Work in the Precarious Economy   /   Spring 2016   /    Work In The Precarious Economy

Vocation in the Valley

Philip Lorish

Tabula Sacra, 2015, by Rosamond Casey; courtesy of the artist.

The heroic builder of the new social order is, of course, the hacker, who sees through the vast corporate malaise and retains a singular focus on solving broad social problems by technological means.

Brandon is a twenty-something software engineer who lives in a refurbished moving van that he parks in semi-permanence on one of the lots at Google’s sprawling global headquarters in Mountain View, California. His truck is equipped with only those necessities and amenities that are unavailable on the corporate campus, and since the Googleplex provides laundry facilities, a gym, video game rooms, multiple restaurants and “microkitchens,” bathrooms, and spaces for socializing, that means the truck has no more than the most minimal of appointments: a Dwell house on wheels, you might say, though without the costly chic.

Brandon explained his unusual housing solution in his first post on his personal blog, Thoughts from Inside the Box. Having interned for the company during the summer of 2014, he wrote, he quickly fell into a routine that went like this: “I wake up, catch the first GBus to Google, work out, eat breakfast, work, eat lunch, work, eat dinner, hang out at Google, and eventually take a bus home, pack my gym bag for the next day, and go to sleep.” When he was offered a full-time job at Google after graduating from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Brandon surveyed local housing options and decided that it made as little sense to spend valuable time commuting to and from Google’s campus as it did to shell out so much of his income on a place he would rarely occupy. So a box on wheels it would be.

To the degree that Brandon’s story has gained media attention, it has been used to illustrate the very real effects of a housing crisis in the San Francisco Bay Area.11xConor Dougherty, “San Francisco Ballots Turn Up Anger over the Technological Divide,” New York Times, November 1, 2015; But to view Brandon’s plight (and that of others like him) only as a technical problem in search of a housing-related policy solution ignores a fairly creepy reality. Short of providing a place to sleep, Brandon’s employer meets almost all of his and his coworkers’ basic needs in ways that social critics such as Erving Goffman and Michel Foucault have deemed typical of “total” or “complete” institutions like the prison or the asylum.

Brandon’s choices would seem perverse were they not connected to the heady idealism that suffuses the high-tech culture of Silicon Valley. The founders and foot soldiers of the Valley’s industries claim that they seek not only profit but also a social revolution. In contrast with the rapacious industrial giants of the Gilded Age, whose profit-making enterprises were untethered to their charitable giving, today’s tech titans—Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, and others—proceed on the understanding that they, the companies they have set up, the products they develop, and, increasingly, the philanthropic initiatives they establish are all part of a grand narrative about the power of technology to enhance not only the well-being but also the liberty of common people.

The loudly touted objective of the technological revolution is a kind of devolution and decentralization aimed not just at improving the world but also at remaking it altogether. Silicon Valley promises its true believers more than mere “negative liberty,” a freedom from constraint. It also promises positive liberty: a set of norms and ideals around which a purposeful and fulfilling life can be built. Work in the Valley comes with a powerful sense of vocation and calling—one so compelling that it can motivate someone like Brandon to move to a new city, take up a demanding job, and live like a monk in a truck.

The Cultural Ecology of Silicon Valley

The “garage folklore” of Silicon Valley—with its spirit of renegade start-up-ism and innovation—is neatly summarized on California State Historical Landmark 976, at 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto. The plaque reads:

This garage is the birthplace of the world’s first high-technology region, “Silicon Valley.” The idea for such a region originated with Dr. Frederick Terman, a Stanford University professor who encouraged his students to start up their own electronics companies in the area instead of joining established firms in the East. The first two students to follow his advice were William R. Hewlett and David Packard, who in 1938 began developing their first product, an audio oscillator, in this garage.

