The nature and ethics of work in our time is of great interest to New City Commons. All societies, including our own, make determinations about what human tasks deserve remuneration, what constitutes good work, and how wages should be earned and redistributed. Indeed, the judgments a society makes on these matters reveal what that society values—that is, what deserves blame or commendation. This is what it means to say that work is a social phenomenon that takes place within particular cultural conditions.
“Silicon Valley” has become as much a sensibility as a place.
This week’s Culture Briefing features four pieces on the culture of work being generated in Silicon Valley, California. Rivaled only by Wall Street in its evocative and symbolic power, “Silicon Valley” has become as much a sensibility as a place. In our day, Silicon Valley stands in as code for a set of values: disruption, innovation, informality, and a deep faith in the world-changing power of technology. In this way Silicon Valley refers to more than an aesthetic preference for hoodies over “power ties;” it is also a particular culture of work—a culture that is being developed and exported nearly as ubiquitously as the latest iPhone.
This is precisely what sociologist Roland Robertson means to convey with the term “glocalization:” whether one works in the tech hubs of Raleigh–Durham, Austin, and Cambridge, MA—or, increasingly, Berlin, Chengdu, Rio, or Bangalore—the basic rhythms of work within technology firms are patterned after those of Silicon Valley. (For a fascinating look at the ways even the architectural style of Silicon Valley has been replicated in tech hubs around the world, see Margaret O’Mara’s piece, “Silicon Valleys” in the summer issue of Boom.)
The pieces we’ve selected describe this culture in vivid terms. It is marked by a keen interest in the power of innovation for social betterment and an unbending commitment to the power of technology to disrupt and improve social life. Increasingly, this culture is also recognized as particularly inhospitable to encumbrances of any kind—whether those be as particular as the claims of infirmed family or friends, or as universal as the phenomenon of aging. This renders Silicon Valley an interesting phenomenon for thinking about work in our cultural moment: deeply purposeful and fulfilling in many ways, yet demanding in such a way as to render us nearly cartoonish.
In our first piece, Claire Cain Miller reports for the New York Times on what she describes as a “vexing problem” for all workers, but Silicon Valley workers in particular. “Tech companies,” as she has it, “shower their employees with perks like dry cleaning, massages and haircuts.” “But,” she continues, “there is one group for whom working at a tech company can be much more difficult than working elsewhere: parents.” As Miller goes on to show, the culture of work within enterprising tech firms tends toward what a former chief executive of a database software company calls a “hero culture,” justified by the notion that a given company is “rapidly moving” and committed at all costs to “creative destruction.” This commitment is all too frequently antithetical to the mundane but time-consuming tasks of family life.
The inevitable and perhaps purposeful result is a consistent preference for the young and unattached. This is at the heart of the Andrew Ross’s opinion piece for the San Francisco Chronicle from the summer of 2013. Titled “In Silicon Valley, Age Can be a Curse,” Ross points to a passage from Mark Zuckerberg’s 2007 Y-Combinator address where he stated plainly:
Young people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30? I don't know. Young people just have simpler lives. We may not own a car. We may not have family. Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what's important.
This preference for the young and unattached stands in contrast to the dominant culture of other industries. Whereas experience is valued in sectors like law or medicine, Ross’s piece shows that Silicon Valley is littered with unemployed engineers, programmers, and executives in what would be conventionally understood as the “mid-career period” of their 40s and 50s. This means that “acting old” is unacceptable in job interviews or work interaction, because youth is understood as nimble, innovative, and cheap.
When the aforementioned hero culture of absolute commitment is combined with a widespread preference for the young and unencumbered, it is not hard to see why Silicon Valley’s culture of work is particularly challenging for women. Though this aspect of Silicon Valley has been chronicled at great length (regarding, say, the ethics of characterizing “egg freezing” as a job-perk at some tech firms), the argument for reform Joscelin Cooper forwarded in Forbes in August of 2013 still holds up. In her view:
To be truly “innovative,” women (and men) in the Valley might take incremental, but meaningful steps to wean ourselves from our addiction to work. Don’t take meetings after 6 p.m. Limit evening work to a 20-minute e-mail check-in after dinner. Go for a walk at lunch. Advocate for more flexible company policies on working remotely, or for part-time work. Stop trying to have it all.
In a scathing article written by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld and published in the New York Times in August, all these charges and more are leveled directly and forcefully at the culture of Amazon.com. (Though the piece received little public attention from Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, just this week Obama’s former press secretary and current Amazon employee Jay Carney self-published a response at Medium.)
In “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” Kantor and Streitfeld chronicle a series of practices that seem at best imprudent and at worst, cruel. As Kantor and Streitfeld report, the culture of unbridled competition that drives employees to excel is what draws credentialed and “high-powered” people in. As one former employee declares, a common refrain around the campus is that “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.” The commitment to work at all costs is a kind of “purposeful Darwinism” fueled by a culture of intense and sustained criticism—all in the service of what Susan Harker, Amazon’s top recruiter, describes as the company’s goal to do “really big, innovative, and groundbreaking things.”
Few Amazon users would deny the claim that the retail giant has been successful in reaching that goal. The ease with which everything from Tolstoy to Toothpaste can be purchased and delivered all over the world is remarkable on a number of fronts. And yet, the most salient claim of this particular exposé is that in addition to being concerned about the working conditions on the production side of the company (the workers that make the toothpaste, the workers in the massive Amazon storehouses that sort the toothpaste, the truck drivers that transport the toothpaste, and so on), we should also take a sustained look at the working condition of the traditionally white-collar side of the company.
The cultural significance of these pieces is twofold. In the first place, we should pay close attention to the oversized cultural and imaginative significance of particular locales and local cultures. While some have argued that globalization is best understood as the transcendence of place, what the example of Silicon Valley shows is not that place can be transcended but, rather, that the particular rhythms and habits of a particular place can be exported. Secondly, to the degree that other professions look to Silicon Valley as a generative model, we should not be surprised to see those professions embrace the unencumbered self as the paradigmatic worker. The infirmed, the entangled, the parent, the child, the elderly—these are forms of identity that have always been excised in regimes that value productivity at all costs. And, for all its innovations, work in the age of Silicon Valley will be no different.