Is Hotel California about Silicon Valley?

Were the Eagles the George Orwell of music? Did they somehow ‘take a trip’ into our present age where we are (virtual) ‘prisoners of our own device’, courtesy tech giants at Silicon Valley, California?

Yes, there are multiple interpretations of the legendary song ‘Hotel California’ and the Silicon Valley angle may not have been on the mind of the artists. But, the nature of art is such that no artist can ever fully comprehend all aspects of his own creation. It is observers who interpret art from diverse perspectives, making the act of observation itself an art in its own right.

The following perspective gently crept up to me while I was doing some thinking on our age of digital dystopia, while in the background the Eagles sang about their strange experiences at Hotel California. Somewhere, from the deep depths of my mind, an unexpected question gently surfaced seeking light in the digital age. Why was the title of the song ‘Hotel California’ and not ‘Hotel Chicago’ or ‘Hotel Florida’?

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Another thought followed suit. How come the lyrics like ‘you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave’ and ‘we are programmed to receive’ take on a whole new meaning when examined in the context of present day California that is home to Silicon Valley?

One after another, like divers surfacing for air, random phrases from the song started surfacing with a whole new meaning.

The song starts with the words ‘On a dark desert highway.

Today we live in a Dark Age of Instagrammesque narcissism, a desert like digital wasteland of big and largely useless data on the high speed information superhighway.

Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night.

There she stood in the doorway;
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself
‘This could be heaven or this could be Hell’

Then she lit up a candle and she showed me the way
There were voices down the corridor,
I thought I heard them say

Welcome to the Hotel California

The warm smell of colitas (marijuana flower buds) transports them to the doorway of the digital age that ‘could be heaven or hell’. Led by a lady holding a candle, they moved down the broadband corridors, where invisible (possibly automated) voices welcomed them to Hotel (Silicon Valley) California, the nerve centre of the Age of Information Technology.

Such a lovely place (such a lovely place)
Such a lovely face.

This is disturbingly indicative of photo shopped face selfies taken in air brushed, picture perfect places where every frame is filtered to X-pro II, Lo-Fi and their cousins. The word ‘face’ inevitably brings up images of Facebook, the social media forum that has definitively changed the way the world works.

Plenty of room at the Hotel California
Any time of year (any time of year) you can find it here

There is always plenty of room or unlimited server space any time of the year to host your multiple digital avatars, courtesy tech giants at Hotel California.

Her mind is Tiffany-twisted
This imagery refers to a girl, who represents a superficial generation whose mind is warped to a point of perversion by everything glittery, just like the jewellery at the super expensive Tiffany’s jewellery store. It’s interesting that one of the main standouts of Tiffany are its blue boxes. Popular social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin etc are all headquartered in Silicon Valley and have blue as their primary colour.

She got the Mercedes bends

She has the Mercedes bends (not benz). “The bends,” is also known as decompression sickness. You get the bends, for example, if you ‘surface’ too fast while scuba diving. Mercedes bends is an interesting play of words meaning a flashy, superficial life only lived at the surface, just like our shallow digital personas.

She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys, that she calls friends
This again refers to an entire generation obsessed with looking good by hanging out with stylish people they barely know, whom they call friends. This also reminds us of all our hundreds of social media ‘friends’, whom we don’t know.

How they dance in the courtyard, sweet summer sweat
There is something borderline disturbing about this line, reminiscent of how we display our private lives, opinions and emotions in the open courtyard of social media, for good and for bad, while the world watches, comments and judges and how this has become our new normal.

Some dance to remember, some dance to forget

Some of our social media engagements are to reconnect with past friends we remember or to create memories that we can later remember digitally as our biological memory fades. At other times we just want to dissolve bad memories by living larger than life digital avatars that barely resemble our real lives.

So I called up the Captain,
‘Please bring me my wine’

From superficiality and narcissism, there is a sudden shift to a need for sophistication indicated by asking the captain for wine. Wine indicates finesse and captains at formal restaurants ensure quality control and finesse.

