A Tale of Two Valleys

To understand Silicon Valley, first examine the stories it tells about itself; just like, to understand the Victorian age, first read writers like Dickens and Dreiser.

“As I stood on the front steps of an ornate Victorian,” muses Anna Wiener from an Airbnb house, at the outset of her memoir of tech start-ups, Uncanny Valley, “I felt like an orphan of nineteenth-century literature, a child on the brink of a new adventure.” Tech, for Wiener and many others, seems like an infrastructure for a new life—here, a house that lets one imagine old worlds and new beginnings—rebuilt from what we know now. Throughout the book, in fact, Wiener brings up 19th-century literature—she elsewhere describes San Francisco’s geographical layout as representing “in near-Dickensian fashion, the city’s socioeconomic cleft”—to evoke and then dissolve the promised “adventures” that tech seems to open up for those who (can afford to) live in Silicon Valley.

In attempting to grapple with capitalism’s transformation of the world, Uncanny Valley, as well as HBO’s Silicon Valley, are unlikely inheritors to earlier narrative experiments by realist novelists. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, writers such as Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and Edith Wharton represented both technological shifts and the commodification of that technology. And they did so not only to depict their new surroundings, but to understand how such changes affected the individuals who lived in those surroundings.

In particular, the realist novel Sister Carrie (1900), by Theodore Dreiser, depicts then recent changes in the American landscape such as train travel, the department store, and fine-dining restaurants through a plot set in the nascent world of corporate business, urban union activism, and a new form of show business. The novel tells the story of Carrie Meeber and George Hurstwood, who proceed along opposite narrative arcs: Carrie begins a nobody from rural Wisconsin and eventually makes it big onstage in New York; Hurstwood begins a marginally successful businessman but ends the novel dying, poor and homeless. In these paired narratives, commodities—food, clothes, the theater—provide the backdrop for their disparate fates, as Carrie’s increasingly lavish lifestyle reveals Hurstwood’s own lack.

Like a Dickensian mansion or a Dreiserian city block, the popular conception of Silicon Valley is shaped by the narratives through which we understand it. From capitalism’s distorted myth of “creative destruction” to the novelistic adventures promised by Airbnb, Silicon Valley and Uncanny Valley, in different ways, recast the tech industry’s preferred narratives, using their authors’ and characters’ perspectives to tell a different story in their stead.

But these aren’t just stories. Narratives about Silicon Valley, even skeptical ones, crucially rely on the infrastructure—both literal and imagined—provided by the tech industry, as that industry dictates what is possible, desirable, or, simply, “better.”

However, these do not have to mark the limits of our imagination. Some of the most important moments in the stories we tell about Silicon Valley are when tech’s self-perpetuating myths start to break down: in nonsensical CEO speak, revealing chat histories, ruined housing markets. It is in these moments of supreme inefficiency that we find evidence that tech’s new world is not necessarily “better” and that it is someone else’s job to make something else in its stead. Maybe it should be ours.

To understand Silicon Valley, first listen to the stories it tells about itself—just like, to understand the Victorian era, first read writers like Dickens and Dreiser.

In the second season of HBO’s comedy Silicon Valley, the tech CEO of a fictional analog for Google—here called “Hooli”—launches into one of his frequent tirades: “I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do.” That word—“better”—combines the various forces and desires that drive tech innovation in Silicon Valley. Or at least, that’s the story it tells itself.

Silicon Valley, which is gradually swallowing California’s Bay Area, has become a metonym for the tech industry, even as that same industry increasingly shapes the world beyond its geographic center. This industry is heir to a history of self-mythologizing capitalist entrepreneurship. As business historian Nan Enstad points out, the libertarian economist Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of “creative destruction” has been taken up “to fetishize entrepreneurial innovation as the engine of capitalism” for more than 50 years now, even when that “innovation” more often shores up the already-established power of corporations.1 The idea of entrepreneurship at the heart of Silicon Valley, therefore, is just another story—like Dreiser’s, like Dickens’s—and Silicon Valley wrote this story itself.

Silicon Valley sets its narrative within the start-up, the primary business form that drives tech. Start-ups are specifically designed to scale quickly and be sold off to a larger corporation—you can probably look at your laptop or phone and find the logo for one now—gaining their value from speculation rather than innovation. In all of this, narrative—the story a company tells about itself, its value, and the way it will change the world—becomes increasingly important, as companies make money from their expected values, rather than from any particular product they produce.

If, as Andrew Schrock has recently claimed, “Silicon Valley was always a promise, never a place,” this speculative promise is not just a promise, however nefarious, it makes to the world: it’s a promise it makes to itself. From the tobacco magnate James B. Duke to Steve Jobs, “Schumpeterian entrepreneurship” has provided a guiding mythos by which businesses imagine their creation of a “better” world through (and only through) entrepreneurial innovation.