Aside from its grandiosity, the most remarkable thing about this text is its acute self-consciousness about the contrast between the culture of Silicon Valley and that of “the East.” That contrast is central to one of the first definitive works on the Valley, AnnaLee Saxenian’s Regional Advantage (1996). Saxenian’s question is this: How is it that, despite initial disadvantages of comparatively fewer institutions of higher learning, less defense-related government funding, and a lower concentration of intellectual capital, Silicon Valley succeeded as a regional incubator of innovative tech-dom while Boston’s Route 128 largely fizzled?

The answer is largely cultural.

As Saxenian and others have argued, the differences between Boston’s tech hub and the culture that emerged in the Bay Area are anything but superficial. While it is easy to point to stereotypical markers of differences in status and power (different forms of dress, the relative importance of formal education, the importance of conventional social mores), the fundamental difference between the work culture of Boston firms and that of Silicon Valley firms is as basic as the difference between feudal societies and democratic ones.

In 1983, Tom Wolfe went to Silicon Valley for Esquire to profile Robert Noyce, colloquially known as the first “mayor of Silicon Valley” because of his position as an early innovator, his work with Nobel Prize winner William Shockley at Fairchild Semiconductor, and his cofounding of Intel. During his tenure at Fairchild, Noyce was, among other duties, tasked with developing the “new management techniques for this new industry,” techniques distinguished largely by their repudiation of the managerial practices of East Coast corporations. “Corporations in the East,” as Tom Wolfe put it, “adopted a feudal approach to organization.… There were kings and lords, and there were vassals, soldiers, yeomen, and serfs, with layers of protocol and prerequisites.” For the first generation of entrepreneurs and developers who had been trained on the East Coast before heading out for communities like Silicon Valley, “it wasn’t enough to start up a company; you had to start up a community, a community in which there were no social distinctions, and it was first come, first served in the parking lot, and everyone was supposed to internalize the common goals.”22xTom Wolfe, “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce: How the Sun Rose on the Silicon Valley,” Esquire, December 1983, 346−74;

In these Silicon Valley communities, the fidelity of workers to the corporation was always nested within a grander fidelity to an idealized version of that company. Whether you were an entrepreneur, developer, programmer, investor, or secretary, the skills you developed and monetized were always in the service of an overarching social objective—hence, as Wolfe noted back in 1983, the repeated statements by Silicon Valley CEOs that a corporation was not a corporation, but rather a culture, or a society. A given company’s assets “aren’t hardware,” Wolfe wrote, paraphrasing his unnamed subjects, “they’re the software of the three thousand souls who work here.” Such idealism has, if anything, grown with time, sometimes almost comically obscuring the powerful profit motive behind all the disruption and creative destruction that—lest we forget—have left so many industries downsized and so many people jobless or underemployed.

But the foot soldiers of the revolution pay little heed to such incidental consequences. Their commitment to the higher ends of technological advancement allows them to embrace even their own precarious condition, exemplified by their frequent moves between companies. After all, the Valley’s fiercely idealistic and anti-hierarchical ethos insists that more and more “spinoffs” are not only desirable but also necessary to the production of a new social order. In the early days, before the establishment of massive campuses and draconian non-disclosure agreements, the joke was that, in contrast with the work culture “back East,” Silicon Valley was the place where you could change companies without changing parking lots.

But those were the days before parking lots were used for the semi-permanent housing of employees. What changed? And what kind of society really exists in Silicon Valley? In 2008, Jonathan Nelson, a health-care professional who was trying to get a toehold in Silicon Valley as a developer, and his wife, Laura, realized that what he needed most was a support group, a collection of people who not only understood the reigning work patterns and aspirations of Silicon Valley but who also had some sense of how to navigate them. The result of that insight was “Hackers/Founders,” an international organization that began as a “meet-up” in local bars and evolved into a hybrid organization offering emotional, technical, financial, and legal support for individuals around the world seeking to found technology companies. Today, the organization focuses not only on the work culture of Silicon Valley but also on the myriad “tech hubs” that have emerged throughout the world. Its mission is summed up in the tagline “Making Founders’ Lives Suck 34% Less in Silicon Valley and Around the Globe.”

