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The Children of Silicon Valley (nybooks.com)
40 points by HarveyLee96 on July 18, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 26 comments

This piece says more about the author's problems than actual problems, but as I've gone through life I have run across many people who are angry with me or with with technologists in general because of choices made in their own lives have come back to haunt them in ways they never imagined when they made those choices.

Back in the 70's you could be forgiven for ignoring computers, they were specialist tools that only people who were 'bad at sports' seemed to have any use for. But in making that choice, in the 90's your kids were talking to each other using "screens" and you always seemed out of touch with what was going on. You finally got a "computer" in the early part of the 21st century because you got tired of people laughing at you when you asked them to send you a print catalog. Now you want to get something done and that computer that you barely know how to operate doesn't work because of some sort of magical indigestion that randomly tries to sell you ED medicine with random pop up advertising.

Those people are really angry, they are frustrated and angry and pissed off that nobody told them that when the nerds reshaped the tools of the world into something they liked better, there choice to ignore nerds would leave them badly under equipped to live in that world. There was a big push to give people "computer literacy" which is sort of like being able to read, the essential skill that got you buy in the 20th century, but for computers in the 21st century. A lot of people decided it was too much bother and their life has become harder because of that choice.

What is interesting is that Alvin Toffler predicted this would happen in "Future Shock" [1], where he talked about how change that was fast enough could disenfranchise an entire generation or two. I don't think a lot of people appreciated it then.

One of the effects I've observed is people with sentiments exactly like those expressed in the original article. Anger at people who would change things and impose a burden on those who, for what ever reason, could not accommodate that change.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Future_Shock

But that's just it. Silicon Valley is no longer changing anything. I don't know if this was ever the case but the reason I started learning about computers and the theory of computation in general was because I saw it as a way of empowering people and giving them a means of achieving their own goals. This is no longer the case. I see very few companies that are using technology with that intention or building something with that goal in mind. All I see are ways of tricking people into clicking on ads or tricking them into doing free work by giving them tokens, e.g. Yelp.

This isn't to say that technologists are entirely to blame but they played a large role in disempowering an entire generation by giving them gimped tools that were meant more for control than empowerment. Why the hell do I need to know what "rooting" a device means if I want to fully utilize all its capabilities. What is the point of locking down a general purpose computing machine if not for control.

I've heard this "there are no more big changes left." Perhaps folks in the Valley are too close to the change to see it.

Universal mobile connectivity is huge.

Instant access to the world's information is huge.

Instant access to each other is huge.

Geolocation is huge.

Right now we're just seeing ripples on the surface, but industries are being eaten. Modern financial services couldn't operate without this technology. You can't compete with P&G and Walmart without this technology, because they are masters. The propoganda behind wars now happens on Twitter.

You'll have to define what you mean by universal mobile connectivity because it is far from universal on a global scale.

If you have internet then you might have access to the world's information or you might not depending on which part of the world you're in, i.e. countrywide firewalls and whatnot. Also, most of the world's information is still locked behind journal publisher paywalls. The stuff you get from tumbler I wouldn't call information.

Instant access to each other we've basically had since email and text messaging and that hasn't changed. What has changed is business capitalizing on those connections to make money, i.e. Zuckerberg repackaging the internet as Facebook.

I don't really know why you say geolocation is huge. I like my GPS but I can get around just fine without it. It might be huge in terms of government's ability to spy on me though.

Maybe I'm a little too cynical but none of what you brought up changes the fact that all the tools and services we make available to people are more a means of oppression and control than they are as a lever that they can use to move the world. Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, etc. are all toys for teenagers. Google and other mega corps are information silos with secretive operations and basically black boxes that print money.

Technology should be used to distribute power and wealth but instead it is used more and more every day to concentrate it in fewer and fewer hands. Financial sector you mentioned being an excellent example of such use.

I think you are too close to the politics of the tech industry to understand how technology continues to empower people.

