Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Children of Silicon Valley

HBO
A scene from Mike Judge’s HBO series Silicon Valley

In the new HBO comedy Silicon Valley, almost every new start-up representative at a high-tech conference ends his presentation with the programmatic words, “and this will make the world a better place.” When Steve Jobs sought to persuade John Sculley, the chief executive of Pepsi, to join Apple in 1983, he succeeded with an irresistible pitch: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” The day I sat down to write this article, a full-page ad for Blackberry in The New York Times featured a smiling Arianna Huffington with an oversize caption in quotes: “Don’t just take your place at the top of the world. Change the world.” A day earlier, I heard Bill Gates urge the Stanford graduating class to “change the world” through optimism and empathy. The mantra is so hackneyed by now that it’s hard to believe it still gets chanted regularly.

Our silicon age, which sees no glory in maintenance, but only in transformation and disruption, makes it extremely difficult for us to imagine how, in past eras, those who would change the world were viewed with suspicion and dread. If you loved the world; if you considered it your mortal home; if you were aware of how much effort and foresight it had cost your forebears to secure its foundations, build its institutions, and shape its culture; if you saw the world as the place of your secular afterlife, then you had good reasons to impute sinister tendencies to those who would tamper with its configuration or render it alien to you. Referring to all that happened during the “dark times” of the first half of the twentieth century, “with its political catastrophes, its moral disasters, and its astonishing development of the arts and sciences,” Hannah Arendt summarized the human cost of endless disruption:

The world becomes inhuman, inhospitable to human needs—which are the needs of mortals—when it is violently wrenched into a movement in which there is no longer any sort of permanence.

The twenty-first century has only aggravated the political, moral, social, and environmental concussions of the twentieth. There would be reason to applaud the would-be world-changers and start-up companies of Silicon Valley if they made it their business to resist or reverse this process of planetary upheaval, the way environmentalists seek to do with the wounds we have afflicted on nature. Sadly they have no such militancy in their souls, nor much thoughtfulness. With a few exceptions, our new tech armies rarely take the time to think through what they are doing. Or if they do, they tend to think in ways that only add to the turmoil and agitation.

Silicon Valley, and everything it stands for metonymically in our culture, has indeed affected billions of people around the planet. The innovations have come fast and furious, turning the past four decades into a series of “before and after” divides: before and after personal computers, before and after Google, before and after Facebook, iPhones, Twitter, and so forth. In the silicon age, “changing the world” means at bottom finding new and more ingenious ways to turn my computer or smart phone into my primary—and eventually my only—access to “reality.”

In truth Silicon Valley does not change the world as much as it changes my way of being in it, or better, of not being in it. It changes the way I think, the way I emote, and the way I interact with others. It corrodes the worldly core of my humanity, leaving me increasingly worldless. (I do not consider the Internet’s Borg collective, with its endless drone of voices, a world, any more than I consider social media a human society; those who do not see the difference have already been assimilated.) Thoreau wrote: “Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” If only that were unconditionally true. Alas, Silicon Valley has enriched its coffers thanks largely to a contrary craving in us—the craving to trade in reality for the miniature screen of the cell phone.

In “Change the World,” a splendid New Yorker article published in 2013, George Packer mentions an employee at a high-tech firm who refused to take time away from work to hear what President Obama, who was visiting the campus, had to say. “I’m making more of a difference than anybody in government could possibly make,” the employee reportedly told a colleague. There are not many places in the world—maybe only one—where an employee can expect an absurd utterance like that to be taken seriously, and where children, metaphorically speaking, believe that adults need their guidance and tutelage. Speaking of the pastoral campuses of companies like Google and Facebook, Packer writes:

A polychrome Google bike can be picked up anywhere on campus, and left anywhere, so that another employee can use it. Electric cars, kept at a charging station, allow employees to run errands.… At Facebook, employees can eat sushi or burritos, lift weights, get a haircut, have their clothes dry-cleaned, and see a dentist, all without leaving work. Apple, meanwhile, plans to spend nearly five billion dollars to build a giant, impenetrable ringed headquarters in the middle of a park that is technically part of Cupertino. These inward-looking places keep tech workers from having even accidental contact with the surrounding community.

These heterotopias, with their teenage dress codes, situate themselves neither inside nor outside the public sphere. The companies that create such “frictionless” environments for their employees expect them to have an unlimited devotion to their jobs. Almost everyone who works for one of these companies in fact overworks in optimal working conditions, at the expense of their private, social, and public lives. Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s famous remark—“As for living, our servants will do that for us”—would make an appropriate motto for many of them.

The high-tech campus is the setting of Dave Eggers’s The Circle, which aspires to be the great dystopian novel of Silicon Valley and its dream of total connectivity. Reading this book makes one wonder whether Silicon Valley could ever inspire a good novel. It can inspire good comedy, as in Mike Judge’s HBO series Silicon Valley, whose caricatures are highly effective. People who work in Silicon Valley tend to love this show precisely because its over-the-top portrayals of the most infantile and socially dysfunctional aspects of the tech start-up culture are eerily on the mark. Silicon Valley captures a truth that masquerades as farce, yet farce and truth in this case are almost indistinguishable.

Eggers’s transpicuous allegories in The Circle have no such cutting edge. As one perceptive employee at Google remarked to me, it is hard to tell whether the novel wants to parody Silicon Valley or the clichés of its critics. Eggers is otherwise an excellent writer, which makes one wonder why this particular novel is so flat. From a literary point of view it seems colonized by the totalitarianism of transparency that its fictional high-tech company, with its presumptions of a higher moral mission, seeks to impose on its workers, and on the world at large, which of course it wants to change. Eggers’s story suffers from a similar syndrome as its protagonist, Mae Holland, a young college graduate who lands a desirable job at The Circle. She believes that her life is full of excitement, yet in truth the more engrossed she is in her work the more vapid she gets. When Mae’s childhood friend Mercer chides her at a family gathering for not being able to tear herself away from her cell phone, he infuriates her by pointing out something she refuses to believe: “Mae, do you realize how incredibly boring you’ve become?”

It’s not Mae’s fault. Becoming a boring human being is the fate of most people who keep the tech economy’s lights burning deep into the night. These industries may be among the most vibrant and dynamic in the world, yet those inside the hive are among the most tedious people in the room, endlessly plugging into their prosthetic devices. The bad news is that their employers excel at finding ways to make those devices, in their continuously updating versions, universally available.

You shall know them by their fruits, Jesus says in Matthew 7:16. From the point of view of the world we share in common, the fruits in question are altogether tasteless. I have seen young teenagers who just yesterday were ebullient, verbal, interactive, and full of personality turn into aphasic zombies within three months of getting a smart phone or an iPad. The new wine is dying on the vine, and Dionysos, the telluric god of ecstasy, is nowhere in sight. It is unlikely that the next big digital innovation will lure him back.

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