In describing the work culture of the Valley, Laura Nelson distinguishes between what she calls “human beings” and “human doings,” arguing that “people really do lose themselves,” particularly when their ventures fail. For hackers and founders in Silicon Valley, it’s not that work is an important aspect of one’s life, it’s the whole of it. As she puts it,

Whether they’re super busy or at a loss, many people have no idea what they need because work is the be-all, end-all. In my conversations with people, I do my best to delve underneath the pitch to find out what’s going on, because people need connection in a huge way. They need encouragement. They need someone to listen and someone to give advice. They need people around who are genuinely happy for their successes and not threatened by them. They need a safe place. Maybe more than anything else, they need to be reminded that they are human.

If the new social order proposed by Silicon Valley is to emerge, its champions know, it will have to be built on the back of much creative destruction and displacement—hence the near-comical dependence on the language of disruption within the principal Silicon Valley institutions. Whatever the industry or established form of life, the rhetoric of disruption—with its familiar logic of suspicion toward the status quo, its creative destruction of established moral, economic, or social norms, and its promotion of data-derived replacements—needs no justification. As Tom Wolfe observed, Silicon Valley’s work ethic is also destructive of family life. What kind of society can be produced from a work culture that demands so much from its workers without offering them stability in return? And what kind of vocation can be pursued even to the point of self-annihilation?

On Meaning-Making and Vocation

To say that Brandon lives “like a monk” is not merely to invoke a tired metaphor. If we look for other institutions that demand of its members such personal privation in service of a higher goal, the monasteries of medieval Christendom come obviously and immediately to mind. But in what ways can the work culture of Silicon Valley be said to derive from the model of the traditional monastery and the theology of vocation that began within the monastery’s walls and extended into the wider world?

To be sure, like a church, Silicon Valley tells its members that they serve a higher good (the technological revolution). Just as religious vocations grant a total form of life that orders work, friendship, leisure, and play toward the end of glorifying God and his creation, so too does a job within the world of tech give an individual a comprehensive form of life. Silicon Valley tech firms infuse every aspect of their organizations with reminders about the higher purpose of the firm in the technological project itself.

Google, for instance, has recently decided to reorganize itself in order to separate its more “traditional” functions such as Search and Gmail from a set of “moonshot” projects. One such moonshot is the transhumanist enterprise CalicoLabs, which describes itself as “a research and development company whose mission is to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan.” Following that fairly innocuous sentence is another equally suggestive statement of intent: “We will use that knowledge to devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives.”

CalicoLabs’ belief that radical life extension is possible reveals a faith in the power of technology not just for hacking basic scripts of daily existence but also for extending our lives. According to an influential transhumanist, Nick Bostrom, the key is to “view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways.”33xNick Bostrom, “Transhumanist Values,” accessed December 11, 2015; Reprinted from Ethical Issues for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Frederick Adams (Charlottesville, VA: Philosophical Documentation Center Press, 2003). Once this premise is established, the constraints placed upon what technology can and should do to alter human life are purely provisional and minimally prudential. Here, too, Silicon Valley resembles a religious organization; it even promises its followers the possibility of immortality, or at least ever-extending longevity. The world will become a better place, and we will become better people.

The Fraternal Firm

When Protestant reformers dissolved the institution of the monastery, they hoped to bring the logic of the monastic regimes to the ordering of the whole of common life—to which, about 350 years later, Max Weber would give the name worldly asceticism. Laypeople could also have vocations, if not in religious orders. At the heart of both the late medieval and early modern concepts of vocation is the sense that the daily work of living can both enable participation in the life of God and further God’s purposes in ways that promotes the flourishing of the world. To whatever degree possible and with whatever responsibility one has been given, one enacts one’s vocation precisely by discerning, preserving, and enhancing the goods attendant upon the sphere of human activity one is engaged in.

