I moved to California in the summer of 2004, with a head full of dreams. Like generations had done before me, I was leaving weather extremes, racial segregation, and urban decay for a land of sun, free expression, multiculturalism, and opportunity. Over the next 17 years, I would see vast changes across the diverse California landscapes that I would come to call home, much of it influenced by a global technological revolution that took particular shape in my immediate surroundings. In short, my California experience was colored by a contemporary gold rush, the maturation of the globalized internet. I, like a majority of Californians, have had to negotiate that reality from the margins.
As I paged through Mary Beth Meehan and Fred Turner’s photo book Seeing Silicon Valley (University of Chicago Press, 2021), the images and contrasts it portrayed really hit home. It also resonated with a recent essay I had written on my disillusionment with the current state of the internet and its accompanying effect on culture and the economy. In the following interview, the three of us discuss our impressions of one another’s work. For those not in California, it will shed some light on what it’s like to live in the shadows of the world’s wealthiest humans, and it will hopefully make you look at your phones a little differently.
Boima Tucker (BT): Mary Beth, I was struck by the fact that you’re not a Californian. It was interesting how you brought this lens of an outsider. There is still this shine to the California dream that people don’t really get. It can be a tough place unless you have money—the private jet culture here is serious, but most people just breathe in the fumes.
Mary Beth Meehan (MBM): What we wanted was something that people on the ground felt was authentic and provided a true account of what it was like to live there. And that is just a process of getting there and talking to people. It wasn’t hard to find. When I asked people what life was like there for them, they wanted to share their stories with me—that’s what they wanted to talk about. So it wasn’t a process of having to dig too far; it was just there to be seen and understood.
BT: So you shot the photos over two years? I know you made the 2017 trip and then a trip in 2019 and you followed up with people, or how did that work, exactly?
MBM: My first trip, in 2017, was six weeks, and it was just full-on work. It was the first time I’d been away from my kids for more than a week since they’d been born.
Fred offered me a wonderful residency at Stanford to do this work with him. And so it was complete immersion, morning, noon, and night: meeting people, interviewing them, and photographing. I’d done some research beforehand, but all this had to happen in real time and on the ground.
After those six weeks I came back to Providence. I edited the photos, and I listened to hours and hours of interviews. I had spent a long time with each of the people I photographed to come to understand some sense of their experiences. I listened to those recordings, transcribed them, and wrote the short pieces, all while Fred and I were going back and forth about the main ideas, and while he was developing his essay.
Then, in 2019, I felt that there were a couple of things missing. One of them was the experiences of public servants. I wanted to show one of the teachers or firefighters, people who are there to serve the community but, because of the housing prices, can’t afford to be a part of that community. I met the teacher Konstance, from Menlo Park, on that trip. That felt important to me to include because it points to the idea of community stability and health overall.
And in 2019 I also met the people from Kara, the organization that deals with suicide. So many people in East Palo Alto told me, the kids here—the problem is employment, but you’ve got to go over to Palo Alto and visit Kara to see what the kids are experiencing on a more emotional level.
Fred and I went back and forth on teen suicide, and whether it was a particularly Silicon Valley concern. We decided that it was significant enough that we should include people who wanted to talk about emotional health in Silicon Valley. That’s why I made the portrait of Melissa and Steve, as their daughter had died and they had become involved with the issue.
If we’re going to hold up Silicon Valley as an emblem of the America we want to be, we need to stop for a second and ask what kind of America it actually is.
BT: Fred, you initiated this project. You write about this place, and you’re critical of it. But what was your motivation here? Were you born and raised in California?
Fred Turner (FT): Nope. I was born and raised in New England, and I was a journalist in Boston for 10 years. I came to San Diego, California, for graduate school in 1996.
That’s where I saw Wired Magazine. Wired was filled with hippies promoting computers as tools of cultural transformation. This was shocking to me, because, right before that, I had written a book about how Americans remember the Vietnam War, and in the Vietnam era computers were emblems of the Cold War state. In response to this disconnect, I ended up writing a book called From Counterculture to Cyberculture (University of Chicago Press, 2006). That book was a cultural history of the collision of the counterculture and the tech world here in Silicon Valley and in the Bay Area more generally.
When I was writing that book, I saw that people in Silicon Valley were building technologies and announcing that they were these wonderful, electronic, high-tech information systems for managing the otherwise invisible patterns of the world. It seemed as though we were living in a place where journalists especially, but marketers too, were telling a story of heroic creative individuals—all of whom turned out to be white men—producing these magical devices that captured invisible forces and turned them into tools for making the world into Oz.
