MARCH 25, 2021
IT’S BEEN ALMOST 20 years, but I still vividly remember the first time I visited Silicon Valley. It was 2004 or so when I drove my old Saab up there from Southern California for a short dive into the archives at Stanford University. The trip took me through Nipomo, a town on the central coast immortalized by Dorothea Lange’s 1936 iconic photo Migrant Mother. Eventually, I stopped for fuel near Salinas, located in the farming region (“Gilroy — Garlic Capital of the World!”) where John Steinbeck set many of his novels. Another 40 miles and farmland turned to concrete and then, off to my right, I saw NASA’s Ames Research Center with its massive Hangar One building, constructed in the early 1930s when people imagined giant airships represented the future of transportation.
After some rain and rush-hour traffic, I was finally wending my way to my motel on El Camino Real. Operated by a family from Southeast Asia, the motel was far from royal even while sporting regal prices. The college-age person at the desk shoved aside a textbook on some programming language and checked me in, and I found my room on the motor inn’s second floor. Maybe it was my naïveté but, as I settled in to my small room, I felt oddly disappointed despite the excellent internet connection. That evening, as I walked along “the king’s highway” to find an affordable restaurant, I encountered little more than tired and dingey rows of strip malls where upscale cupcake vendors shared walls with muffler shops. I kept asking myself, “But where are they keeping the future?” What I was seeing looked nothing like, say, the airport in Los Angeles where the Theme Building’s Googie architecture at least suggests the future, even if it only went there to die.
The next day, the rain had stopped and the sun was out. I walked from my motel to the Green Library (named after Cecil Green, a founder of Texas Instruments) at the center of campus. Walking proved to be a mistake. This was before Google Maps, and I had not understood just how vast Stanford’s campus was. But I had plenty of time to look for the future. Perhaps too obtuse to “see” it, I did eventually — later that morning — overhear people talking about it. Conversations peppered with terms like VCs, angel, unicorns, start-ups, and cap tables filled the air around me when I had lunch at the Business School’s cafeteria.
Two new books — Seeing Silicon Valley and Voices from the Valley — reveal, if not the future I thought I would find, a critical part of Silicon Valley that most people never look for or think about, let alone see. These two books’ goal is the same: to reveal the Valley’s forgotten but essential communities — obscured more often than not by hyperbolic press releases, lawyers waving non-disclosure agreements, and journalists’ myopic view of what “working in tech” means. In some cases, these are the “people behind the platforms” — the unheralded engineers and programmers who, despite being paid far above the median salary still find themselves living precariously in houses they can’t afford to furnish. In other cases, they are the nannies, cooks, and gardeners whose hidden labor keeps the Valley’s financial, familial, and social circuits humming. That newly minted billionaire you read about might drive a McLaren but someone has to wash and wax it.
After a brief essay from Fred Turner, a communications scholar at Stanford, Seeing Silicon Valley deploys an array of pictures captured in 2017 by Mary Beth Meehan, a photographer known for her “community-based portraiture.” For six weeks, Meehan rented an Airbnb in Menlo Park, introduced herself to strangers, and took photographs. She kept the statement “Invisible Community, Invisible Relationships, Invisible Human Beings” written on a sticky note above her desk.
Meehan’s color photographs are accompanied by short but powerful life histories of her subjects. Along the way we meet, for example, Justnya, a Polish-born engineer who shares a mansion in Cupertino with other technologists, and Victor, an elderly man originally from El Salvador who lives in a small trailer a few miles from Google’s campus. Each photograph tells a story, and it’s rarely the one you might imagine. There’s a photo, for example, of “Mark,” a young white man. On closer inspection, you sense something wrong with his body position and facial expression. You learn that Mark’s mother worked for years in an electronics plant making lasers for supermarket checkout scanners. Every night she came home with “green gunk” on her face and hands. Only years later, after Mark was born with extreme developmental issues, mental and physical, did she learn this gunk was a mixture of chemicals, primarily lead. What was once billed as “the Valley of Heart’s Delight” became the eventual home of nearly two dozen Superfund sites created by now-defunct electronics companies. The non-defunct ones have taken their manufacturing, their jobs, and their gunk overseas.
Meehan’s photos and captions sometimes reveal human warmth transcending the tragedy and unfairness. In another photograph, Abraham and Brenda are captured hugging each other in that special golden glow one sees near sunset in coastal California. But that glow can only do so much. They are in front of their dilapidated RV, which they have lived in since they lost their house in 2008. Normally, they parked on the edge of Stanford University’s land holdings along El Camino Real. But not on game days when the university forces them to move. On those days, like Steinbeck’s Okies, they drive their aged vehicle over the Santa Cruz Mountains to Half Moon Bay and look at the ocean together.
In their edited collection, Ben Tarnoff and Moira Weigel — both of them authors and co-founders of Logic magazine — opt entirely for words to carry the weight of their activist ambitions. Following in the tradition of Studs Terkel, Voices from the Valley uses a series of semi-structured interviews with a diverse array of workers. They are anonymous, presented almost as dismal versions of Dungeons & Dragons character classes — The Cook, The Engineer, The Story Teller, etc. Each section is introduced with a short but insightful essay that situates the person’s occupation within the Valley’s larger ecosystem, but the real gold is in the interviews.
