Dubbed “Silicon Alley” in the mid 1990s, New York’s tech scene at the turn of the millennium was a nexus of youth, cool, and well-paid creative jobs for geeks, artists, and writers. When it contracted, in 2002 many 20-something workers faced not only their own lay-offs, but what felt like the demise of an entire industry.
The social networks they had so assiduously built in after-hours socializing were full of contacts available for woe-is-us midday beers but not nearly so helpful for finding decent jobs at reliable companies. The skills they had accrued were still somewhat indecipherable—CSS does what?—to mainstream media companies who had not yet established in-house web-development teams, so they struggled to switch from the leading edge of web-based content back into media’s mainstream content production. Gina Neff’s recent book, Venture Labor, is based on six years of ethnographic research in Silicon Alley that straddled the year 2000 when the tech world was the best… until it was the worst.
Playing on the “venture capital” that makes many dot-com companies possible, she coins the term “venture labor” to describe the new world of work in which an ideology of risk permeates employment contracts. Venture labor, she explains, “is the explicit expression of entrepreneurial values by non-entrepreneurs… When people think of their jobs as an investment or as having a future payoff other than regular wages, they embody venture labor.” While Neff is right (and not alone) to point out the pervasive creep of risk-laden arrangements in every system that operates with market characteristics—finance, employment, even marriage—at the moment Silicon Alley may seem like a bad example of a risky industry. Once dominated by financially rickety start-ups operating with other people’s money, the industry now has a core group of companies generating healthy revenue through sales year after year. For individual workers, compensation in Silicon Alley is good. The median wage for computer programmers in New York was $76,041 in 2011 and these jobs come with health care, retirement plans, and paid vacation in addition to “risky” rewards like stock options, performance bonuses, and equity.
Neff’s goal was not to autopsy what appeared to be a dying industry and discover a particular cause in order that other tech clusters might avoid it. Rather, her goal was to expose the instability of work within the dominant ideology that values risk-taking as the most efficient mechanism for value discovery. Neff’s work is compelling in part because she left the field when Silicon Alley was down and out, an employment dead-end, or, in the language of risk, a bad bet. Now that Silicon Alley has grown bigger than it was before the first crash, the intelligent takeaway is not to dismiss the earlier downturn as a growing pain, but to proceed with caution. The good times may not last. Many of the sources of original volatility are still present; everyday employees are still vulnerable to job loss. Even with the expansion of Facebook’s New York office, the Department of Labor predicts a 6% decrease in employment for computer programmers in New York City for the ten-year period 2006–2016.
Just because an industry has experienced growth does not mean it has recovered from being risky. Risk is like diabetes; it can be managed, not cured. And there’s the rub: even if we can recognize the places where an ethos of risk has changed the way things work, there is no turning back to a world without risk. Risk is the ethos of the present condition and we will be here for a while.