But, having lived here almost 20 years and watched that myth grow over time, I knew that Silicon Valley wasn’t just a mythical place. It was a real place. I wanted to get underneath the myth. If we’re going to hold up Silicon Valley as an emblem of the America we want to be, I thought we needed to stop for a second and ask what kind of America it actually is.
I thought that seeing it was really the right way to go. And I had the great pleasure to be able to find Mary Beth. Hers was exactly the kind of work I was hoping we might be able to bring to bear on the region. Mary Beth sees folks with an empathetic, individual lens but at the same time sees them in a civic light—as members of a community—and that’s the part I wanted to capture.
BT: Mary Beth, can you talk a little bit about your artistic vision? How did you develop this sensitivity to communities?
MBM: I started working in photojournalism in the 1990s. I didn’t know enough back then to go to art school, and I ended up in journalism school, working in newspapers. All the while, I had this feeling about the power of photography to push against dominant narratives of places.
I grew up in Brockton, Massachusetts, a working-class city. I knew that the ways in which a city like Brockton was portrayed from the outside were very different from how we experienced it. And I knew, in particular, that the people were not seen accurately in those portrayals. Photography was my means for responding to that.
I have always been interested in immigration. My grandparents and great-grandparents were immigrants from Ireland and Italy, and I grew up with people from all different cultures, being taught to respect them as enriching one another’s lives. And yet, in the last decades, as people of color started to arrive from places like Haiti and Cape Verde, there was so much anger and racism displayed on the part of the older population. It felt like a failure—that these people were being seen incorrectly. I felt I needed to push against that.
So, in 2007, after my children were born, I went back to my hometown and asked myself: Who are the people of this place? Who makes it up? What stories do they have to tell? What are their lives like here? How can the answers to those questions press against the preconceptions of the people who came before them? Why can’t my Irish father see a connection between his grandmother and a Haitian woman who came here for the same reasons, and who is trying to build a community with totally different resources than his family enjoyed?
I’ve always felt that this work could clarify these matters and make them more authentic, and not even just more humane, but more accurate overall. It is a form of representational justice. In 2011, I started putting up huge, banner-sized reproductions of my photos in public spaces. So then, in downtown Brockton, people had to interact with these images and ask themselves: Who is that person? It fostered a kind of curiosity that people might not otherwise have for the strangers around them.
BT: What made you do the large format? What brought about the idea to do those?
MBM: I’m very invested in not retracing the colonial extractive practices of the white photographer, making this deep and intimate body of work and then only showing it elsewhere, like in a gallery where only upper-middle-class white people can come and consume it.
BT: Is sharing the work in public part of the work itself, then?
MBM: Definitely. First it was about wanting to bring viewers into the space. But then I wanted to make the work relevant to the people in the community—to have them see themselves, to reflect on the work, and to spark the kinds of conversations that were not always comfortable but were always productive.
FT: This is our hope for the book. If we could hold up a mirror to the Valley and start a conversation here, then, at the very least, it would let the kinds of folks who move through the Valley and maybe don’t see the people actually working and living around them see those people, just as Mary Beth’s work in Brockton or in Newnan, Georgia, did. That’s our hope here.
BT: Yes. And the photos reveal something. If you read this in essay form only—and saying as somebody who has written an essay about it—people can just ignore it. Or maybe they’re overthinking it. But then, if you see the photos, it’s more visceral.
FT: Actually, Boima, I wanted to pick up on something that I know is in your essay on cyborgism, only—
MBM: I do, too. Go ahead.
FT: Yes. In that essay you talk very directly about the different kinds of bodies that are in the space here. For example, the way that farmworkers are arrayed around the edges of the central space in Silicon Valley. I take that as a model for something that is going on, which we were trying to undercut.
Silicon Valley exercises its power in part by erasing bodies and organic lives. It’s not only of the people who live here in Silicon Valley and do the work. The Valley erases those of us whose interior lives are being mined and colonized, and generating enormous profits for surveillance capital firms like Facebook and others.
To counteract that, one small thing we can do—and you’ve done it in your essay—is name the people who are here. And help people see them. These are real, living people. That guard at Facebook, he really does live in a shed—that’s not just us talking.
