Silicon Valley Is Not a Place

Silicon Valley has no mystical powers. It gets away with being thought of as apolitical simply because few have called its bluff.

Silicon Valley was always a promise, never a place. In both the United States and India, a particular pattern for reform, as espoused by design and tech corporations, was adopted for solving political problems that were decidedly nontechnical. This idea of Silicon Valley gained acceptance by filling the gaping hole left by malnourished civic institutions, whose leaders were desperate to show progress to angered citizens. Politicians and policymakers deliberately chose to use the idea of “Silicon Valley” as a mirage: both to conceal societal crises and to distract disaffected constituents from true reform.

Although it may sound dour, this is an oddly hopeful realization. Silicon Valley has no mystical powers. It gets away with being thought of as apolitical simply because few people have called its bluff. In fact, the political power of Silicon Valley–style entrepreneurial politics is not merely apolitical; it subsumes the very possibilities of other ways to be political in the first place. So, what are the politics of Silicon Valley? How did these supposedly “apolitical” companies gain worldwide political influence? Why are they now trying to become the very institutional powers that they have supposedly rejected in the past?

Taking a high-level view of the flow of money and reputation is how historian Margaret O’Mara tackles these questions in her book The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America. The highest members of the US government—not just investors—benefitted from using Silicon Valley evidence to support their own distinctly political ends. O’Mara implies that the image of Mark Zuckerberg testifying to an outraged Congress should not blind us to the fact that Facebook itself is the result of political capital and tax dollars. If we regard the tech industry as a monster, we risk collectively becoming Dr. Frankenstein.

By contrast, Clive Thompson, in his book Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, argues that we can best connect the rise of the tech industry to the culture and desires of programmers. Rejecting lazy stereotypes of “hackers” and libertarianism, Thompson casts a sympathetic eye on the political complexity of tech workers. Yet he, too, is not blind to how the culture of programmers promotes toxic ideals. A bias toward efficiency or action might benefit the tech industry, but get applied only cautiously to our civic institutions.

The politics of Silicon Valley can be seen most clearly by how they resonate in a global context, argues Lilly Irani in Chasing Innovation: Making Entrepreneurial Citizens in Modern India. Irani presses us to understand how the ostensibly apolitical coding and investment noted by O’Mara and Thompson resonate with political identities and situations that are inescapably local. Nation-building might not be a natural endpoint, but the Indian state, along with a range of organizations, saw how they would benefit from imagining Indian citizens as engineers and designers capable of shouldering the political work they used to do.

Taken together, these three accounts reveal Silicon Valley to be an enticing illusion with a surprising resilience and an all-too-real politics. Far from being neutral, it narrows our civic ideals and impoverishes our prized democratic institutions.

Silicon Valley is a mirage that doesn’t just conceal deep social crises, but may actually lead us into a new, dangerous political future. The question is, can we correct the path we are on before it is too late?

“Silicon Valley” was invented because a particular region clustered around Palo Alto needed a branding strategy.

We have become awash with stories about Silicon Valley “entering” politics. Recently, local governments “hoping to become the next Silicon Valley” gave Amazon a range of incentives to build the company’s new corporate headquarters in their cities. Sidewalk Labs attempted to develop the Quayside neighborhood of Toronto, trying to turn it into a “smart city,” from the ground up. A Reuters news story earlier this year caught my eye by describing Emotiv as a “Silicon Valley” company. The term has become so detached from actual geography that it can coherently be applied to an Australian company with an office in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood. But what does the term “Silicon Valley” even mean? And what are its politics, if not entirely new?

“Silicon Valley” was invented because a particular region clustered around Palo Alto needed a branding strategy. While its originator is uncertain, the term was publicized in 1971 by Don Hoefler, a newspaper editor looking for a good headline. It endured because it named an appealing model of innovation that could compete with Wall Street. Shifting focus to “Silicon Valley”—previously an anonymous rural locale in the San Francisco Bay Area—eased early hesitancy among investors, who were not used to backing isolated companies in emerging sectors.

Indeed, the region’s long rise to power, argues O’Mara in The Code, is thanks to this speculation and investment. Like Irani, who worked at Google, O’Mara brings an insider’s perspective to her scholarship. During her time in the Clinton-Gore administration, she watched the internet emerge in the mid-1990s. And so, to understand the invention of Silicon Valley, she argues, we have to understand the financial interests that grew these companies.

