Through the Valley of Silicon We Fear Death

It's just another opportunity!

It’s just another opportunity!

I’ve been critical of the Silicon Valley startups off and on when I write for this site. Part of the reasoning for that is because I have many friends who are nerds and really dig (to one extent or another) what’s going on in the tech industry these days. Some of them are less optimistic than others but many of them are still involved to some extent and as a result I sometimes get the biggest debates or news that’s going within the tech industry.

Ever since that started I noticed how startups tend to treat their workers, how the tech industry culture seems to be trying to conflate life and work so as to extinguish the work-life balance…in favor of work. How the cultures will still have all of this language that can be seen as so much more “rational” yet still crushing in its application.

But even with all of that second-hand knowledge (and watching a few episodes of Silicon) it’s still just that, second-hand knowledge. So I try to leave the conversation to my friends who are much closer to Silicon valley or who are indeed working within it to see if it can be used for some sort of good. Which, for the record, I don’t doubt that it can be.

As it stands however, state-capitalism perverts the tech industry at every corner by introducing the former corporate bureaucracy and fashioning it with bean bag chairs, retro lava lamps and open offices. It’s standard fare of the system but with a bit of modern aesthetic that makes it more appealing to coders.

That same aesthetic is what gets these coders and techno-geeks into these companies to begin with. They’re promised a “fun” working environment where work becomes a way of life. A place where their able to make lots of money if they just “apply themselves” (e.g. put in 55 hours or more) and pursue their dreams of changing the world.

All of this sounds attractive and rightfully so.

The people in charge of these companies obviously know their target audience to such a degree that they can tailor their rhetoric to them. Even to the point of making being fired sound a way of moving up in the world.

As Dan Lyons writing for the NY Times says:

AT HubSpot, the software company where I worked for almost two years, when you got fired, it was called “graduation.” We all would get a cheery email from the boss saying, “Team, just letting you know that X has graduated and we’re all excited to see how she uses her superpowers in her next big adventure.”

One day this happened to a friend of mine. She was 35, had been with the company for four years, and was told without explanation by her 28-year-old manager that she had two weeks to get out. On her last day, that manager organized a farewell party for her.

It was surreal, and cruel, but everyone at HubSpot acted as if this were perfectly normal. We were told we were “rock stars” who were “inspiring people” and “changing the world,” but in truth we were disposable.

This disposability is similar to the context that is felt in your usual workforce. But here, it’s hidden by technobabble and rationalizations from a given policy or metric imposed from the higher ups. And as usual there’s no real reason to listen to the higher ups because the workers are those most likely to have the best knowledge about a given situation.

This techno-collectivism is yet another place where corporate structures put themselves over the individual. They subsume the identities of their workers and tell them that they aren’t themselves but rather “team members”. In fact, it’s even more insidious in some places:

Tech workers have no job security. You’re serving a “tour of duty” that might last a year or two, according to the founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, who is the co-author of a book espousing his ideas, “The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age.” Companies burn you out and churn you out when someone better, or cheaper, becomes available. “Your company is not your family,” is another line from Mr. Hoffman’s book.

His ideas trace back to a “culture code” that Netflix published in 2009, declaring, “We’re a team, not a family.” Netflix views itself as a sports team, always looking to have “stars in every position.” In this new model of work, employees are expected to feel complete devotion and loyalty to their companies, even while the boss feels no such obligation in return.

If you’re a feminist (as I am) then you may notice that this framework bears at least some resemblance to the expectations of domestic labor for mothers. Even though men certainly share the responsibilities to some extent, it’s expected to see women at school meetings, going to their kids games. Men are seen as going above and beyond for that while women are simply expected to take time from home and work to do this.

All the while men aren’t really expected to give the same in return. It’s true that men may work more at their jobs in some cases or be in more dangerous professions but at the same time women are placed in precarious positions where they are expected to balance childbirth, childbearing, domestic labor as well as a full-time job.

This idea of mutually exclusive obligations results in some fairly twisted ideas not only in the family but also the techn industry. Lyons writes about how the employees are wrapped up in neat little packages like “incubators” as well as “growth hackers” and as mentioned employees that get fired get thrown parties and are told they’re “graduating”.

Graduating?

To what, potential homelessness?

Lyons has a great summary of the sort of corporate workplace that these companies are trying to build:

Imagine a frat house mixed with a kindergarten mixed with Scientology, and you have an idea of what it’s like.

Attractive to in-group fist pumping, juvenile, riddled with sexism and cultism?

Sounds pretty accurate to me.


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