He said, ‘we haven’t had that spirit here since nineteen sixty-nine’

The words ‘spirit’ and ‘nineteen sixty nine’ bring validation to this digital age interpretation of Hotel California. Interestingly, 1969 was the year when the internet actually started in the ‘Spirit of Community’.

The Advanced Research Project, under the U.S. Department of Defense, hired Dr. J.C.R. Licklider in 1962 to respond back to the Soviet Union’s launch of a satellite manned by a dog. Dr. Licklider’s intentions were as follows:

His idea for the project was the “spirit of community” and he was interested in “having computers help people communicate with other people” (Licklider, Licklider, and Robert Taylor) as opposed to using the computer to communicate for us.

The first message was sent over the ARPANET in 1969 from computer science Professor Leonard Kleinrock’s laboratory at University of California to the second network node at Stanford Research Institute, thus kickstarting the internet era as we know it today.

The lyrics ‘we haven’t had that spirit here since nineteen sixty nine’ seem to suggest that the founding spirit of the internet i.e to help people connect with other people using computers has transformed into a narcissist and dystopian beast that is threatening the fabric of social interactions.

They livin’ it up at the Hotel California
What a nice surprise (what a nice surprise), bring your alibis

At Hotel California, everyone irrespective of their imperfect lives in the real world make sure their digital avatars are living it up in surprising style on the silicon playground.

Alibi refers to a situation when one is physically in one place, but is building up an illusion of being in another place. That’s what we do through our social media avatars. Irrespective of our physical locations, our online activities are basically happening on Silicon Valley controlled servers. This also draws our attention to the problem of cyber crime and the dark web that transcends geographical locations.

Mirrors on the ceiling,

There is something voyeuristic in this statement. It indicates the perverted pleasure of watching oneself (on selfie mode), surveillance and violation of privacy by tech giants; all ailments that plague residents of our digital age.

The pink champagne on ice

Pink Champagne is also called rose wine. This indicates the rose — tinted world that we live in digitally, that is such a contrast to our ice like colourless real lives of increasing isolation, loss of privacy etc and crumbling down of the world as we know it.

Interestingly, a description of Pink Champagne reveals very interesting parallels to modern day human behavior.

According to Sam Heitner, director of the Office of Champagne USA, ‘its fashion, its hip, its a way to make a big statement that you know what you are doing, to have a different look at a party because its about the color of what’s in the glass’.”

Laura Maniec, director of wine & spirits for B.R.Guest Restaurant Group in New York, finds that the striking color has a contagious effect. If you are pouring it by the glass, she says, people see it, and all of a sudden everybody will start ordering it. (Source: Forbes)

Both quotes indicate how people on social media are drawn to the saturation of a substance rather than the substance itself.

And she said, ‘we are all just prisoners here, of our own device’

This conjures up images of a picture perfect generation who are mentally prisoners of their internet enabled devices that they simply can’t disconnect from. They have traded their privacy to tech overlords in Hotel California in exchange for living digitally augmented super — lives online.

And in the master’s chambers,
They gathered for the feast

Now that they had the whole world in their digital net, the tech overlords gathered at their headquarters in Silicon Valley to gather their billions of dollars.

They stab it with their steely knives,
But they just can’t kill the beast

But, they realize that their own creation has turned into a beast that refused to obey its master and cannot be ‘killed’ anymore by human means. This is indicative of the increasing powers of Artificial Intelligence and predictions of how it could become an existential threat for humans and would not respond to a kill switch.

Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before
Realising that Hotel California was not only sleazy and superficial, but that it’s real manager was a beast that controlled even its creators, they started running back to the gateway to their old and happier lives.

‘Relax’ said the night man,
‘We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave!’

At the gateway, they meet the night man who cryptically says ‘we are programmed to receive’. This indicates information we receive through our devices from a tightly knit corporate matrix that hopes to control our thinking. He tells them that physically they can check out of Hotel California anytime they like. But, their digital avatars can never leave. They will always remain guests on the spacious servers of Hotel California.

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Is Hotel California about Silicon Valley? was originally published in Becoming Human: Artificial Intelligence Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.