Silicon Valley is at once an alluring enigma of innovation and a mechanical cityscape of tech heads and coders, oftentimes ignored by mainstream society whilst being the ones to ultimately shape it. With nearly 200,000 of the 1.6 million people living in Santa Clara, the suburb that it is mostly comprised of, this area has become the driving force behind the global tech business, yielding the reward of three perfect ingredients – “raw intellect, seed money and entrepreneurial drive” (Bagnall, 1995). See Figure 1 for the vastness of the community. The political, social and economic forces that underpin the unique culture of Silicon Valley are most publicly conflated as entrepreneurial, and this essay will explore how the toxic working culture in Silicon Valley is not only a function of its business but also a part of its marketing mystique. The industry has gained a reputation in popular culture and society alike as a place where the world’s smartest teach workers labour for extensive hours every day, motivated by an insatiable appetite to compete with their counterparts and rivals alike for a competitive advantage. Figure 2 shows the television show Silicon Valley, which pokes fun at the extreme working culture of those in the business. Atop this, there is the political relationship that the Valley has with the world. Considering the extreme finance that these tech companies are backed by, as well as their capacity to influence the purchasing and political behaviour of their users and customers, it comes as no surprise that there remains a complex political charge to much activity in Silicon Valley. As pressure builds for businesses to expand their corporate social responsibility and answer to their impact on the world, the tech industry becomes an increasingly political landscape.
The entrepreneurial spirit is a large part of the social branding that shapes Silicon Valley and its inhabitants, and there exists a claim that this has bled irreversibly into wider society. Those who participate in it must be willing to go the extra mile, work long hours and struggle to afford living expenses. In 2018, the San Fransisco Chronicle reported that the area was so expensive, divorced parents couldn’t afford to live apart, and tech workers are living in vans (Graff, 2018). It is widely known that Silicon Valley workplaces are full of free lunches and employee activities, with offices like Facebook and Google boasting bowling alleys and volleyball courts, but it is argued that these are not benefits, but bait. Journalist Dan Lyons’ book Lab Rats: How Silicon Valley Made Work Miserable for the Rest of Us explores his lived experience there, where he speaks of the “bait and switch” method being imposed upon millennials in Silicon Valley where foosball tables and ping pong are used to lure them in for the exchange of job insecurity and excruciating hours (Lyons, 2018). This is indicative of the underlying economic ideas that shape Silicon Valley, which are innovation and competition.
The political culture in Silicon Valley has transformed greatly over the years, changing it in the eyes of many from a beacon of liberated innovation and optimistic creativity to another cog in the wheel of monopolistic capitalism. The public is beginning to grow tired of the fallacy presented by Silicon Valley as a facilitator of community and sharing through apps like Uber and Airbnb, where these concepts are at the forefront, promising a more ‘moral’ mode of economic sharing. See Figure 3, a video on this concept of the “sharing economy” as described by the multi-billion dollar corporation, Virgin. This can be looked at with cynical eyes as the neoliberal desire to have us monetise all aspects of our life, from our free time to our car, to the extra room in our house (John, 2016).
Politically, these businesses have grown less oriented toward providing a free online landscape for the circulation of ideas and are becoming more sinister, with increasingly obfuscated algorithms and addictive interfaces. Society’s political awareness of this ‘black box’ technology, in which “we can observe some inputs and outputs but not what is going on inside them or how an input becomes an output” points to their distrust in Silicon Valley as a hub of cultural input (Pasquale, 2015). In Pasquale’s text The Black Box Society, he describes the worry of secrecy in these algorithms as being of growing concern, particularly as platforms in Silicon Valley consistently brand themselves as merchants of transparency and progressivism — “when every move we make is subject to inspection by entities whose procedures and personnel are exempt from even remotely similar treatment, the promise of democracy and free markets rings hollow”. In this context we can infer that the underpinning idea that Silicon Valley was a hub for democracy and innovation has been eroded, and replaced by a culture more accurately defined by its lust for monopoly without transparency.
Silicon Valley, whilst providing the intellectual basis for most of the technological progress we benefit from every day, should be held accountable for its reinforcement of exploitative workplace conditions and questionable business intentions. The economic drive of those who participate to out-innovate their competitors has fostered a culture of secrecy and obfuscation that does not serve the consumers outside of it or the employees within it.
Bagnall, J. (1995, Apr 29). Silicon Valley; How Silicon Valley stays ahead: [FINAL Edition]. The Ottawa Citizen http://ezproxy.library.usyd.edu.au/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/silicon-valley-how-stays-ahead/docview/239917014/se-2
Ferenstein, G. (2015). The unusual politics of Silicon Valley, explained. Vox. Retrieved 9 October 2022, from https://www.vox.com/2015/9/29/9411117/silicon-valley-politics-charts.
Graff, A. (2018, May 3). The Bay Area is so expensive divorced parents can’t afford to live separately. SFGate. Retrieved 9 October 2022, from https://www.sfgate.com/mommyfiles/article/live-in-divorce-San-Francisco-separation-cost-12770531.php
John, N. (2016). Sharing Economies. In The Age of Sharing (p. lviii-lxxvii). Polity.
Krstevski, D. (2008). Sillicon Valley map. Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/23293041@N04/2677816438
Pasquale, F. (2015). Introduction – The Need to Know. In The Black Box Society: the secret algorithms that control money and information (p. 3-8). Harvard University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x0hch
Figure 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wETeJJnE6-o&feature=emb_title
Figure 3: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5y2P4z7DM88&feature=emb_title