Social media platforms are new tools for communication. Populations in nations like Libya, Syria, Brazil, Egypt, etc. are using these tools to organize politically and socially. The tools give them powers of reach and speed that previously were only available to major media outlets like TV or radio station operators (who might be state-controlled anyway).

Even in the U.S., the tools of digital communication are directly resulting in a growing diversity of political organizations, of which the Tea Party is currently the most prominent example.

At the personal level, I can use Yelp to find all the restaurants that are near me physically right now. Trivial? Maybe, but it empowers the individual to make a personal decision. Developing a similar data set even 10 years ago would have take a lot of manual work.

One does not have to built technology to be empowered by it.

But even building technology is way easier than it was even 10 years ago. Powerful languages, development environments, libraries, operating systems, etc. are available to anyone for free. Anyone can lease a full Linux server for $5/month.

If you think things haven't been changing enough, or aren't still changing, you aren't paying attention.

The narcissism on display in this comment (in this instance, projecting one's high school resentments onto the author of the article) is a perfect example of why people are becoming more and more suspicious of and hostile towards Silicon Valley technologists - and note also the conflation of the technological progress in general with the Silicon Valley economic-political-industrial-cultural nexus.

"These industries may be among the most vibrant and dynamic in the world, yet those inside the hive are among the most tedious people in the room, endlessly plugging into their prosthetic devices."

I gave the author the benefit of the doubt until I got here. Most of the people that I've met that actually keep innovation progressing are quite interesting people with deep lives, including family, hobbies, interesting experiences, non-technical interests, community participation, etc.

I think the stereotype of "boring" comes from the focus on young developers, who aren't necessarily boring, but haven't become interesting yet. It's no surprise that a single 25 year old might not have a deep appreciation for the subtleties of humanity. If there was as much focus on other young adults, you'd probably find the same shallowness with different (and often less productive) outlets.

You're confusing the aged expatriates of technology with the people doing the work now. They're only 45 and unemployable except for sweetheart contractor deals within their 'network'.

It's disgusting how entitled they are. No, you don't make six figures working part-time, ad-hoc, in a technical capacity. No, you aren't that good, you aren't that special.

And they are so fucking boring. They think they put their time in and now they go on cruise-control and still expect to still make a tidy income on the side while they pursue their dreams of organic backyard farming or whatever. B-o-r-i-n-g.

endlessly plugging into their prosthetic devices.

I can't stand when people make this comment, it's like wtf I got the f-ing internet in my hand, why wouldn't I be on my phone.

The Silicon Valley "Change the World" self congratulation festival is in full swing, yes. People losing themselves to the latest fads is happening, but it's always been happening. We just change enough to notice. It's not with unkindness or scorn that I respond this way to the authors writing, but instead with weary acceptance. Even as young as I am, I can feel the subtle changes as I begin to lose contact with current fads[0]. Unfortunately, I believe that is the path of all of us.

But, all is not lost! For in this conundrum is the thread of life itself: we must learn to deal with what we cannot change. I'm reminded of a quote about programming from the Tao of Programming:

A novice asked the Master:

    "In the East, there is a great tree-structure that men call 'Corporate
    Headquarters'. It is bloated out of shape with vice presidents and
    accountants. It issues a multitude of memos, each saying 'Go Hence!' or 'Go
    Hither!' and nobody knows what is meant. Every year new names are put onto the
    branches, but all to no avail. How can such an unnatural entity exist?"
The Master replied:

    "You perceive this immense structure and are disturbed that it has no rational
    purpose. Can you not take amusement from its endless gyrations? Do you not
    enjoy the untroubled ease of programming beneath its sheltering branches? Why
    are you bothered by its uselessness?"
Similarly, be not bothered by change, for change always comes. Take amusement from [society's] constant gyrations. Enjoy the [marvels that occasionally arise] beneath its sheltering branches.

