September 8, 2008

Knight Foundation Silicon Valley: Set & Setting

It’s an overcast Monday morning in the Bay Area, even down here in one of the most economically upbeat corners of America — Google HQ, in Mountain View, Calif., not far from the Shoreline Amphitheater.

The famed Googleplex is like walking around a giant college quadrant. It hearkens back to visiting a pal at MIT once upon a time, the architecture open and breezy and brightly colored, the interiors done up like a series of playrooms for brilliant pre-teens gifted with the world’s biggest box of Lego or Tinker Toys.

On my way down to to this event, I am struck by the diverse information services and stark social contrasts I experience en route.

  • I logged on the night before to reserve a car through San Francisco City Carshare, and printed out directions via Google Maps.
  • That morning I scanned for updates on local news and issues, but learned little about where I live, or the South Bay communities I was headed towards. The headlines were all about Hollywood, and sports, and local sensational crime, and the evicted tree sitters over at Berkeley.
  • Cruising the highway as the morning rush hour flowed and pulsed, I listened to KFJC 89.7 FM, an LPFM radio station out of Foothills Junior College that specializing in unusual and noncommercial music, particularly of the local variety.
  • On the way, their public service announcements informed me about an art space in San Jose, Space 47, that besides sounding genuinely groovy, made me realize there is a thriving, self-starting cultural community in Silicon Valley that is largely cut off from the main information circuitry of the region.
  • My Google map is rife with wrong turns. I get stuck behind impatient commuters leaving the tree-lined boulevards of their Palo Alto suburban enclaves, make a few more wrong turns and like magic wind up the markedly lower-income city of East Palo Alto.
  • Here, the buildings are not shiny, nor new, and are usually concerned with cheap food and automobile repair rather than software development and online commerce. This transition is abrupt, approximately 30 seconds total of driving time. I do a u-turn and finally spot the Four Seasons hotel that is my primary landmark, perched exactly between the two cities, gleaming like a beacon, guiding me back to the information superhighway.

Localized information sources CAN serve community needs … but only up to a point.

Information on about that San Jose art space is probably not turning up too often in the Mercury News. Those local bands on KFJC are most likely not getting reviewed in the major metropolitan newspapers of the region.

Similarly, I found a disconnect between what the panelists brought together by Knight are asking for, and what local media are providing.

In the following posts, I’ll identify some of those specifics.

But the question remains:  What next?

Now, having learned specifically what communities — or at least some of the diverse communities of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area — are looking for, how will our media landscape change, here, to fulfill democracy’s articulated but unmet needs?