Before the private investors, it was primarily defense spending, as well as federal support for small businesses in the 1950s, that connected the New Deal era with the tech companies we now recognize. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, the free flow of funding and eased tax restrictions enabled tech companies to grow at an impressive clip. Early on, it was predominantly conservative businessmen who founded companies to first create better microchips, before later becoming interested in personal computers.

This rapid growth eventually bolstered familiar tech companies like Apple and Google. O’Mara reminds us that the famous image of the charismatic storyteller Steve Jobs sitting cross-legged on the floor of a sparse room belies the Reagan-era tax cuts and conservative investors that made Apple possible.

Yet conservatives were not alone in their speculation. Indeed, politicians from the left and the right both gravitated to the story of progress these companies embodied.

These bipartisan tech politics eventually led to Obama, who used data analytics to become president, signaled his hipness through Spotify playlists, and invited Silicon Valley talent into the Beltway. Obama created a federal-level position, chief technology officer, for Aneesh Chopra, and supported the US Digital Service, an in-house consultancy he described as a “start-up.” The most onerous example of Obama-style politics in the Valley was the over $1.5 billion in federal contracts awarded to Palantir by the US government for surveilling citizens and sifting through the resulting data.

So, Silicon Valley did not appear out of thin air, let alone from the exclusive work of entrepreneur and engineer hands. Instead, our tax dollars, as well as our enthusiastic politicians, paved the way for the industry’s rise. They also forged the relationship that endures today between Washington and Silicon Valley. All this remains hidden, even as many of these companies now operate comfortably in the ostensibly “apolitical” administrative layer of politics, whose actions rarely come to be voting issues.

What had once been a physical region morphed, instead, into a pattern of tools, networks, and a “bootstrapping sensibility.”

All this only shows how Silicon Valley physically came to be. But how did it become an idea, capable of imposing a politics of its own?

What happened is that Silicon Valley became the answer to an unasked question. “Silicon Valley—as idea and place—rose so high,” O’Mara said in an interview, “because everything else seemed to be falling apart.” Silicon Valley’s companies, that is, were living evidence of financial success, during moments when other models were failing.

Rust belt manufacturing and unions were in decline, and along with them, optimism about a rising American middle class also plummeted. Politicians in need of a hopeful message could point to hip, long-haired entrepreneurs as a harbinger of future prosperity. They turned to the region as a brand, and to attract funding as a national symbol of progress.

Silicon Valley’s brand lost its attachment to place. What had once been a physical region morphed, instead, into a pattern of tools, networks, and—in O’Mara’s words—a “bootstrapping sensibility.” For politicians looking to show economic opportunity to their constituents, this new brand could be transposed to cities and parts of government that may not even share any of the unique factors that gave rise to tech companies. Through this branding, the model of progress behind Silicon Valley was weaponized.

Why was this model of innovation so appealing? And how did it spread? Starting in the 1980s, Irani shows in Chasing Innovation, Indian elites hunted for a business-friendly vehicle that would supplant the socialist project of the state implemented by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. The first attempt to supplant socialism, with market liberalization, had not worked as planned. Liberalization’s benefits had failed to reach poorer Indians, which presented a challenge for would-be reformers. Like American investors and politicians, they too needed promising ideas to rally around.

Through international events like the World Economic Forum, ideals of economic revitalization were yoked to notions of Silicon Valley–style innovation. And during this same period, legal changes allowed for Indians to return from California. Those who returned were often living examples of how entrepreneurs can “make it” anywhere. In this case, however, “anywhere” was just Silicon Valley, standing in for other very different places.

And so, when existing stories of national progress fell short, India promoted a particular civic imaginary for people to invest themselves in. This was why the figure of the entrepreneur—spread through slogans, networks, and imagery—became a way for Indian politicians and boosters to “reframe opening capital markets as a testament to the maturing of India and its citizens.” In this way, the failed liberalizing of the Indian economy enticed middle- and upper-class Indian citizens to take up Silicon Valley–style innovation and design, as a form of civic participation. Irani refers to this as “entrepreneurial citizenship.”

