Silicon Valley: Ideology and Hypocrisy

Status Update

BOOK REVIEW  by Jean-Stéphane MIGOT  •  Published 24.03.2014  •  Updated 26.03.2014
The uncompromising gaze of an ethnologist in Silicon Valley.

Title: Status Update

Subhead: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age

Author(s): Alice E. Marwick

Editor(s): Yale University Press

Release Date: 23.11.2013

Summary

“The fundamentals of hypocrisy in Silicon Valley are that everyone says they want to change the world. And that’s true. They want to change the world from one in which they’re poor into one in which they’re rich.”
 
These are biting and sharply observed words from Owen Thomas (a freelance technology journalist and ex-writer at Valleywag), cited by the author. The new stars of globalization and Web 2.0, who work for Yahoo!, YouTube, Google, Twitter, Microsoft and Facebook, alongside their startup peers sailing in this privileged wake, believe that they are the superheroes of tomorrow.  Change the world, yes – but on the condition that they stay true to themselves in doing so. And above all, that they earn heaps and heaps of money.  Modestly, free of false arrogance, they are certain of their destiny and the righteousness of their judgment in getting there: soon, they are set to connect everyone around the planet, thanks to the digital tools created in their offices on the west coast of the U.S. They are seeking to improve living conditions for all, and indisputably, this Copernican revolution will pay out in full: they’ll get there and in doing so, join the ranks of the richest in the universe (dollars please!). Change the world, yes – but on the condition that they stay true to themselves in doing so. And above all, that they earn heaps and heaps of money.
 
Alice E. Marwick, an American ethnologist at Fordham University and contributing expert on social networks for The New York Times, The Guardian and The Daily Beast, spent four years immersed in the shuttered world of the Californian tech scene, Silicon Valley, from 2006 to 2010. She interviewed some fifty individuals working in and around the small world of Web 2.0 (obscure entrepreneurs, Internet celebrities, specialized marketing professionals, journalists, bloggers and more).  Written with academic rigor, but as lively and fast-paced as a journalistic investigation, it sheds light on the violence of this society.  This work allowed her to present a portrait of an influential society that claims to be innovative, generous, and firmly devoted to progress in service of humanity in Status Update. But over the course of her study, Marwick demonstrates that far from reducing the gap between rich and poor, these new technology fanatics only widen it, cynically reproducing a world attached to highly conservative values. 

The American dream 2.0

What remains of the revolutionary ideals of the web pioneers seeking to liberate humankind by granting them free and open access to knowledge, thanks to the Web and digital networks[+] NoteChapter 1: “A Cultural History of Web 2.0”X [1]? Little if anything, Marwick demonstrates by the end of her study. Through the signs of “cool attitude” that they don (jeans, sneakers, t-shirts), their ritual events (the legendary Burning Man festival, BarCamp, South by Southwest, Indymedia and more), the creative minds, organizers, purveyors of the second generation of the web are above all attentive to their online image and “status”:   The creative minds, organizers, purveyors of the second generation of the web are above all attentive to their online image and “status”.  this magical “authenticity” (which they have paradoxically produced) sparks off so many narcissistic rewards in the form of “likes” and “retweets”[+] NoteChapter 2: “Leaders and Followers: Status in the Tech Scene”X [2]. And in theorizing their activities, they develop the purest of neoliberal ideals: cult of personality and of the individual model incarnated by the dinosaurs, Steve Jobs, Paul Allen, Bill Gates and Richard Stallman, and the new icons, Mark Zuckerberg, Kevin Rose, Tim O’Reilly and more[+] NoteChapter 3: “The Fabulous Lives of Micro-celebrities”X [3]. In the same way, they throw themselves into brand worship and self-promotion[+] NoteChapter 4: “Self-Branding: The (Safe for Work) Self”X [4], whose gurus (Tim Ferris, Gary Vaynerchuck) are the alpha and omega of personal success; they revel in the ongoing media attention that they receive on YouTube and their connections on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter[+] NoteChapter 5: “Lifestreaming: We Live in Public”X [5]; and continue to praise the liberal “self-made man”, a meritocracy that cannot survive the author’s analysis and a world in which woman are relegated to subaltern tasks.
 