“The Massage Therapist,” for instance, was, like so many workers in the Valley, hired as a contractor with no job security. These people are often referred to as TVCs — Valley jargon for “temps, vendors, and contractors.” Even though they are a critical community for Silicon Valley’s manufacturing sector, they are almost never mentioned. Their role extends far beyond providing creature comforts for full-time employees. As Louis Hyman explains in his book entitled Temp (2018), to truly understand the electronics industry in the Valley demands taking temporary workers into account. “To understand the electronics industry is simple,” he writes: “every time someone says ‘robot,’ simply picture a woman of color.” In the 1980s, temporary workers were central to the success of star firms like Hewlett-Packard and Apple. Subcontracting effectively allowed them to avoid American laws regarding wages and safety. Thomas Peters, a director at McKinsey & Company in these years, observed, in Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution (1987), “Silicon Valley’s labor practices, except for engineers, often make Detroit’s look humanistic.” Even as much of the region projects an aura of “this is the future,” the history of its labor practices has more in common with the 19th century, claims Hyman. Complex electronics, for instance, were in the 1980s often assembled in people’s kitchens thanks to a flexible, disposable, undocumented workforce laboring via piece work.
As for The Massage Therapist, she did enjoy some perks despite her temp status, including two free meals a day in the company cafeteria. There she would see some of the same people whose knotted muscles she kneaded. She recounts how, in her work, she set aside her ambivalent feelings about “tech companies” and came to see her clients as all the same: bodies in pain. “You just deal, she said,” with the body in front of you. One hundred years ago, assembly line workers at a Ford plant faced an array of physical ailments caused by repetitious toil. The coders at today’s tech firms exhibit similar stresses from long hours at keyboards, lack of exercise, poor posture, and unrelenting schedules. Only full-time employees could access her services, though. The people who cooked the food or cleaned the offices did not have access to such benefits. The interview reveals a clientele that is entitled, sometimes rude, and invariably vulnerable. An engineer, one of her favorite clients, was working exceptionally long hours and “his back felt like Sheetrock.” The trauma might be emotional as well as physical. Many of the women that The Massage Therapist treated, for example, “seemed stressed and sad.” One administrative assistant — “she was gorgeous” — could not sit still for her massage sessions, checking her phone constantly for messages from her boss. “Feeling her body, I could tell,” The Massage Therapist says, “she was near some kind of break.” The interview concludes with her describing a different break — becoming unemployed when “her” company’s IPO failed and it let her go.
Today’s synecdoche for “innovation,” Silicon Valley has spawned a disk drive’s worth of clichés parroted by tech bros, from the now-cringey and perhaps criminal “move fast and break things” to the if-I-have-to-explain-it-you-won’t-make-it-here nostrum “fail fast, fail often.” The phrase “the next Silicon Valley” contains its own sad myopia; cities and regions, ignoring the vagaries of historical contingency and chance, are in effect launching quixotic quests to try to catch and bottle lightning.
The aforementioned essay by Stanford professor Fred Turner, which heads the Meehan collection of photographs, is titled “The Valley on the Hill.” It compares Silicon Valley’s present to the worldview of 17th-century Pilgrims recently arrived in the New World and seeking to build a “City Upon a Hill.” Technologists, many from outside the United States, flock to the Bay Area with “their sense of mission and their search for profits,” and — like their Puritan ancestors — they are motivated by deep, almost compulsive work ethics, argues Turner. He doesn’t say quite enough to give the analogy the depth it deserves — in part because his essay is a mere six pages, a disappointment given his oft-cited expertise on the topic. Still, in his erudite yet truncated telling, the idea of a “New Jerusalem,” a.k.a. Silicon Valley, goes back some 50 years to when Santa Clara County became a hotbed of innovation, albeit one eventually strewn with oozing Superfund sites.
Turner’s comparison to the Puritans perfunctorily cuts in a couple of other ways. As a religious sect, the Puritans were notoriously dogmatic, and eager to sacrifice heretics. Some programmers share their belief in eschatology and denial of the body, he suggests. It thus makes a kind of sense that Soylent — a start-up company based on marketing a meal-replacement product named after a creepy post-apocalyptic movie — was developed there. But Turner sees present-day “denials of the body” primarily in people’s eager atomization into digital data to be “aggregated and repurposed.” He could go further. Believers in a coming technological Singularity imagine dispensing with the body altogether by uploading their minds. A hundred years ago, the mirage factory of Los Angeles produced the evangelist-huckster Aimee Semple McPherson. Today we have engineer and self-confessed felon Anthony Levandowski and his scheme for a religion based around worship of artificial intelligence. Long live the new flesh. Or, if another variant of Silicon Valley’s fixations is to be believed, long live the old flesh, rejuvenated by steroids and blood transfusions from the young.