This new way of conceiving citizenship was appealing to elites, because it passed off the heavy lifting to the citizens themselves. To encourage adoption, entrepreneurial citizenship was modeled for would-be citizen-reformers through unlikely events like children’s plays, hackathons, and design studios. Educational reformers like Bir Sethi taught children a form of collectively oriented individual citizenship that rewarded personal initiative, while hiding the capital and labor necessary to achieve political change. Events like hackathons acclimated participants to producing prototypes of new technologies as a form of civic engagement. Even Gandhi’s “visions of individuals as trustees of wider communities” could be construed as aligned with design’s stance of acting on the world in the service of others.

To respond to the failures of liberalization, the state and large international organizations needed to spread entrepreneurial logics that compelled upper- and middle-class Indians to innovate for others. “Others” were mostly those of lower castes and those already excluded from the benefits of liberalization. The paternalistic model of entrepreneurial citizenship thus came to rely on the labor and connections of citizens searching inside themselves, and their communities, for social connections and resources that could be pitched as catchy ways to alleviate pressing social problems.

social problems, unlike technical ones, cannot be solved in an afternoon of white-boarding.

Practices from tech cultures—which were always biased toward action, not democratic deliberation or political self-expression—presented a new form of nation-building to Indians, one with all the convenience and speed of production, and none of the controversy of politics as usual. These organizational forms paved over recognition of difference, and compelled citizens to invest themselves in working for the state.

This cultural tendency of tech, even when morphed into civic life, can be traced back to the early days of hacking. Clive Thompson, in Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, suggests that the academic coders who went to MIT and the hackers who created Facebook were united by their drive to solve problems. For coders, “removing the friction from a system is an aesthetic joy,” Thompson claims. “Their eyes blaze when they talk about making something run faster.”

But democracy was never meant to be frictionless. And social problems, unlike technical ones, cannot be solved in an afternoon of white-boarding. Even so, Irani argues that entrepreneurship eventually replaced planning in Indian nation-building around 2015.

What gets stripped out through hackathons, design thinking, and user testing? A desire for speed and production among elites takes the place of “critique, mutual aid, and desires for better, more just worlds.” In this way, entrepreneurial citizenship—which picked up these ideas from coding culture and Silicon Valley thinking—absorbs hope, and flattens a plethora of political ideas. Despite its alleged grounding in entrepreneurial individuals, such thinking only results in changes that ultimately benefit the state.

After being converted from a regional model of innovation to an organizational pattern, Silicon Valley’s ideas and practices could travel worldwide. Yet, Irani wisely bases her analysis on an astute historical reading of the evolution of Indian class relations. Even when her work is centered on a design studio with cozy relationships with tech companies in the US, she cautions against describing Silicon Valley as a modern folk tale.

“Looking for Silicon Valley everywhere,” she said in an interview, “can be harmful when it hides older forms of power relations that have more explanatory and political weight.” Simplistic shorthand for tech-centrism draws attention away from the highly localized factors that dictate why these ideas are so appealing to both citizens and bureaucrats, two groups with very different imperatives.

Technology may have a reputation for being alluring. But it was the political need and civic models developed over the last century that made India so receptive to a shift in national development. Entrepreneurial citizenship has always been, to riff on a phrase on the back of every Apple product, “designed in India.”


Justice for “Data Janitors”

By Lilly Irani

The success of Silicon Valley’s formula for progress is bound by particularities of history. It took an unusual set of forces in India, for example, to coax citizens to do the heavy lifting of governance. People did not go from political citizens to entrepreneurial citizens overnight any more than Silicon Valley effortlessly sprung from Californian soil. These national transformations took conscious effort from those in power, and acquiescence from those not in power.

For this reason, we shouldn’t be fatalistic about Apple dubbing its stores “town squares,” or about Facebook thinking of itself as a “community.” We need not offer up our civic institutions, our governments, our libraries, or our schools to a model of reform with questionable values. Instead, we should recognize these efforts as what they are: branding for a behemoth that is rapidly running out of ideas.

This rhetorical overreach should drive us to articulate genuinely democratic civic alternatives. As Irani suggests, organizational alternatives might institutionalize care and maintenance, while being more attentive to the challenges of representation in technology design. We can—and should—define patterns of our own.


This article was  commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

Featured image: Virtual Landscape (Macro of a Silicon Wafer). Photograph by Laura Ockel / Unsplash