are, to the point they don't want to be associated with the southern half of the state. It doesn't really seem to be a North vs. South attitude either, it's more of an intellectual vs good-ol-values battle.

It seems like that's the main reason why where I live in Southern VA has all of about 2 tech companies and zero startups, and Blacksburg (right next door) even being home to the state's largest technical universities has very limited startup activity.


My family is all from South western VA (250+ years), I grew up in Northern VA, I still live in Northern VA. I agree with you 100% and it breaks my heart to say so. I would love nothing more than to move back down there to raise my family, but my talents would just be wasted.

I think this, much more so than "greed" is what is leading to the growing income inequality in America. The intelligent people are living with intelligent people and having intelligent babies, who grow up to have intelligent babies with the intelligent kids down the street.

I'm still not sure if this is a bug or a feature.


Native Iowan, here. And my first post, long-time lurker.

I sincerely believe your "anti-intellectual" comment to be misguided and uninformed. For a quick and entertaining rebuttal, I'd direct you to this NPR youtube video titled "Iowa Nice": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qLZZ6JD0g9Y

If you'd rather not watch the clip, here are a few things you might not have known about Iowa that may cause you to revise your previous assumption (or not, and they may/may not be extrapolated to other midwest communities):

- Iowa has voted Democratic in 5 out of 6 presidential elections (now 6 out of 7). - Iowa was the second (or third) state to legalize gay marriage. - First woman lawyer in the US emanated from Iowa. - 4 out 5 Iowans live in cities. - Des Moines was ranked 1st richest metropolitan area and 2nd happiest in the country (not sure by what metric or source here, my apologies)

I feel pretty good about the intellectual capacity of my neighbors.

Disclaimer: I've lived outside the state for 4 years now, primarily in Chicago and now South Florida. If the weather was nicer, I'd consider making it my permanent home.


I find it depressing that 'voting Democratic' is used as anecdotal evidence of intellectualism. I am not disagreeing with your point, just merely pointing out how absurd it is.

While I am an ardent Democrat, I long for a day when we can have two parties that run on solid policy proposals, rather than the current "that party is batsh*t crazy, so I am voting for the other guy".


I may be wrong, but I feel like (Christian) religion is at the forefront of the anti-intellectual 'movement.' The more fundamentalist you are about your religion, the more likely you are to vote Republican as they pander to the religious crowd. I can see how "Voting Democrat" could be seen as a barometer for intellectualism, but I agree that it's a flawed metric.


> - Iowa has voted Democratic in 5 out of 6 presidential elections (now 6 out of 7). - Iowa was the second (or third) state to legalize gay marriage. - First woman lawyer in the US emanated from Iowa. - 4 out 5 Iowans live in cities. - Des Moines was ranked 1st richest metropolitan area and 2nd happiest in the country (not sure by what metric or source here, my apologies)

I am not American but I find it surprising that almost all the things you mentioned seem to have nothing to do with intellectualism (at best, they are weakly correlated).


That video was lovely!

I see your point. I assumed Iowa was similar to what I saw about Southern VA. My apologies. I don't know anything about Iowa.

I still maintain that many anti-intellectual areas exist, and that they have the effects I mentioned earlier. If Iowa isn't one of them, then I'm happy for them.


I can't agree with this hard enough. There is an anti-smarts culture in parts of the US (in passing, this may not be about geography, but about social circles you/we exist in), and if you demonstrate your smarts, you are... other & alien. Things like having hobbies outside of a particular circumscribed area (sports, cars, $current_music, etc.) are the province of the "others". And when you drink from the cup of knowledge in an area, it simply becomes hard to stay in that place.

So we leave. We seek out the company of others in our particular in-group and revel in not having to be untruthful about ourselves. I'm reasonably sure this holds true about things besides intellectualism, but my readings in sociology are not close to deep enough to recite citations.


There certainly exist places like you describe. However, would regional urban centers like Des Moines and Omaha really fall into that category? Des Moines is no San Francisco, but I would expect it to be on the receiving side of any sort of intellectual migration away from rural, economically depressed areas.


Yes, but it is in two parts.

You migrate to a place like Omaha or Des Moines from rural places like you said, but then after an education people traditionally left those places for the even bigger cities like the Twin Cities, etc. That said, effort by various colleges and city governments has gone into the brain drain problem for years so the drain has been declining. You can see marketing campaigns like http://lifeisright.com/ for various cities to try to promote staying put.


If a small company wants to survive against the big guys, they've got to exploit market inefficiencies. It always surprises me when someone insists that technology start ups can only exist in a small part of California or Massachusetts where they're competing directly for every kind of resource (people, space, etc.) with the richest companies in the world. There are huge universities all over the midwest that produce tens of thousands of engineering and computer science grads every year. In my opinion, any one of the Big Ten college towns would be a great place to build a company to last. Plenty of grads would stay close to family in the midwest if they could and it's easy to find cheap space to work. You'd miss certain parts of the startup infrastructure like specialized lawyers and ridiculous numbers of venture capitalists, but you'd also cut down on distractions from the hype machine.


The low cost of living is also an enormous advantage for anyone trying to start something from scratch. You can rent a decent multi-bedroom house in a decent area of Omaha or Kansas City for what it would cost to rent a small room in a shared apartment in SF, Boston, or NYC. In how many places on the coasts would you see a grassroots group providing free Google Fiber-connected houses to live in while you work on your startup? [0, 1] It just wouldn't be financially feasible.