The internal logic of lay vocations requires submission of the individual will to the collective will. The push to self-actualization is not negated, but submerged. The will of others can overrule the individual’s will precisely because the community is constituted by a commitment to a shared life under God. But vocation in Silicon Valley is constituted by a commitment to shared life in service to a very different ideal: to the logic, or logos (as in “guiding principle”), embedded in technology itself.

Commitment to that logic is evident even in the way tech titans conceive of philanthropy, not as a form of “charitable giving” but as an exploration in “philanthrocapitalism.” As Sean Parker, one of Facebook’s first investors, put it in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, a new generation of philanthropists “wants to believe there is a clever ‘hack’ for every problem.” These tech moguls “want metrics and analytic tools comparable to the dashboards that power their software products,” and, perhaps above all, “want to know that they are having an impact that can be measured and felt.” Parker explained that his most important responsibility was “to leave behind not an unwieldy institution for others to manage but rather a world better off than I found it, one that my children can manage to live in.”44xSean Parker, “Philanthropy for Hackers,” Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2015;

The heroic builder of the new social order is, of course, the hacker, who sees through the vast corporate malaise and retains a singular focus on solving broad social problems by technological means. The hacker also embodies the new order’s core values: an antiestablishment bias, a belief in radical transparency, a nose for sniffing out vulnerabilities in systems, a desire to “hack” complex problems using elegant technological solutions, and an almost religious belief in the power of data to help solve those problems.

According to Jonathan and Laura Nelson, the basic model for larger tech firms is not the monastery but the college fraternity. As Jonathan Nelson says, “these companies in large part are modeling themselves after elite schools like Stanford, Harvard, and Dartmouth. Why? Because that’s what the founders of those companies know.” This explains, in part, the jocularity that pervades many tech company workplaces, its manifestations including “rec centers” full of video games, on-site basketball courts, and goofy names for conference rooms.

Just as a college student must learn to coexist with a roommate who plays video games (and even get some studying done in the process), so too must workers in tech firms learn to accommodate the blurring of the line between work and play, blocking out distracting behaviors but also being willing to indulge in them. Not incidentally, a corporate culture built to replicate the ethos of an Ivy League dorm or frat house goes a long way toward explaining the persistent and widely publicized challenge tech firms face in attracting, supporting, promoting, and retaining women or workers with substantial commitments outside of the office.

Life in the 1099 Economy

In 2013, Internet entrepreneur and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman wrote a Harvard Business Review article with Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh titled “Tours of Duty: The New Employer-Employee Compact.” The premise of the article is that the habits of “entrepreneurial adaptives” should govern both employees and employers. Rather than simply encourage enterprising employees to assess their value to a company so that they might renegotiate salary and benefits from a position of strength, Hoffman and his colleagues make plain that even though “for most of the twentieth century, the compact between employers and employees in the developed world was all about stability,” the facts of modern labor make this neither possible nor desirable.55xReid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh, “Tours of Duty: The New Employer-Employee Compact,” Harvard Business Review, June 2013;

In what some have come to call the “1099 economy,” employers are granted the power to claim almost the whole of an individual worker’s life with almost no commitment of continued employment. Given this arrangement, Silicon Valley may be ahead of the curve but not unique. Employers in a knowledge economy that places “purpose” and “mission” at the center of an organization’s profit-making enterprise may well trade upon traditional conceptions of vocation, recalibrating these conceptions as best they can in order to direct them toward new ends.

The importance of Silicon Valley’s work culture resides most centrally in its imaginative power. As JPMorgan Chase chief Jamie Dimon quipped in his annual letter, “Silicon Valley is coming,” even for Wall Street. And what it brings with it is a kind of techno-optimism that renders the meaning of deeply human work all the more confused. Sure, millennials like Brandon have sufficient liberty to take their skills to market within total institutions that will provide them with nearly all they need for daily life. And without doubt, many benefits flow from the tech revolution—benefits that, however unequally distributed, make human life better for many. But beneath all the well-intended benevolence and philanthropy is the same undeniable restlessness pervading every aspect of work and vocation in our time.