This week we return to one of our standing interests: the role of technology (and particularly the culture of Silicon Valley) in reshaping contemporary life and work.

In Vol. 31 we addressed the development of email and the constraints it places upon the workplace, not to mention social life. In that briefing, we used Adrienne LaFrance’s piece from The Atlantic, “The Triumph of Email,” to describe the contemporary phenomenon of “notification hell.” As a follow-up to that piece, we recently noticed a brief piece for Fast Company chronicling the experience of 13 workers who “gave up” email for a week. Reporting on the research of an Information Science professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Jill Duffy reports that workers who gave up email experienced three major benefits: first, they spent less time sitting at their desks and more time moving around; second, they had more consistent focus and were able to accomplish more “deep work” tasks; and, third, they experienced measurable decrease in stress. Moreover, when these workers returned to email from their brief sabbatical, they were all surprised to see how easy it was to respond to requests in a timely and straightforward fashion.

In Vol. 20 we drew your attention to the imaginative power of Silicon Valley for reshaping contemporary workplaces. There we said that “Silicon Valley” has become “as much a sensibility as a place,” as can be evidenced by the attempts of municipalities throughout the world to recreate the working conditions and creative productivity of the Valley in faraway places. We also claimed that for all its generativity and excitement, the tech world of Silicon Valley has had a notoriously difficult time attracting, developing, promoting, and retaining workers who have any kind of encumbrance—that is, any rival claim to their attention and time.

Our own Philip Lorish extends this line of thought in a piece called “Vocation in the Valley” for the latest issue of The Hedgehog Review. While we recommend the entire issue on the theme of “Work in the Precarious Economy,” Lorish’s piece focuses on the ways larger tech firms like Google are a kind of “total institution” wherein workers invest a great deal, not in the products they create, but in the overarching objectives of a technological revolution. For all the whimsy of the high-tech workplace, and all the plush perks that its workers enjoy, this overinvestment can manifest itself in a kind of technological fanaticism that should be critically examined.

Writing for The Atlantic, Gillian B. White characterizes the work of American Underground, a Google-affiliated tech accelerator in Durham, North Carolina, as an alternative to Silicon Valley that is able to capitalize on “startup fever” and support local enterprise and economic development without recreating some of the worst working conditions of Silicon Valley. Crucially, American Underground has focused upon supporting minority and female entrepreneurs. As White recounts it, the excitement of emerging tech hubs like Durham is their capacity to start afresh, as it were. According to Adam Klein, chief strategist for American Underground, “Silicon Valley is thriving in terms of venture capital, but when you dig under the hood you see big companies aren’t able to move the needle on diversity.” Yet, Klein continues, “we have the opportunity to build that right out of the gate, an inclusive technology hub for female and minority founders.”


Finally, this week we’re introducing a new feature to Culture Briefing. In addition to our monthly editorials, we will, from time to time, provide book recommendations and reviews.

The Language AnimalThis week we noticed an astute (and, at times, highly critical) review of philosopher Charles Taylor’s latest book, The Language Animal. Writing for Prospect Magazine, Julian Baggini summarizes Taylor’s basic argument, putting it in the context of Taylor’s other major works, Sources of the Self and A Secular Age. Though Baggini is largely sympathetic to Taylor’s project, he levels an oft-heard critique—namely, that Taylor needs a “strong editor” who is capable of helping him resist the temptation to engage in extended digressions and intramural debates. However, for those interested in a first pass at Taylor’s recent work—particularly his distinction between “designative” and “constitutive” language—Baggini’s review is a good place to start.


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