On criticism of SV

2018/01/18 writing

A write-up was posted on the HN discussion forum, relating a way to escape toxicity in tech. It didn't really speak to me when I first read it, shortly after its initial submission. However, it proceeded to get some traction and sympathetic replies, somewhat surprising given that forum's longstanding hostility to any ideas critical of their turf. So I revisited it and offered it up for discussion with a few friends.

My position was that Silicon Valley is so obnoxious that in order for criticism to make a dent with its denizens, it must be made by "insiders". It must trade in the same obnoxious self-aggrandizing language that it derides. The only way to convince a techie that their scene is terrible and that they're drinking kool-aid is to make it seem like the deception itself has been novel and grand-scale, that it's worthy of them. They're not just some chump laborer, they've been tricked by a particularly marvelous trick. The exposé "Chaos Monkeys" fits somewhere in here.

My friend DB sort of agreed, but then zeroed in on something more interesting. Alienation is traditionally discussed, in the Marxist sense, in terms of an exploited worker who is deprived of agency. Is there maybe a "reverse alienation" going on? People feeling they earn way too much money for what little value they feel they add to society? A need to make sense of it somehow?

In places like NYC or MTL you have a financier ruling class, but the city is bustling with many other kinds of industry. You can work in tech but be someone else. My impression was that in SV and SV-adjacent-SF there's just tech. Subway advertising promotes random apps you've never head of. Billboards promote enterprise software solutions. Your bartender will pitch you his startup. You're tech-adjacent and rich, or you're the underclass. It's homogeneous and boring.

When realizing they've made a plain meal, some people will try to find a way to substantially improve it. Other people will just dump sriracha on it. The mysticism that SV imbues into discussions of its industrial output is sriracha.

Many tech-workers need to explain why this fabulous wealth ended up pooling in the tech sector, why they are worthy of it. Explanations like "public trusts have been raided, there's increasingly absurd amounts of money in private hands, it must be parked somewhere and goofy tech stocks work" are in fact correct. Matt Bruenig said it best,

The unwritten story of the Juicero debacle is that high income inequality causes capital to be misallocated towards luxury production.

However, such explanations are too crass and political for the notionally apolitical tech-worker. What's happening in SV must instead be rooted in something deeper, it must have something to do with the essence, with the "unconventional" way business is carried out over there, with hoodies over suits, with the effort put into typography, with the hippie roots of SF.

It gives rise to a kind of mysticism. Envy of Jamie Dimon becomes the cult of Elon Musk, "hookers and blow" become cuddle pool parties, nondescript bacchanalia becomes Burning Man, whatever.

When your work is all-encompassing of your social scene, justifying why you make so much money is essential to give your life meaning. Cults form to explain miracles.