Coney Island and Silicon Valley
Above the turnstile for the Wonder Wheel, a hand painted sign explains that the Coney Island-based ferris wheel was completed in 1920, is 150 feet high, and weighs 200 tonnes. But the inclusion of Bethlehem Steel’s name stood out amidst the statistics. The company was one of the largest steel manufacturers and ship builders in the United States. When they filed for bankruptcy in 2001, they represented America’s shift from an industrial to a services-based economy, and exemplified the growing pressure to deliver short-term returns. The metal for the ferris wheel was forged on-site, and enclosed passenger cars move freely on the contiguous, elegant french curves of its interior track. It has run continuously every summer, except during the New York City blackout of 1977.
In season three of Silicon Valley, a new CEO, ‘Action Jack’ Barker is hired to turn around the ne’erdowell, recently ‘incubated’ startup, Pied Piper. With an impassioned speech about the hypocrisies of the tech-industry, PP’s founder Richard Hendricks confronts Barker about the company’s shift from his original, Dropbox-like vision toward a hardware-based model. Barker explains to Hendricks that the company’s product isn’t hardware or cloud based computing, it’s stocks (read short-term returns on investments). Regardless, Pied Piper always finds (or chances upon) solutions via the absurd, self-devouring circularity of Palo Alto’s highly competitive environment.
Sealed into a Wonder Wheel car, I’m reminded that Rem Koolhaas called Coney Island ‘an incubator for Manhattan’s incipient mythology’; and I wonder to what extent the Wonder Wheel foreshadows the tech-industry’s ‘freemium’ model: promising greater connectivity, pleasure, and usability, these industries extracted the means to build our reality. The Manhattan skyline becomes visible near the top of the ride. A pity that my phone was full: no Instagram post. As the wheel descends, it seems to fling me from its imposing metalwork. The thrill’s my own – for a moment, all trust suspended.