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Light Industry: Toxic Waste and Pastoral Capitalism


There are two plaques at 844 E. Charleston Road in Palo Alto—one from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and one from the state of California—commemorating it as the place where Fairchild Semiconductor revolutionized computer manufacturing in 1959. While the IEEE plaque emphasizes the ingenious planar process developed by Fairchild’s Jean Hoerni and Robert Noyce, the state of California’s plaque documents this site as the birthplace of the first “commercially practicable” integrated circuit (presumably in comparison to earlier, commercially disappointing circuits).

Aside from some markers for groundwater monitoring wells on the pavement, there isn’t any signage for the restrictive covenant issued for 844 E. Charleston by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) in January of last year. It prohibits the operation of day-care centers, elder-care centers, hospitals, and K–12 schools on the site due to ongoing remediation of contaminated groundwater and soil on the property. The volatile organic compounds discovered in the groundwater may not have been a result of Fairchild, who vacated the property in 1967, expanding to a larger manufacturing facility that, today, is mostly Google offices and a Superfund site. It could have been the work of the following tenant, Advalloy, a company focused on precision metal-stamping for semiconductor production, until going bankrupt in 1991. Both ended up being held liable for the contamination in 1989.

That a landmark of technical innovation sits atop toxic waste isn’t rare in Silicon Valley. There are twenty-three federal Superfund sites in Santa Clara County, which encompasses most of Silicon Valley, and these sites are connected to semiconductor and electronics manufacturing. There are dozens more groundwater and soil remediation sites monitored by the RWQCB, many of which—like 844 E. Charleston—are tech industry legacies. This history of the landscape usually meets with a flicker of recognition when explained—a reminder that the region earned the nickname “Silicon Valley” because of its role in manufacturing electronic hardware, before it became famous for the manipulation of electronics via software.

This dislocated sense of history suits a place that is often perceived less as historical landscape and more as a synecdoche for an entire way of life. Whether it’s being spoken of with overwhelming contempt or feverish faith, critics and champions alike tend to talk about Silicon Valley as a condition rather than a concrete geography. It isn’t a place that exists so much as something that happens to people and industries and other cities.

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