The city as tech start-ups in Silicon Valley’s title screen

This tension between speculation and innovation structures both Uncanny Valley and Silicon Valley. Both follow the perspectives of individuals living and working through the uncertain early stages of real and fictional start-ups.

Wiener’s memoir is an account of a late-20-something woman who leaves a job in publishing to work in a series of burgeoning tech companies. Her trajectory turns out to be as surprising as a Dickensian orphan’s or Carrie Meeber’s ascents to fortune: “It never occurred to me that I might someday become one of the people working behind the internet, because I had never considered that there were people behind the internet at all.” She works first at an ebook sales company, a kind of digital future of her previous career; then a data analytics firm, which develops tools for other tech companies to “better” understand (read: surveil and manipulate) their users’ information (in the spirit of San Francisco’s Gold Rush foundations, tech insiders call this type of company a “pickaxe”: software for software companies); then an unnamed, almost naively optimistic open-source software platform (it’s GitHub).

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley is a crude comedy that follows its protagonist Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch), who happens to develop a breakthrough compression algorithm to reduce file sizes and increase the efficiency of online data transfers. Unwittingly stumbling into a revolutionary idea and idealistically trying to build his own company rather than quickly sell his innovation, he learns how to market that idea through his ill-named company Pied Piper, eventually scaling to build a “better,” decentralized internet. This entrepreneurialism is always handled with a dose of irony. In the series finale, the “self-made” Hendricks illustrates the success of his new internet through a comically large hologram of a crass, billionaire financier Russ Hanneman (Chris Diamantopoulos) at a festival, in a bid to advertise Pied Piper’s software. In Silicon Valley, even not selling out inevitably involves ostentatious displays of wealth.

These narratives dramatize previously unimaginable companies—which traffic in something as ethereal as data—to represent the world tech is creating as we shift from the “content” of literature and media to the abstract world of data compression and collection. Both narratives, whether cynically or satirically, note the way that tech utopianism—like the sentence “I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do”—becomes limited by systems of privatization and capitalist exploitation, as world betterment becomes increasingly inextricable from market competition.

The current state of housing in the Bay Area shows how tech competition constructs a disparity in the lives of its population. Wiener constantly notes San Francisco’s rapidly worsening homelessness epidemic, so ubiquitous as to form a tragically naturalistic part of the book’s setting, where “homeless encampments sprouted in the shadows of luxury developments.” These problems are exacerbated by tech “innovations” like the “nineteenth-century” Airbnb she stays in at the book’s beginning. As Dickens’s orphans quickly discover, the world is quite different from the promised adventure, and Wiener stages a similar unveiling as soon as she talks to her Airbnb hosts (one of them a disappointing analog to Miss Havisham). “We host full-time,” they tell her. “I guess you could say we work for a startup, too.”

Even such a straightforward comedy as Silicon Valley cannot escape housing dramas, as business whiz Jared Dunn (Zach Woods) becomes temporarily homeless when he leases his apartment on just such an app and cannot evict the subletter (who then sublets the apartment at an even higher rate). If tech giants repeatedly state their ambition to make the world a better place, these narratives respond by asking: Better for whom?


Silicon Valley Is Not a Place

By Andrew Schrock

Silicon Valley actually creates two valleys, then, defined by who is “in” tech and who is left out of its “better” society. Tech’s “entrepreneurial citizens”—in the story that Schrock tells—employed a mixture of economic speculation, globalization, and tax write-offs to supplant the very infrastructure of the commons, all through their utopian spin on privatization.

Stratified by markers like class or gender, these disparities shape the matter of ordinary life. Like Dreiser’s representation of the world’s commodification through department stores and restaurants, Silicon Valley’s “better” society generates surprisingly trivial transformations. In Wiener’s account, this “late-capitalist hellscape”—marred by rising rents, the demolition of cultural institutions, and the privatization of city utilities—becomes most vividly felt in the minutiae of bars “overrun with men in their twenties wearing corporate-branded T-shirts, men who never finished their beers and complained whenever anyone on the sidewalk smoked a cigarette too close to the door. Men who wore stability running shoes to nightclubs. Men who said ‘K’ instead of ‘thousand.’” Whereas realists like Dreiser had trained their eye on an earlier version of consumer culture, Wiener estranges tech’s transformation of everyday life to depict its simultaneously alluring and destructive aspects.

Silicon Valley explores how the newfound wealth of software pioneers undermines our perceived hierarchies, in the same way that the “men” under Wiener’s observation are constantly overturning the perceived standards of taste. In the show’s opening sequence, a recently minted tech CEO throws a party where rock star Kid Rock, with a large backing band, plays to a bored crowd of tech insiders. “I mean, Kid Rock is the poorest person here,” one person says over the ridiculous hors d’oeuvres of “liquid shrimp.”