"Our silicon age, which sees no glory in maintenance, but only in transformation and disruption"

Startups see no glory in maintenance, of course, but that's almost the definition of a startup: they have to do something new, big, and fast. I wouldn't ascribe that to the entire "silicon age" though.

For instance, look at open source communities. A lot of people are doing a lot of great work, some more revolutionary, but a lot of it quite incremental. Even fairly revolutionary ideas are often more concerned with engineering concerns like safety and robustness -- look at PostgreSQL, and the Rust language.

When people spend their time on the computer, they're turning their back to the outside world. And to be sure, that's anti-social.

But before computers, some of us did that by reading books.

"The twenty-first century has only aggravated the political, moral, social, and environmental concussions of the twentieth."

It's early days--through the mid-summer of its 14th year, the 20th was fairly peaceful. But at this point I don't see the 21st as doing worse than the 20th.

" I have seen young teenagers who just yesterday were ebullient, verbal, interactive, and full of personality turn into aphasic zombies within three months of getting a smart phone or an iPad."

I known for ten years some persons, now 25 or so, who have had cell phones since they were 15 and iPads since those came out. They have been, at every point at which I came in contact with them, lively and articulate. I met them when I was the dad driving around kids without licenses, so I'm not boasting about my generation.

"Becoming a boring human being is the fate of most people who keep the tech economy’s lights burning deep into the night."

From the point of view of an NYRB writer, perhaps. I doubt that the electrical engineers who made it possible to wire Manhattan shone at literary cocktail parties; yet I guess they had the decency to make more moderate piles of money.

"The new wine is dying on the vine, and Dionysos, the telluric god of ecstasy, is nowhere in sight."

The expression "new wine" I usually see in the New Testament "new wine in old bottles"; how that fits in with Dionysos, I can't guess. Is Robert Pogue Harrison a new pseudonym of Lewis Lapham's?

Dionysos is the god of wine

Anyone who wants to look into the future of the young talent of silicon valley needs only to look into the lives of 50+ year old professional athletes.

To the owners go the spoils, to the workers go the toils.

I work in the Valley, I'm 35, and have put on my share of coding afterburners.

Some of the most impressive programmers I've had the honor of working with have been substantially my senior. There are a handful who are powerfully productive and 50+. I assume there are a handful because there are not that many of them compared to the tikes. Agism - I'm just not seeing it!

There are no 50 year old NFL players, so I believe that your comparison is tenuous.


> "Becoming a boring human being is the fate of most people who keep the tech economy’s lights burning deep into the night."

Anyone who thinks that the president of the united states is going to say anything controversial or interesting worth taking time away from going to the bathroom letalone building potentially world changing software is already in no position to imply that anyone else is a bore in any way, shape or form.

Get off that lawn, you old crank.

> “Mae, do you realize how incredibly boring you’ve become?”

I've said the words, "I'm worried I'm becoming a boring person." This definitely resonates with me.

I agree with the author's thesis that tech workers in general are over-entitled, live sheltered lives and take themselves too seriously. However, I have more empathy and sympathy for their plight because I'm one too, :) What the author missed out on motivation of programmers and over-estimates the power of tech and even buys into somewhat the illusions of tech.

> Our silicon age, which sees no glory in maintenance, but only in transformation and disruption...

Six years ago, there was a book thread on HN where the top comment was "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand - the rationale being that the book's recommender was inspired by the novel's protagonist Howard Roark, an architect who battled the will's of a tycoon (symbol for MBA), second-rate architects (symbol for non-startup programmers) and an unwieldy female love interest (symbol for social resistance against anything revolutionary to preserve status quo power & prestige) to carry out his individual vision of architecture from drafting papers to concrete. Speaking for myself, it influenced me greatly then, to be a man who endured pain and sacrifice to manifest his individual creative vision.

