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The digital avalanche

Silicon Valley’s interest in meditation is, in some respects, adaptive. “We’re at the epicenter of being stimulated with digital stuff,” Mamood Hamid, a venture investor at Social Capital, told me. “Five years ago, it was just e-mail. Now if you’re not on Twitter, if you don’t know how to use social, you’re a Luddite. And then you add the Apple Watch that’s going to be giving you notifications every five minutes—text messages, e-mails. It’s going to drive you insane.” Stewart Butterfield, the C.E.O. of Slack, noted that this is a fate that awaits us all. “I feel like we’re in the early stages of a species-level change with devices,” he told me.
These heterotopias, with their teenage dress codes, situate themselves neither inside nor outside the public sphere. The companies that create such “frictionless” environments for their employees expect them to have an unlimited devotion to their jobs. Almost everyone who works for one of these companies in fact overworks in optimal working conditions, at the expense of their private, social, and public lives. Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s famous remark—“As for living, our servants will do that for us”—would make an appropriate motto for many of them.
Our silicon age, which sees no glory in maintenance, but only in transformation and disruption, makes it extremely difficult for us to imagine how, in past eras, those who would change the world were viewed with suspicion and dread. […]Referring to […]the first half of the twentieth century, “with its political catastrophes, its moral disasters, and its astonishing development of the arts and sciences,” Hannah Arendt summarized the human cost of endless disruption: The world becomes inhuman, inhospitable to human needs[…]when it is violently wrenched into a movement in which there is no longer any sort of permanence.
« Les start-up, c'est l'inverse de l'esprit français », sourit Cécile Alduy, l'universitaire de Stanford. L'esprit de collaboration est indispensable, la hiérarchie volontairement en retrait. « On essaie d'avoir le moins de directeurs possible, poursuit Florian Jourda. Les managers sont censés se mettre en dessous de l'équipe plutôt qu'au-dessus. »
"If Travis Kalanick is the Michael Jordan poster that young entrepreneurs have hanging on their walls, that's sad," this person said. "Being a jerk isn't 'awesome' or 'badass.'" Kalanick did not respond to a request for comment.
We're told the extent to which Rosenberg and Wojcicki overlapped is a matter of dispute between the separated philanthropists—but even if they can split amicably, knowing that one of the most vital, powerful men at the company has been using Google's most ambitious product as a dating pool won't be smooth news for the rest of the team. And of course, the odds of grotesquely 21st century sex tape existing are now very high.
Kapor said that asking questions about the lack of racial and gender diversity in tech companies leaves people in Silicon Valley intensely uncomfortable. For example, only eight per cent of venture-backed tech start-ups are owned by women, and, in a region where Hispanics make up nearly a quarter of the working-age population, they constitute less than five per cent of employees in large tech companies; the representation of both Hispanics and blacks is actually declining. People in Silicon Valley may be the only Americans who don’t like to advertise the fact if they come from humble backgrounds. According to Kapor, they would then have to admit that someone helped them along the way, which goes against the Valley’s self-image
Why has a revolution that is supposed to be as historically important as the industrial revolution coincided with a period of broader economic decline? I posed the question in one form or another to everyone I talked to in the Bay Area. The answers became a measure of how people in the technology industry think about the world beyond it.Few of them had given the topic much consideration. One young techie wondered if it was really true; another said that the problem was a shortage of trained software engineers; a third noted that the focus of the tech industry was shifting from engineering to design, and suggested that this would open up new job opportunities. Sam Lessin, who leads Facebook’s “identity product group,” which is in charge of the social network’s Timeline feature, posited that traditional measures of wealth might not be applicable in the era of social media. He said, “I think as communication technology gets less expensive, and people can entertain each other and interact with each other and do things for each other much more efficiently, what’s actually going to happen is that the percentage of the economy that’s in cash is going to decline. Some people will choose to build social capital rather than financial capital. Given the opportunity to spend an extra hour or an extra dollar, they will choose to spend time with friends. It might be that the G.D.P., in the broader sense, is actually growing quite quickly—it’s just that we’re not measuring it properly.”
Horowitz—who is the son of David Horowitz, the radical turned conservative polemicist—attributed Silicon Valley’s strain of libertarianism to the mentality of engineers. “Libertarianism is, theoretically, a relatively elegant solution,” he said. “People here have a great affinity for that kind of thing—they want elegance. Most people here are relatively apolitical and not that knowledgeable about how these large complicated systems of societies work. Libertarianism has got a lot of the false positives that Communism had, in that it’s a very simple solution that solves everything.” The intellectual model is not the dour Ayn Rand but Bay Area philosophers and gurus who imagine that limitless progress can be achieved through technology. Stewart Brand, now seventy-four, popularized the term “personal computer” and made “hacker” the tech equivalent of freedom fighter. His Whole Earth Catalog—a compendium of hippie products, generated by users, that is now considered an analog precursor of the Web—can still be found on desks at Facebook.
Joshua Cohen, a Stanford political philosopher who also edits Boston Review, described a conversation he had with John Hennessy, the president of Stanford, who has extensive financial and professional ties to Silicon Valley. “He was talking about the incompetent people who are in government,” Cohen recalled. “I said, ‘If you think they’re so incompetent, why don’t you include in a speech you’re making some urging of Stanford students to go into government?’ He thought this was a ridiculous idea.”
In 1983, parents at Woodside Elementary School, which is surrounded by some of the Valley’s wealthiest tech families, started a foundation in order to offset budget cuts resulting from the enactment of Proposition 13, in 1978, which drastically limited California property taxes. The Woodside School Foundation now brings in about two million dollars a year for a school with fewer than five hundred children, and every spring it hosts a gala with a live auction. I attended it two years ago, when the theme was RockStar, and one of Google’s first employees sat at my table after performing in a pickup band called Parental Indiscretion. School benefactors, dressed up as Tina Turner or Jimmy Page, and consuming Jump’n Jack Flash hanger steaks, bid thirteen thousand dollars for Pimp My Hog! (“Ride through town in your very own customized 1996 Harley Davidson XLH1200C Sportster”) and twenty thousand for a tour of the Japanese gardens on the estate of Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle and the country’s highest-paid chief executive. The climax arrived when a Mad Men Supper Club dinner for sixteen guests—which promised to transport couples back to a time when local residents lived in two-thousand-square-foot houses—sold for forty-three thousand dollars.