America on the Brink   /   Fall 2020   /    Book Reviews

Demystifying Tech

What do we talk about when we talk about tech?

Megan Marz

Worker at a cheese processing facility in Oregon; Lloyd Sutton/Alamy Stock Photo.

The word silicon—having lost some of its shine to also-rans like Silicon Hills and Silicon Prairie—is conspicuously absent from the title of Ben Tarnoff and Moira Weigel’s new book, a collection of long interviews with anonymous tech workers. Voices from the Valley, a phrase that depends on local context for meaning, is a signal that the people interviewed are authentically from an area so mythic that it “has long seemed like the last refuge of the American dream.”

Although these interviewees didn’t all grow up near Silicon Valley—the San Francisco Bay Area’s famous corridor of global power—they now belong to it. At least that’s the implication. A startup founder who moved there from Texas to attend Stanford University explains that his parents stopped understanding him before he’d even finished college. The evidence: “My stepdad says if I ever wanted to move back home I could find work because there’s a local guy who fixes computers.” But not everyone has risen to such heights that moving home would be self-evidently ridiculous. Tarnoff and Weigel have taken care to include workers from different rungs of tech’s hierarchy, slotting a cook and a massage therapist (the only two who talk about their families’ local roots) amid five white-collar workers: the startup founder, a technical writer, an engineer, a data scientist, and a “storyteller.”

I read all the interviews in one sitting, perfectly absorbed. The collection feels, in some ways, like a contemporary spinoff of Studs Terkel’s classic oral history Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974). These are the kinds of stories you might imagine behind the convincing smile or barely disguised frown of everyone who’s ever inspired the thought, I wonder what it’s like to have their job.

With the exception of one brave ex-Google engineer, none of the interviewees name any of their employers; even so, the interviews include plenty of satisfying details. The technical writer talks about sneaking troubleshooting information into documentation when the marketing team (which likes to de-emphasize trouble) isn’t paying attention. The massage therapist remembers a client with whom she had a literal tug of war because the client refused to have her phone taken out of her hand during a massage. The data scientist discusses his ambivalence about the hype surrounding artificial intelligence, which he sees as misguided but which also makes it easier to sell the services he offers. The cook recalls that, after helping found a union that secured a wage hike, colleagues who hadn’t even gone to union meetings complained that the increase could have been larger. (The only two interviewees whose gender Tarnoff and Weigel mention are female, a curious discrepancy in a book covering a famously male-dominated industry.)

Beyond giving us concrete ideas of what particular jobs involve, the interviews also seem designed to evoke a general vibe, a sense of what Silicon Valley is like: “What was your first impression of tech? What was it like working for that company?” (In response to these questions, the cook says the tech workers were “snobby as hell”; at his new tech company, the other workers are nicer.) Whereas Terkel talked with dozens of people to paint a broad picture of working life in the United States, Tarnoff and Weigel’s ambition is narrower and deeper. (Their seven interviews have an average length of twenty-two pages.) They aim to flesh out our image of a place that—however global its reach and monolithic its influence—is very small and has recently been the subject of several other portraits by former workers, from Katherine Losse’s The Boy Kings (2012) to this year’s memoirs by Susan Fowler (Whistleblower), Wendy Liu (Abolish Silicon Valley), and Anna Wiener (Uncanny Valley).

It can feel ungracious to wish that a book had accomplished something other than what it set out to do, especially when the book is as absorbing and as successful on its own terms as Voices from the Valley. But especially given Tarnoff and Weigel’s insistence on technology’s ubiquity—JPMorgan Chase, they point out, employs more engineers than many big tech companies—I couldn’t help hoping for another book, one whose multiplicity of voices wouldn’t be tethered to a few dozen square miles. Why not interview one of the Chase engineers? Or a rideshare driver? Maybe Tarnoff and Weigel, or someone else, will do this eventually. Voices from the Valley is one of four books about “the way technology functions in everyday lives” FSG Originals has just published in collaboration with Logic, a magazine of tech criticism that Tarnoff and Weigel cofounded. A Logic Facebook post called the four-book series “the very first,” suggesting that there may be more.