Like Howard Roark, there is a dark side however not to yield - almost a fear for the world not to acknowledge properly his genius or perhaps the other way around, for himself to miss out on the world (“I’m making more of a difference than anybody in government could possibly make,”). A thought that consumes him that he's willing to bomb his building because of the "corruption of the world that stained it". His general ass-holeness at every other character whom he sees either as intellectually inferior (MBA), spiritually inferior (mediocre architect who have settled), or sexually submissive (his female love interest). In the end, Roark prevails and I reveled in the world that Ayn Rand has constructed to highlight the stubbornness, the creative genius, and the triumph of the will.

> People who work in Silicon Valley tend to love ["Silicon Valley"] precisely because its over-the-top portrayals of the most infantile and socially dysfunctional aspects of the tech start-up culture are eerily on the mark.

Six years later, as a code monkey, I read a book about Japan, "Dance Dance Dance" by Haruki Murakami - whose early 90's Tokyo of excess parallels the surrealness of Silicon Valley. The male protagonist is a disaffected Japanese advertising executive in his late 20's who have lost faith not so much in his work as much as embraced the absurdity of the capitalist service economy, "My peak? Would I even have one? I hardly had had anything you could call a life. A few ripples. some rises and falls. But that's it. Almost nothing. Nothing born of nothing. I'd loved and been loved, but I had nothing to show. It was a singularly plain, featureless landscape.I felt like I was in a video game. A surrogate Pacman, crunching blindly through a labyrinth of dotted lines. The only certainty was my death".

The protagonist is lonely and depressed and every day, he goes to a museum to look at the dry whale penis specimen just to relax himself. I'm reminded of the Silicon Graphics dino skeleton at Google. That a mediocre man who is powerless either associates himself with a shrine of manhood or is so awe-struck by another animal's oversized phallus that it takes him momentarily to the realm of absurdity, away from his usual daily pissing contests of "succeeding in life" to just take a moment to appreciate the moment of dry whale penis.

Howard Roark is represented here too as an male peripheral celebrity character who is also depressed because he is too good-looking to be always casted as "a handsome doctor or teacher" romantic lead in Japanese romantic comedies, resigned to play his role (and obligated to file expense reports for "personal entertainments" because of "tax compliance" reasons).

> The new wine is dying on the vine, and Dionysos, the telluric god of ecstasy, is nowhere in sight. It is unlikely that the next big digital innovation will lure him back.

I agree with the author's assertion that tech of today is actually quite plebian, an illusion and temporary sinecure for our modern anxieties. However, I don't think what he implies as the solution to indulge in our "Dionysian" souls, to go back to traditional public discourse of civic's, arts and humanities before permeation of Internet is viable either - as art imitates life, so does tech caters to it to the tyranny of A/B testing. We've created it in our image not some tech-Gods sitting in their LCD-glowing caves.

That the whole tech worship is no different than traditional athlete, celebrity or NYTimes Book Review worship. IMO, we are all so insecure to focus on which our surrogate hero's are better than the other we forget appreciating the ordinary people around us and reveling in our own mediocrity.

"those who would change the world were viewed with suspicion and dread"

There's a difference though: some ways of changing the world are much safer than other ways. Traditionally, it's been politicians who want to change the world, because they were the only ones with enough power to do so -- and people were rightly afraid (and still should be).

But technologists pose a significantly lower risk. Sure, there are exceptions, like the Manhattan Project. But for the most part, technology is opt-in, and people opt-in because it helps them more than it hurts them.

Generally an interesting article, but I can't help but wonder why, of all the things to dislike about Silicon Valley, you would dislike that "changing the world" is so overused so as to be cliché. Most every region and industry has plenty of clichés; I can't really think of a better one than trying to change the world.

"Kids these days."

TL; DR: Get off my lawn

If you cut yourself with a knife the fault is on you for not using it properly, not on the knife.

An unfortunate and misguided sentiment, especially considering how technological change has literally improved and changed the world. The current top story on HN (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2014/07/21/140721fa_fact_...) being but one minor example.

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