BT: I wanted to bring back Rhode Island a little bit, because I’m a little familiar with Rhode Island. My family are emigrants from Sierra Leone, and I know that Rhode Island has a large Liberian population.
BT: And Cape Verdean population.
BT: In my past, what I’ve written about is this idea: As a Black immigrant, what is my place, my family’s place, in this country? What does assimilation mean in America? What is America, and what fundamentally is the settler colonial state? What does colonization in America mean? And, of course, the question of who is in, and who is out.
BT: And I think that conundrum of belonging in a settler colony can also apply to how people interact with, benefit from, or become marginalized by the internet. Look, I’m pro-internet. It has allowed me to create a life that there’s no way I could have imagined pre-internet: through music, through writing. It’s allowed me to be creative, to meet people, to have opportunities.
But there is this stifling nature to it. It’s very dehumanizing, like you said, and especially through this platform capitalism. The fundamental societal question remains from previous eras: Who gets to claim humanity? Today, not everybody gets to claim humanity—not even the people who work at these companies. Take Elon Musk: the Tesla stories are just devastating. We need electric cars, but this guy has such a disregard for humanity.
FT: “Who gets to claim humanity?” is exactly the question. And Musk is a very good example, because, what does he want to do? He wants to build rockets to get to outer space. In some ways, the leaders of the tech world have ironically fled—from the people who work for them and whom they serve—to devices that seem smoother, more magical, more efficient.
BT: Exactly. Now, in the book, you juxtaposed some photos, a lot of them with the Apple headquarters, which I’ve never been to. But I’ve been to plenty of Apple stores, and it is this very uniform, clean, sanitized feeling when you’re there. I used to be excited going into the store; now, I think: you guys are just trying to pave over everything that makes life beautiful, all the blemishes.
And that is their vision of the internet. The best internet is the people who are using the internet in the way that it wasn’t meant to be used, or making claims to humanity in ways that aren’t accepted.
Can you talk about that decision to juxtapose those photos? And then, also, what are your feelings about the designs in tech?
MBM: Yes, I do show the clean Apple space, as well as other images from the tech world, and often try to juxtapose them with images that reference Judeo-Christian or other spiritual thinking, to question what it is that we worship now. Which temple are we praying to? Which temple will actually save us?
At Apple, there is the temple-like perfect circle, which everybody is looking at on their iPad. And then, in Silicon Valley, there are real, human bodies, sweating and smelling, with dirty streets and improper housing and sanitation.
And so, to me, it was this notion that Fred has talked about all along: that technology is providing us a kind of spaceship up and out of our human bodies, and yet human beings are central to creating these technologies. So that essential tension between not being able to surmount our bodies and having to remain human is the tension of the place and the story of the place.
The ways in which the community itself is actually breaking down felt to me like endgame capitalism. It felt like a dystopic look at what happens when capitalism gets as big as it is in Silicon Valley.
FT: Design is the way that technology does power. And it’s the way that technologists from Silicon Valley do power. It’s really important when you do power to mask the fact that you’re doing it. For example, I’m just doing beauty, I’m just making a really smooth iPhone, and it’s incredible, right?
When the Puritans arrived in New England in 1620, they brought with them the Calvinist idea of predestination. They thought God had decided who was going to Heaven and who wasn’t before they were born. But they also thought that God would show who was going to Heaven by allowing them to accumulate wealth here on Earth. And so wealth became evidence that you were destined for Heaven. That Puritan logic animates Silicon Valley, top to bottom.
In the Puritan vision, the dream of a community of saints is still a dream that animates a lot of America. The trouble is that the actual community of saints in Massachusetts was a wildly discriminatory people: they thought Native Americans were devils, people of color didn’t count—they would later be slaves. It’s just horrifying.
And here in our Valley, you see a dream of technologically enabled, almost heavenly space. The perfect circle of the Apple headquarters, populated by special people who have been selected and whose unique sainthood is made visible by their wealth, while the rest of us hunker down and get ignored or pushed aside, and that’s just not okay.
MBM: Who gets to be a saint in Silicon Valley? Who gets to have a soul?
FT: And maybe sainthood isn’t humanity, right? Who gets to be human is maybe the more important question.
BT: In the second part of my essay, I talk a lot about the development of race and belonging in the United States. And I try to relate it to the idea of “in-groups” versus the “out-groups” in American society. Through that lens, I wrestle with the question: What does Blackness really mean?