For now, at the risk of being too cynical, you could say that Voices from the Valley trades on Silicon Valley’s mystique—that the book is, to borrow from Adrian Daub, “a nice way of associating with a prestigious place while not really associating with it…or, perhaps better, snubbing the elite while nevertheless basking in its glow secondhand.” This succinct summary appears in the first chapter of Daub’s own new book, What Tech Calls Thinking, another volume in the FSG Originals/Logic series. It’s intended to describe what famous dropout founders like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg gained by joining and then rejecting prestigious institutions. But it also describes the move both books could be said to make. The appeal of their demystification depends in part on the sense that they’re allowing you to look upon the mystified through privileged eyes.

Daub’s access comes from his position as a literature professor at Stanford, which puts him in convenient proximity to the unique culture of a university that has long served as one of tech’s feeder institutions. He draws frequently on his Stanford experience as he attempts to figure out where tech got what he sees as its animating concepts. These concepts—dropping out, content, genius, communication, desire, disruption, failure—give Daub his chapter titles.

“Dropping Out,” the first chapter, looks at tech’s unique mode of half-rejecting institutional education. Daub astutely describes the phenomenon’s ironies, observing that “there’s an interesting dual consciousness at work when investors, the press, and the public fawn over dropouts like [Zuckerberg and Gates], but worry about a ‘dropout epidemic’ when it comes to very different kids.” He adds, in one of several amusing asides, that, “somewhat hilariously, the phrase ‘dropout epidemic’ comes from a report by the Gates Foundation.”

Daub’s dismay often seems to target not elitism, full stop, but elitism that has not been properly earned. He is annoyed, for example, that Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced Theranos founder who dropped out of Stanford, claims the institution even though she presumably attended only a sprinkling of classes. If she had taken the ethics course that would have been among her requirements had she stayed, “who knows where Elizabeth Holmes would be today,” Daub wonders. (My guess: pretty close to wherever she currently is.) This is the persistent weakness in an otherwise interesting book: Daub repeatedly casts elite academia as the foil for big tech, implying that the problematic elements of the latter stem from its failure to understand concepts that are better left to academics. The new-power-versus-old-power framing can come off as a lament for the credentialed intellectual’s own fading status rather than substantive criticism.

Fortunately, Daub also supplies plenty of the latter. In each subsequent chapter, he traces an idea ingrained in Silicon Valley back to its earlier—and usually more nuanced—iterations. “Content,” for example, posits Marshall McLuhan as the source of big tech’s notion that “content is in a strange way secondary, even though the platforms Silicon Valley keeps inventing depend on it.” But while McLuhan’s idea that “the medium is the message” imputed “awesome responsibility” to those running the media, tech giants have assumed that responsibility very selectively. “Twitter was happy to claim Tahrir Square,” Daub observes, “but Nazis are someone else’s problem.”

In “Disruption,” one of the book’s best chapters, he finds the title concept’s origins in the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who famously wrote of capitalism’s “uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions.” The twentieth-century economist Joseph Schumpeter called this kind of disturbance “creative destruction.” Unlike Marx, he thought it would forestall revolution by constantly resetting the playing field, only gradually leading to some form of socialism. Daub argues convincingly that tech’s “disruption” repurposes the idea of creative destruction in a self-servingly partial way. By suggesting that the constant resetting is all there is, disruption becomes “a theodicy of hyper-capitalism,” a kind of “newness for people who are scared of genuine newness.”

Daub not only sketches the history of disruption but also efficiently deflates it by rebranding it as “the informercial effect”—as in those endless late-night ads that begin “Don’t you hate it when…” and then “name an extremely minor problem…you honestly couldn’t say you’d ever encountered,” before offering a “revolutionary solution” to the problem they had just invented. The comparison of disruption to products like the Hutzler 571 banana slicer is an exemplary critical analogy. Rather than put tech on a pedestal to justify its critique, it equates one of tech’s more insidious qualities with something obviously laughable and pointless. Access is not a precondition of demystification, it democratically suggests. Sometimes you can just call bullshit.