Silicon Valley’s new wealth at first seems like a punchline, but, as evidenced by the Bay Area’s homelessness crisis, tech’s destruction of Silicon Valley looms over all these jokes. By placing these details into a narrative (and socioeconomic consequences into their common setting), Uncanny Valley and Silicon Valley insist that we can comprehend this previously unimaginable reality, finding a place for human beings in a world that seems increasingly taken over by faceless and privatizing corporations.

Narratives about Silicon Valley, even skeptical ones, rely on the infrastructure—both literal and imagined—provided by the tech industry.

The “dominant ideology of feminine subjectivity in the late nineteenth century,” explains literary scholar Rachel Bowlby, “perfectly fitted woman to receive the advances of the seductive commodity.”2 The early 20th century’s introduction of the department store window framed these seductive commodities, capitalizing as much on their display as on their sale. A similar phenomenon appears in Silicon Valley and Uncanny Valley in the form of ridiculous “liquid shrimp” as appetizers or “stability running shoes” as the new clubwear. These commodities function more through their status as wealth signifiers than through their actual enjoyment by consumers. Bowlby’s analysis of how late-Victorian consumer society catered to “feminine subjectivity” suggests that we might also understand tech’s contemporary culture through its inextricability from gender. The changes in Silicon Valley’s culture are driven by the fact that the tech industry consists of predominantly male software engineers, resulting in a large number of nerdy 20- and 30-something men whose desires are catered to by companies with plenty of money to throw around.

Silicon Valley’s crass approach relies on crude, “locker-room” humor, which reflects the absence of women in tech and, perhaps, in the show’s perceived audience. For example, during its first-season finale, many of Silicon Valley’s characters debate the most efficient way to “jack off” every man in their audience during a crucial presentation the next day. This ribald debate isn’t a one-off joke; in fact, the conversation is what inspires the protagonist to develop his revolutionarily efficient “middle-out compression” algorithm, which will go on to structure the plot for the rest of the show’s six seasons. (The episode is even called “Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency.”) In the same way, as Jane Hu explains, the show iteratively uses jokes, this compression breakthrough determines the rest of Silicon Valley’s arc, and its centrality provides a potent, if accidental, image, through the crude joke at the heart of it, of the way that sexism and misogyny shape tech’s worldview.

Striking a rather different chord, the tech industry’s sexual culture appears in Uncanny Valley most clearly when Wiener begins her job at GitHub, a company that had previously grappled with a “widely publicized sexual harassment investigation.” The company, committed to open-source, nonhierarchical structures, makes its chat logs available to all employees:

Absent any formal onboarding program, I made up my own. I read chat history from the period when the gender discrimination accusations were first made public; transcripts from all-hands meetings addressing the scandal; discussion in the Human Resources repository. I saw how my coworkers had reacted in real time, and who had been quick to throw the first woman in Engineering under the bus. Reading back-scroll made me feel like a creep, but it was a useful research project, a means of discovering whom to avoid and whom to trust.

The ironic moment when Wiener feels “like a creep”—investigating and uncovering the actual creepiness of sexism and misogyny—reveals the extent of that sexism’s permeation of tech.

In fact, there’s really nothing hidden about this culture. The exclusion of women in the tech industry is readily apparent on corporate campuses and at tech conferences, but it is felt most vividly in the uncanny moment when the chat software, built by a culture that is itself founded on the exclusion of women, becomes the same tool to document that exclusion, if only for the few women who make it inside.

In this same way, Silicon Valley’s obsession with dick jokes contains a grain of truth: the very algorithm that structures its vision of technological advance quite literally recalls some men in a room drawing dicks on a whiteboard. Rather than its stated ambitions to make the world a better place, this instead might be the unfortunately appropriate image of what exactly drives Silicon Valley’s tech industry.

Concluding the famous opening to his 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times …”), Charles Dickens compares his own Victorian moment and France on the eve of revolution. He summarizes, “In short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” Dickens suggests that through the way we tell our stories, we determine how we evaluate our world—such as in “the superlative degree of comparison only.” Tech’s mythos of constant “more” and “better” displays that same noisy insistence on its own superiority.

Against the unwieldy unfamiliarity of tech’s disruptions, it is easy to think we are living in a future of someone else’s making. This is tech’s power, but Dickens is evidence: these are problems we’ve faced before. Indeed, Uncanny Valley and Silicon Valley use the very same narrative tools and tropes to make sense of this world, which at first seems so opaque. They suggest that we might call Silicon Valley’s bluff and tell an entirely different story about ourselves and our future. icon

  1. Thank you to Nicholas Rago for recommending Nan Enstad’s work.
  2. Rachel Bowlby, Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing, and Zola (Methuen, 1985).
Featured image: Bertram Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), a software engineer working at Silicon Valley start-up Pied Piper