0. http://www.kcstartupvillage.org

1. http://www.homesforhackers.com


There's a new "Silicon x" story every couple months.

Seems to be based on whoever has a good PR firm at the time.


I agree, but it's a rallying cry and a starting point for the community to cling to, if only momentarily. As a region evolves, the tech, talent, and culture will rise above the name.


Not to mention that 'Silicon Prairie' is already taken, several times over: Dallas-Fort Worth Silicon Prairie, Illinois Silicon Prairie, Wyoming Silicon Prairie.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silicon_Prairie


Singapore! Austin! Tel Aviv! Brazil! Dubai! Portland, Oregon!


One thing to keep in mind is that these kind of features articles (describing a new Silicon-X, talking about specific startups, talking about how "the suit is back", etc...) are almost often being written due to efforts of paid PR agencies rather than through organic efforts of journalists.

While pg has written many amazing essays, my favourite is still ``The Submarine'' which describes this dynamic: http://www.paulgraham.com/submarine.html

This doesn't negate the argument: whether the conclusion follows from the premises is not contingent on who presents the premises, but it does mean we have to evaluate these kind of articles critically.


The Bay Area seems like the best place for a 0-10 person startup, but a horrible place for a new 100+ person company.

For the first few employees, you can weight compensation heavily on equity, so taxes don't matter, and high wages mean people have enough savings (often) to cover cost of living -- people will accept lower quality of life and lower relative cost of living for a few years at a startup, anyway. And of course if the 0-10 person company fails, it becomes easy to sell the business as an acquihire or whatever; hedging the downside is important.

For a new 1000 person company, it would be really hard to compete in tbe Bay Area -- the non-crappy parts have a shortage of real estate, and

The best plan seems to be to startup wherever you are now, but maybe in the Bay Area if you can easily relocate, and then set up a presence in a lower-cost (lower costs overall; taxes are a part, but probably not even the major part) part of the country, or international. International also allows you to avoid some stupid US immigration rules.

Less competition, so people will remain at your company longer.

I personally would love to eventually set up a second office in Seattle, Las Vegas, somewhere in Texas (Austin? Dallas?), and then a third in Vancouver (BC), Cambridge (UK), Berlin, Eastern Europe, Israel, Hong Kong, or maybe AU/NZ.


I think that Seattle would be a great place to have your first office - you get access to local talent from companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Valve. But also, when it comes time to set up your second office, you can do that in Vancouver. Then you can hire international employees and take advantage of Canada's more friendly immigration policies to relocate them to Vancouver. And then when you need to have in-person contact, Vancouver is just a 2.5 hour drive from Seattle, and all the American citizens working in Seattle can easily hop the border for any such meetings.


FTA: "About a dozen start-ups have flocked to a single neighborhood in Kansas City, Kan., alone after Google Fiber installed its first ultrafast Internet connection there last week."

Wow, I had no idea that fiber would have such an effect.

Now, I'm surprised that all of the cities/countries that are spending millions and want to establish their own silicon x don't do do this simple move.


It may be hard to find software engineers in the mid-west but it should be easier to find ones working remotely.


I disagree. The coasts don't have a monopoly on software engineers for two primary reasons:

1) The midwest/mountain states have lots of great CS programs in their universities. UIUC, Boulder, UT, GA Tech, UW-Madison and plenty of others, as well as a lot of small universities that don't get the attention of Google and Amazon. My alma mater only produces a dozen CS grads a year but some of them have gone on to start insanely successful companies (Rackspace, for one).

2) Lots of great software engineers don't want to live in California, New York or Boston. I grew up in the Bay Area and I have 0 desire to move back. I hated it there and I know I'm not alone in that.


Well, if you're willing to pay for it, you could probably poach engineers by offering better salaries. I've noticed job listings outside of the Chicagoland area that are easily 15-25K less than what I could get in Chicago... and Chicago is low compared to NYC, Boston, SF, etc.


In some places, Kansas City for example, cost of living may make up for that 15k.


Working in the Silicon Prarie (Lincoln, NE), there are some cool tech companies getting started in the midwest for sure, but a lot of these articles are overblown. There are certainly a handful of companies doing tech, but there isn't nearly the "startup culture" here yet.

There has yet to be a Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Microsoft, or even a Github or Heroku started here yet. A lot of the companies that do tech in the midwest are tied more to traditional enterprise software like banking software, insurance, etc. That's not a bad thing, but the idea of "Silicon Prarie" is as much spin as it is substance. Perhaps it will end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy where eventually the midwest becomes a bigger startup hub, but I don't see that yet.

That being said, I love the midwest and living and working in Lincoln.


Even in the cities not listed there, it is certainly in the air. People talk about start-ups routinely now. A lot of younger people are involved in start-ups or know someone who is.


Great comments above on the "sorting" that seems to be happening in America. Personally, these Silicon-X names are dumb. I especially dislike New York being called "Silicon Alley" as there aren't really any alleys in NYC (this is why the trash is put on the street). Chicago, however, has alley ways and so that name might be more fitting for the windy city.


"Silicon Alley" specifically refers to the thin stretch of Broadway between the Flatiron and SoHo, which were home to a large number of startups. NYC's startup scene is now substantially more spread out but the name stuck.

The "alley" refers specifically to the original thin corridor, not any literal alleys.


In the article's first photo: two people sitting on an orange leather IKEA Klippan couch. Stylish for not a lot of money, but does anyone in the world find those things at all comfortable? (I say this as the owner of a blue one.) Form over function vs. form follows function?




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