I hypothesize that Blackness in America came out of these expressions of humanity that seemed to seep out of an oppressive stranglehold on a particular community. It’s beautiful what we’ve gotten as a byproduct of enslavement, pain, and struggle, and that is Blackness. But if this form of belonging is the only thing that will allow you to be part of the greater society, holding on to it becomes so important that the gates can start to go up to exclude others.
Part of it is that you’re also in a tenuous position. You are put in a precarity, but you don’t understand that the precarity is also because of that system. Instead, you think that precarity is because some outside force is trying to take away what you’ve worked to get or what your ancestors worked for. That’s also the case for Trump supporters. I see strains of it in Latino communities; I see strains of it across the board in the United States, and so, to not put blame on one group, there’s something about that, because I also see it in the culture that has emerged around the internet.
FT: You’ve got your finger on something really important.
We inhabit a world where over the last couple of decades we’ve all learned to brand ourselves. And we borrow for our brands signifiers of identity. So suddenly we brand as race, we brand as gender. The internet supports and sustains and drives this personal branding enterprise, and that’s bad enough.
But where the real horror kicks in is that not only does it form in-groups and out-groups, but, on the internet, the in-groups and out-groups match back onto already existing historical systems of bias, resource distribution—all that horrible stuff. So, suddenly, the saints look like the old saints, and some kinds of people don’t belong, and not only don’t they belong, but they don’t want to be part of the whole.
One of the challenges for our generation is to claim a humanism—you point to this in your essay—a humanism that is genuinely universal, without universalizing any particular type of person as a global ideal. As you note in the essay, we need to invite everyone in, without demanding that we all be the same people. I don’t know how we do that, but we’ve got to do it. And throwing up fences from any side right now is seriously unhelpful.
Who gets to be a saint in Silicon Valley? Who gets to have a soul?
BT: I’m borrowing a lot from W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Gilroy. When I was in New York, I experienced this change in the popularity of African-ness. All of a sudden, African-ness was being accepted into American culture. And I thought: oh, so all of a sudden we’re on the inside of the fence. But what does that mean, and who is benefiting from being on the inside of the fence? As somebody who was trying to break open the fence and everybody rushed in and nobody looked behind and saw that the fence was closing again.
Du Bois was a contemporary of people who had been enslaved. But he was of the elite of this country of the United States, and wrestling with that and understanding what is in, what is out. That’s crazy!
FT: Oh, he’s totally wild. But he’s in the elite in part because he speaks their language. And this is an issue in our time: What if you want to speak in a different code? What if you want to be different?
And the same holds true on the internet for folks who are dropping barriers around a centralized understanding of race or gender. If being Black requires the manipulation of only some codes and not others, and if you don’t manipulate those codes properly, you can’t be part of it. Well, that’s the same logic by which white communities have pushed out members of other groups for a long time. We need to find a way to acknowledge and celebrate the fact that we are a polyglot society.
BT: Can we talk a little bit about the land in California? I actually live 20 minutes from General Vallejo’s Petaluma ranch. I’ve become obsessed with the story of these Americans that came down from the Sacramento Valley to Mexico, to northern Mexico, and found the military leader of California, getting drunk. He invited them to wine. They got drunk, and then they kidnapped him. And that’s how the United States got California.
I’ve become obsessed with this idea of California as this place for multiple histories existing on top of each other. But not everybody’s aware of the histories. Can you talk about the land and the multiple histories, like the Ohlone people, the Spanish imperialism, the American imperialism?
FT: If you see Silicon Valley today, it looks beautiful and even paradise-like. There’s lots of green grass.
BT: The weather is perfect.
FT: Weather’s perfect. The hills look down to the bay. The bay glitters. It’s really quite spectacular. It looks like God’s promise to the Pilgrims.
But the history of the Valley is really buried in the soil. There were tens of thousands of Native Americans here who were largely wiped out by the Spanish, and then later by Americans in the middle of the 19th century—Americans, at that point, not yet fully part of America, but Anglos from the East, Yankees. That history is embedded in the soil here. And those folks are mostly gone.
In the 19th century, this was a region for cattle growing and for towering trees, redwood trees, and hills. It was a resource-extraction zone. And that changed. By the middle of the 20th century, it had become farming country. Silicon Valley, for most of the 20th century, was really just flat orchards of different kinds—almonds, prunes, other things. And pretty dull.
