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.)

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