The Magazine

Our Founding Yuppie

Ben Franklin's America

Oct 23, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 06 • By DAVID BROOKS
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The First American

The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

by H. W. Brands

Doubleday, 759 pp., $ 35


I'm on the crest of a hill on Research Boulevard in Rockville, Maryland, and it's just like being on the steps of the Parthenon. Except I'm not looking out over temples and theaters that were the glories of ancient Greece. I'm looking out over the glories of twenty-first century America, which are contained in the ident-a-kit office parks spread over the exurban hillsides.


The one over there by Gude Drive is Celera Genomics, the company that is mapping the human genome system. Up and down Research Boulevard, and over on Corporate Boulevard, there are scads of similar biotech firms, like Human Genome Sciences, that will presumably be revolutionizing medicine over the next few decades. Some of the other nearby office parks house thriving tech firms. They all seem to have gone to the same consultants to get branded: Either they have compound names, like CyberStar or InterCell, or they've got three-initial names like ISG Solutions and SRA Technologies.


If the hill were a little higher, I could look across the Potomac to Virginia and see the more grandiose office parks by the Dulles Toll Road, where AOL has its headquarters. And in my mind's eye I can see a nation of office parks: the ones along the Hudson built by IBM, the ones along Route 101 in Silicon Valley, the ones in Redmond that comprise the campus of Microsoft. In America, all of a sudden, the most dynamic individuals work in the most generic buildings: These office parks are mostly built on hillsides, and they're all made of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same.


Office park buildings are five- to eight-floor layer cakes of tinted glass and composite stone. They have labor-unintensive flower arrangements out front and dwarf-trees inside their deserted lobbies. There are take-out cafes near the atrium, FedEx drop-off boxes just off the main driveway, and rows and rows of open parking. Airport shuttle vans cruise by throughout the day, and there's usually one of those suburban strip mall restaurants like Chi-Chi's or Outback Steak House a short drive down the road.


Office parks are very quiet. There's no street life except for the huddles of smokers by the front doors. All the action is inside, among the scientists, the techies, and the entrepreneurs. Office parks represent the marriage of science and commerce, and the withering away of just about everything else. And when you hang around them, you sometimes wonder, what is this office-park culture doing to the American character?


Throughout our history there have always been some who, in the Jeffersonian tradition, admired rural America as the backbone of the American character. And there have always been others who followed Alexander Hamilton instead, and saw cities as the dynamos of the nation. But what is the spirit of exurban office-park America? Who embodies the spirit of this America?


When you scan through the great figures who are supposed to represent the American spirit, almost all of them seem hopelessly out of place in office parks. We used to think America was a pioneer nation, but the people in the office parks haven't thrown off the comforts of civilization to strike out on their own: This isn't the realm of the Puritan, the Cowboy, or the Immigrant.


So too you can't fit George Washington in an office park. He may have embodied the American spirit when we were a nation fighting great wars for freedom and democracy, but it is hard to see Cincinnatus getting excited about an IPO.


Nor is it easy to imagine Lincoln parking his Chevy Suburban in one of the oversized spaces and fiddling with his Palm Pilot on his way to the morning meeting. Lincoln was too grand and too political for an office-park nation. He may have embodied the spirit of America during the civil rights era, during the fight for equality, but this is not his milieu. The things essential to Lincoln -- historical memory, government, reverence for America's founding documents -- are all missing here.


But there is one figure from the American pantheon who would be instantly at home in an office park, and that is Benjamin Franklin. Franklin lived much of his life at the intersection of science and commerce. He understood the process of getting rich from intellect, which is the chief occupation of the information age. He would have been wild about all the experiments going on inside these buildings. He'd probably join the chorus of all those techno-enthusiasts who claim that Internet and biotech breakthroughs are going to transform life on earth wonderfully; he shared that passion for progress.