But according to Marwick, in terms of values and behaviors, this rising generation is in fact pushing the stalest clichés of the “American dream” to their breaking point[+] NoteChapter 6: “Designed in California: Entrepreneurship and The Myths of Web 2.0”X [6]. And rather than encouraging the revolution in interpersonal exchange and economic and social justice, under the guise of technological progress and innovation, the system implemented in Silicon Valley confirms the most hardline conservatism of capitalist models: bonuses for “winners”, white-collar graduates of local universities (the private Stanford University in the San Francisco area), Caucasian, male, healthy and preferably good-looking (indispensable for the few women who climb to the highest ranks of responsibility).
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Habits and customs of an influential clan

The interest and seriousness of the ethnologist’s work lie in the important material that she gathered over more than four years of contact with these players. In her effort to break a number of taboos and deconstruct the most deeply rooted clichés, the author uses spontaneous, candid comments to decipher the underlying ideology of these (unwitting?) libertarians: pacifistic, tireless defenders of individual freedoms, but in their simultaneous demand for a capitalist world free of borders and economic guardrails, they have trouble reconciling their dreams for universal solidarity, ethically beyond reproach, and their individual desires to become rich and famous.
 
Here, Marwick captures the essence of their behaviors, amongst themselves and toward the outside world. She pieces together a portrait of this community using scattered yet overlapping accounts of recurring attitudes and herd-like phenomena: the aforementioned specialized meetings and conferences, as well as the repeated psychological behaviors of the subjects that she observes. These confidences are rendered here, doubtlessly in order to respect academic rigueur, but with a great deal of humor as well, fully capturing the language tics of the speakers (“You know”, “I mean”, “It’s like”). This transcription multiplies the realistic effect for readers, easily able to imagine that that they are sitting across from these self-confident young people. 
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A far-from-clean world

Status Update furthermore doesn’t fail to describe and recall the fate awaiting the weakest in this pitiless world of business success: the case of Adam Jackson is enlightening, in this respect. Hailing from Florida, he came to the California tech scene at the age of 22, hungry for success, and is now retired in New Hampshire; while still working in the tech field, he is now an employee, having been literally swallowed up and ousted from the community. He describes the torments of his former professional life to Marwick, how he was obliged to multiply jobs to survive and was constantly driven to show off online on Twitter, Facebook and on the numerous blogs that he created to expand his reputation.  The author highlights the dangers of this media overload on “micro-celebrity” candidates.  Likewise, the author highlights the dangers of this media overload on “micro-celebrity” candidates: they copy the stars of the moment (Justin Bieber, Beyoncé) or celebrities addicted to tweets and cheap buzz (Paris Hilton, MC Hammer), but lack in terms of means of protection. While the status of show-biz professionals allows them to preserve their private life by attacking those who slander them, Web 2.0 aspirants have no such option. The author highlights that this may leave them with chronic anxiety and paranoia, due, for example, to their “FOMO” – fear of missing out.
 
The rise and fall of the peculiar California model that is Silicon Valley… Alice E. Marwick’s work provides a highly informative read on the habits and customs of this brilliant (not to say flashy) society, whose financial and popular success continue to widely fascinate observers around the world. Written with academic rigor, but as lively and fast-paced as a journalistic investigation, it sheds light on the violence of this society, without presenting a one-sided account. It simply recalls certain obvious facts about the media coverage of this success and the economic system on which it is based: how many Adam Jacksons for every Bill Gates? How long will women and minorities continue to be relegated to the margins? Is the payout as generously redistributed as those who produce it would like to lead us to believe? And are they really striving for this, despite the progressive, “authentic” image that they present?
 
A French translation of this work is impatiently awaited – and why not, an equally uncompromising and well-documented investigation focusing on the French tech world, which has certain success stories in terms of innovation comparable to those of Silicon Valley.  

 
Translated from the French by Sara HEFT
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  • 1. Chapter 1: “A Cultural History of Web 2.0”
  • 2. Chapter 2: “Leaders and Followers: Status in the Tech Scene”
  • 3. Chapter 3: “The Fabulous Lives of Micro-celebrities”
  • 4. Chapter 4: “Self-Branding: The (Safe for Work) Self”
  • 5. Chapter 5: “Lifestreaming: We Live in Public”
  • 6. Chapter 6: “Designed in California: Entrepreneurship and The Myths of Web 2.0”

Book title: Status Update
Subhead:  Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age
Author(s): Alice E. Marwick
Editor(s): Yale University Press
Release Date: 23/11/2013
Number of pages: 368 pages

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