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T A B L E__T A L K

Life in the information age: Share your stories and rants on password snafus, multiple area codes, incompatible software and server failure in Table Talk's Digital Culture area

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Pictures from an exhibition
By Scott Rosenberg
With the Smithsonian's new Web site, getting around is half the fun

Please, Mr. Postman?
By Andrew Leonard
Netscape's and Microsoft's software just don't get along -- and God help anyone who tries to get them to make up and be nice

21st Challenge
By Charlie Varon and Jim Rosenau
Bright ideas for techno-schools

Mutiny on the Net
By Andrew Leonard
Music pirates cross swords with the recording industry

Let's Get This Straight
By Scott Rosenberg
As Slate goes, so goes ... Slate

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__________R E N A I S S A N C E geeks


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BY SIMON FIRTH | In the current issue of Fast Company, house journal of the fervid entrepreneur, Pointcast CEO Dave Dorman explains why he'd rather lead a small Silicon Valley start-up than a 50,000-employee company back East: "Leaving California now," he says, "would be like leaving Florence during the Renaissance."

In this grandiose vision, Dorman echoes the view of many of his Silicon Valley peers. The world, they feel, is witnessing a new Renaissance -- and the valley in which they thrive is both its prime cause and its geographic heart. It's an idea that has gained wide currency in the Valley ever since local historian Ward Winslow's 1995 video and print project, "The Making of Silicon Valley: A One Hundred Year Renaissance," became a local bestseller.

The project's explicit premise? "Silicon Valley has impacted the world more than any occurrence since the Renaissance." Winslow persuaded just about every major figure in the Valley's development to take part in his project. Since they were in it, most of the Valley's movers and shakers bought the book (or video) -- and, with them, Winslow's flattering assessment of their collective achievement. It's now received wisdom among the Valley elite that they've created the Florence -- and are themselves the Florentines -- of our times.

But if that were true, Silicon Valley wouldn't be full of just the CEOs, engineers and venture capitalists who are the heroes of Winslow's book, and whom the Valley continues to attract by the score. It would be a magnet, surely, for the very best of the world's artists, architects, musicians and other cultural movers and shakers. If the Valley really were the Florence of our times, it would be a model of urban planning, inspiring to visit, the cultural envy of the world.

Instead, of course, it is a sprawling mess of unremarkable development -- one that struggles to match the cultural interests and output of any typical affluent American suburb, let alone a major U.S. city or global cultural center.

To be sure, there are some valid parallels between what happened in Florence in the 14th and 15th centuries and what's happening in Silicon Valley now. The first Renaissance, for one thing, was sparked by people who were entrepreneurial in their outlook, who were open to new ways of managing and thinking about the world and who appreciated that education and learning were essential for continued social and business success -- qualities possessed in spades by the people who've made the Valley rich and famous.

But look in Palo Alto, Cupertino or San Jose for examples of what has really endured from the Florentine Renaissance -- buildings of architectural significance, commissioned public monuments of distinction, galleries of the finest contemporary and classical art in the known world -- and they're nowhere to be found.

Perhaps it's wrong to expect the masters of a new social revolution (for that's what the Valley's digerati are always telling us they've spawned) to want to surround themselves with emblems of old-world culture and success. The Valley is, after all, full of extraordinarily gifted and creative people. We might expect them to reject convention in favor of a new, exciting aesthetic of their own -- to be, like Shakespeare's Renaissance Henry V and his new French wife, "the makers of manners."

But where are the Valley's young princes living? How have they chosen to decorate their homes? With what have they adorned their lives? The answers are depressing: Whatever kind of Renaissance this might be, it's certainly not one in taste.

N E X T_P A G E .|. Taco Bell monsters and "Sun Quentin" nightmares

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