Silicon Valley: Tech mecca or materialist wasteland?

Technology is religion, and Silicon Valley is Mecca: This is the conclusion of academics who study computer culture.

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Technology is religion, and Silicon Valley is Mecca: That's the conclusion of academics who study computer culture for the American Anthropological Association (AAA).

Six academics, ranging from graduate school students and professors to a cultural anthropologist employed by Intel, presented theories on "technoculture" Friday at the AAA's annual meeting in San Francisco.

The thesis papers, delivered orally to a roomful of rapt academics from research institutions around the world, presented sweeping generalizations of the Silicon Valley as an enchanted place where international workers put aside ethnic differences to create products for the good of humanity.

The anthropologists likened computer programmers and engineers to "techno-missionaries," people who "seek a grander meaning to their jobs" and use an array of cellular phones and other gadgets to live on the cutting edge of "a progressive movement."

The academics also hailed the Silicon Valley as the world's pre-eminent "technopole"--a "land of hyperbole and image" where lucrative jobs are more abundant than palm trees, and uninitiated technophiles make life-transforming "pilgrimages to a sacred center."

"Ironically, work in this place of instrumental pragmatism is grounded in acts of faith that place Silicon Valley at the center of a progressive force for global change," wrote Charles N. Darrah, professor of anthropology at San Jose State University.

"High-tech work takes on significance that transcends the rhetoric of efficiency, productivity and 'value added,' as it is used to make lives meaningful by aligning them with progressive forces."

Darrah's research was based on a decade of interviews with workers in the Silicon Valley, an agricultural zone south of San Francisco that metamorphosed into the world's high-tech epicenter in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Other academics at the AAA discussed similar transformations in tech hubs such as Bangalore, India; Dublin, Ireland; Taiwan; and on Florida's so-called Space Coast. They also discussed how the Silicon Valley, Chicago's Silicon Prairie, Seattle's Silicon Forest, Scotland's Silicon Glen and Ireland's Silicon Fen were ironic nomenclatures: Each name evokes nature, but each place produces microchips and processors and other distinctly nonorganic technology.

One paper dealt with Vietnamese immigrants in Santa Clara County, Silicon Valley's ground zero, while another paper addressed the transformation of blue-collar chip assemblers in the region.

A University of Chicago graduate pullquote student presented a paper that likened the free software movement, epitomized by the widespread Linux operating system, to the guild system of craftsmen apprentices in the Middle Ages.

"Participation in code writing is the apprenticeship in the guild," said E. Gabriela Coleman. She said that working on small projects and contributing to larger code efforts established hackers' "legitimacy of membership" in the global open-source community.

The researchers, including several who live and work in the region, conceded that quality of life in the Silicon Valley has substantially degraded and that workers' daily routines are relatively banal. As gridlock mounted outside of the conference at the San Francisco Hilton Towers and car horns blared, the presenters lamented the "harsh reality that the automobile is the dominant technological device of the region."

"Despite talk of being a modern-day Florence, everyday life of most people is marked by increasing traffic and lengthy commutes brought on by a hyperinflated housing market," Darrah wrote. "Moving bodies through time and space still drives daily logistics, and it can be difficult to remember that one is bleeding on the cutting edge of innovation. Dark humor abounds about the cruel ironies of living in a place that prides itself on efficiency."

California dreamin'
But other than a few comments on the high financial and efficiency costs of life in the Silicon Valley, the technophilic researchers mainly extolled breathless enthusiasm for the Silicon Valley and its workers.

Darrah interviewed an early Apple Computer devotee who had a minor religious epiphany when, as a computer engineer years later, he moved to California and lived in an apartment only a quarter mile from Apple's corporate headquarters on Infinite Loop in Cupertino.

"It was such an amazing thing for me to be so close to this thing that I had thought about all the way through my childhood, and it was just something that had been a natural thing for me to want to be out here, I guess," Darrah quoted the Apple aficionado as saying. "I couldn't imagine being anywhere else."

Academics J.A. English-Lueck

By the numbers
Academics call Silicon Valley a "technopole" based on its high concentration of high-tech workers and companies.

• Economic output of region in 1998: $39.78 billion

• Total percentage of economic output produced by high-tech companies: 37.17

• Number of people employed in high-tech companies in 1998: 279,000

Source: San Jose Metropolitan Statistical Area

from San Jose State University and Andrea Saveri of the Institute for the Future also theorized that high-tech workers derive a significant part of their identity from their work and are likely to be highly motivated to produce social change. Tech workers, they reasoned, are also able to channel information precisely across international and ethnic boundaries.

"An Irish high-tech worker is not only designing software, he is contributing to the repositioning of Ireland into a global economic player," the duo wrote in a paper titled "Silicon Missionaries and Identity Evangelists."

"A gay project manager is not just creating and monitoring milestones for the design of a new product, but creating 'an alternative space' in which gay communities can be formed. The workers, and potential workers, use their various identities to recast technical work into socially charged causes."

Notably absent in the research, which in many cases relied on data that was at least 10 years old, was a discussion of money as a motivational force in the Silicon Valley.

Get rich quick
Most technology workers and all non-tech workers in the region will frankly admit that the enormous sums of venture capital money, combined with the raging bull market of the late 1990s, transformed the Silicon Valley into a place of warped and unrealistic financial expectations--a place where success is measured in terms of dollars, not personal happiness. Fortune magazine called it "Valley of the Dollars" in September 1999, when a New York-based writer penned a scathing critique of the increasingly materialist and consumerist culture emerging in the former hippie haunts of San Francisco.

Also missing from the research was the fact that the technology industry--and Silicon Valley as a whole--is grossly skewed toward men. A standard estimate of technology workers is that 80 percent of the high-tech employees in the region are men. Even more so than in banking, retail or other industries, women in the high-tech industry are notoriously contained in the "pink ghettos" of public relations, marketing and human resources.

The overwhelmingly male bravado of the valley was not lost on Genevieve Bell, a cultural anthropologist who works for Intel in Portland, Ore. Bell was a "discussant" during the anthropology conference, providing a critique of the theses presented in the seminar on the Silicon Valley.

"There was no discussion of gender, and I am very struck by that," Bell said to the crowd of about 50 academics.

Bell was shocked by the omission because, she said, gender influences cultural anthropology to an enormous degree. As an example, she told of how she was one of the only women in her department, and her stereotypical label at Intel is that of "nontechnical female." And she noted that the cubicles in her office are about 5-feet-6-inches tall, eclipsing her 5-foot-3 frame.

"That creates vastly different views between men and women of geography in the office, of surveillance, etc.," Bell said.