What happened was that after World War II, the Valley tech industry began to boom, and the military industrial complex that was the engine of the American empire of World War II and the Cold War just exploded here. The Valley became the hub of technology development around, first, centralized computing, and then the development of the chip.
The microchip went into the Poseidon missile; it was a military technology for a long time. The microchip didn’t end up in “personal” computers until the 1970s. And so we’ve always been a place at which empire is exercised.
MBM: And then the pollution. Take the San Francisco Bay, so close to Facebook. I didn’t realize until doing the research that so much of it was landfill, and that so much of it was toxic. The layers of truths that get revealed there are shocking.
One of them was to be in a place like Mountain View, which can be so beautiful. But think about the plumes, the Whisman plume, the plumes of toxicity that are flowing under those houses. And in Sunnyvale.
Being there, the awareness of this starts to build up. Just to be in that space, and to know that the land, too, is a threat, is unnerving.
FT: If you’re going to buy a house in Silicon Valley, one of the things you do is get a copy of the Superfund site map to make sure that you’re not buying a house anywhere near a pollution plume from decades ago. Here in Mountain View, where I live, there are houses that are built with what are called aboveground basements. An aboveground basement is there because there are plumes of toxic TCE, trichloroethylene, underground. It’s a chemical used in circuit-board manufacturing. And three feet is about the air space it needs to reach the toxicity density that the EPA recommends for human habitation. So your basement is actually an off-gassing site for an underground plume.
MBM: That’s the most expensive housing, by the way, in the most expensive housing market in the country.
BT: The housing prices here, it’s something that weighs on you so much. I always had this idea that I was going to move to a more rural area. And so we moved to the North Bay. We happened to move in the midst of the three largest fire years in California history.
Climate change is the elephant in the room here. Because the way it feels is that, obviously, if it keeps trending the way it’s trending, California can’t sustain a population. We’re about to hit a major drought again.
FT: The first thing is to acknowledge that better technologies, better devices, better social media will not solve, let alone even speak to, that problem. And that’s part of the thing that we’re trying to flag.
A good corporation is built partly to make its goods and sell them. But it is also built to serve the people who work for it and the world in general. And the corporations that we have right now are not doing that. Google has enormous server farms that eat energy like crazy and contribute to the problem of global warming.
Sustainability begins with a renewed civic vision. We have to hold technologists accountable to build a better society. When you’ve built a more equitable society, then it becomes possible to say “and we need a better relationship with the natural world to support the equitable society that we’ve made.” If we have only an extractive relationship with the natural world, then we live in a world of Tesla and Amazon, where we make better devices to extract more efficiently, and the world as a whole be damned. And that won’t work.
MBM: There is a difference between the economy before the 1980s (and Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, the Chicago school, etc.) and the economy now, which prioritizes shareholder value. Pre-1980, it was a different system, a system in which European immigrants, for example, could be completely unskilled, not speak the language, and work a factory job and create good lives. I came from those people. I went to a private college; I live a solidly middle-class life now, when two generations ago some people in my family didn’t speak English.
I don’t think that this is what’s happening for the equivalent of my grandmother in Silicon Valley today. Those people are living three families to a two-bedroom apartment. The kids are stressed. They are definitely not amassing any equity.
FT: Think about London during the era of the East India Company and East Indies exploration. At that time, there were very, very wealthy Londoners, and there were very, very poor Londoners. And both of them depended for their positions on extraction and labor happening on other sites. Silicon Valley is a lot like that today.
MBM: I have fights about this book in my own family. We come from the same immigrant path, yet my right-wing cousin says that these new immigrants are not working as hard as our grandparents did. He got so angry at me on my last birthday, when I was trying to talk about the book. He said “Why don’t they sacrifice? Why don’t they get a second job?” I thought: A second job? They are traveling two hours each way and working more than one job, in many cases. There’s definitely a racial element to this resentment, but basically, because the economic system in which we are living is invisible, the only conclusion someone like my cousin can draw is that these people mustn’t be working hard enough. It’s that Puritan thing: they are lacking in character. He will not believe that it has something to do with the United States or the economy being stacked against them.
FT: Mary Beth hit it. I was just thinking back on the British and how in the 18th century they would manage class as a function of character. They would say that certain kinds of people have the character to be aristocrats, and others don’t. And I’m very much struck by how, in our region, certain kinds of people have the character to be executives, and others don’t. The doctrine of predestination still swims in the sea of Silicon Valley, even though we’re three thousand miles away from where the Pilgrims landed.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.