While tech bros might practice or preach denial of the body — or, alternatively, worship of their particular worked-over and supplemented body — both books insistently draw the reader’s focus to how Silicon Valley’s success and image are based on the outright elision of other bodies, often brown or black, or immigrant. It’s important to keep in mind that these invisible workers are part of a much longer history that isn’t covered in these books. A huge part of the region’s economy in the 19th century was agriculture. Miners working in Sierra goldfields needed flour, fruits, and vegetables. When agriculture, like data storage 150 years later, needed to be “scaled up” to industrial levels, the process created a boom economy.
That set the stage for its later history. The Santa Clara Valley eventually became part of a much larger system of producing and circulating agricultural products, especially canned fruits and vegetables. Production increased again in the 1870s with the arrival of reliable rail service, brought to the region by men like Leland Stanford. The consummate robber baron, Stanford and the eponymous university he founded with his wife in 1885 were enabled by his ability to leverage funding and land from the US government. The notion that Silicon Valley was built by heroic individuals who bootstrapped themselves to lofty perches with no help from Uncle Sugar is nothing more than a myth.
Eventually fruit and vegetable production in the Valley became the dominant crop. The number of workers needed — then and now — exceeded the local population. And so the labor-intensive work of picking and preserving the fruit fell largely to invisible Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Filipino, and Mexican workers. Much of it was performed by women employed as seasonal contractors and segregated by race and ethnicity, and they were the first to be let go when hard times came. The xenophobia, discrimination, and misogyny that runs throughout both books thus goes back a lot farther than when William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor and committed racist, arrived in the Valley in 1956 and started an electronics company.
Shockley Semiconductor begat Fairchild Semiconductor begat Intel and scores of other companies, large and small. Engineers accordingly multiplied. They flocked to the region and in general came to represent the second largest segment of American professionals — behind school teachers. Engineering was the most common occupation pursued by white-collar men. The Cold War’s technological needs coupled with the affluence of the 1960s gave them increased visibility, a sense of responsibility, as well as job security and a solid paycheck. In short, building and designing spacecraft, avionics systems, and circuits made for a protected spot in the middle class — at least most of the time.
One of the characters Tarnoff and Weigel include in their book is The Engineer. This person started college in 1999 just as the dot.com boom was getting frothy. By the time they finished, the bubble had popped. The Engineer then did what many young people do in bad economic times: go to graduate school. Their grad school project involved improving CAPTCHA, the (annoying) way some web sites verify a user as “human,” which then led to their digitizing books, which eventually resulted in a start-up company that Google soon acquired. The Engineer was now inside the mothership.
And unhappy. During the Cold War, the Valley’s engineers could point to that aircraft or this consumer project as their small contribution to national security or economic well-being. This particular engineer — who eventually left Google — was unnerved by the gap between ultra-compensated executives and rank-and-file technologists, which was widening into a chasm. What real value did their own ceaseless manipulation of 0s and 1s produce?
Engineers today, like their counterparts a half-century earlier, quite often express ambivalence about technologies that “do evil.” In the past, this ambivalence might have been about contributing to weapons systems that enabled the wholesale annihilation of civilizations. Today, according to The Engineer, efforts like Project Dragonfly (Google’s prototype search engine for the Chinese market) strike many technologists as an uncomfortable “ethical gray area.” “I could see plausible arguments on either side,” relayed The Engineer, but Google’s managers only thought about the implications of what the company was building “after people raised concerns.” “After you’ve already built the prototype is not really the time to start thinking about the ethical ramifications,” they pointed out. J. Robert Oppenheimer and his compatriots at Los Alamos in August 1945 couldn’t have said it better.
After reading these two books, I was left wondering how researchers and writers should best approach Silicon Valley as a subject of study. Should we approach it as normative, and so as the standard with which all other technology districts are compared? Or should we approach it as an ethnographer might, treating it as a pathological case of regional development fueled by Cold War defense dollars, clever tax lawyers, as well as hardworking engineers, programmers, cooks, gardeners, and massage therapists? I’ve been back to Silicon Valley many times since that first trip. When I drive past Hangar One, I no longer think of it as the place that once sheltered giant dirigibles. I know it now as where the Google executives park their private jets.
Among journalists, there is a newly emerging class of professional “tech reporters.” Often brands unto themselves, their eyes are unerringly on a few companies — Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon. They fail to grok that today every company is a tech company. The number of people employed by Facebook and Twitter is a fraction of those collecting paychecks from Walmart, CVS, and Kroger. Which has played a more outsize role in the history of our planet in the last 50 years: Amazon or Exxon? Both of them moved feckless and fast, leaving broken communities and ecosystems behind.
Along with their readers, the people who cover “tech” — whatever that term even means these days — too often portray Silicon Valley as a place apart from America. But, as Seeing Silicon Valley and Voices from the Valley reveal, with its racism, casual misogyny, economic inequality, and environmental devastation concentrated among poor communities, Silicon Valley is America. Given its innumerable sins, venal and moral alike, punching at Silicon Valley is as easy as ordering an Uber. Critiques of it take many forms, and the best of these are informed by an understanding of the region’s long and fraught history. These two books don’t fully take that history into account but they do point to the heart of what makes the region run: people, many of them hidden or invisible. Making them visible is a start to creating a more praiseworthy place. Silicon Valley may never be the Puritan’s “City Upon a Hill.” But in its pursuit of the future, it can and must do better.