The Silicon Valley Dream Was Always a Fantasy

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S1: Just a note before we get started, there is a little bit of salty language in this episode.

S2: All right, so let’s let’s let’s open up that phone.

S3: Let’s see. This is about two women who were trying to. Raise money for a startup making a tampon alternative.

S4: Investor says that sounds like a very niche market and a winner has always written little emails like this to herself observations, moments.

S5: She wanted to remember just snippets of dialogue or things that I had seen on the street or sentences that came to mind. It was sort of like a substitute for a note keeping practice.

S4: And as she was working in Silicon Valley in the middle of the startup boom, the emails piled up, as Anna noted, what was going on around her.

S5: A lot of them are in shorthand. It’s sort of like tweets to myself. So I know what I’m referring to. But out of context, they seem strange. So here’s one picnic. The boys had packed everything but paper plates and napkins. They didn’t need an IPO. They needed a mother. Ian got stuck behind a self-driving car struggling to emerge. This is true. He got stuck trying to get on the highway behind a self-driving car. That was really timid and just couldn’t merge in two rush hour traffic. He was there for like forty five minutes. A beautiful metaphor for my job.

S4: Always on the Wi-Fi network guest inhis job or rather a series of high tech jobs from 2013 to 2018 are the subject and the setting of her new book, Uncanny Valley.

S2: How did you end up in this place writing these emails to yourself? Were you aware in the moment that you were observing a phenomenon?

S3: I was aware that I was experiencing something different and new for me, that the way people spoke and the way that they made decisions and the things that they were encountering in their everyday life. That these were something was different about this. And funny to me. In part because you sort of have to find things funny because otherwise it’s just total despair all the time. But yeah, it took me a while to catch on.

S5: I mean, I think a large part of that is just that I hadn’t come from a place where I was paying a lot of attention to attack. I was a consumer of sort of reluctant consumer and a lot of ways. So I just I didn’t realize that I was like a part of this big wave, a wave of tech workers flocking to Silicon Valley.

S4: Anna found herself in the middle of it, working for an e-book startup, a data analytics company and an open source software platform, mostly in customer support roles. She was making good money. She felt like she was at the center of things and she was surrounded by young people who believed they were changing the world. And then, like so many of us, her infatuation with the tech industry started to sour this week on the show. What it was like to live a certain kind of millennial dream. And then how it felt to wake up. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and this is What Next, TBD, a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stay with us.

S2: Why do you think he did it in the first place?

S3: Got to work in San Francisco. I was just looking for a way to feel like I was useful to find momentum and work, to feel like I had a future. I was coming from an industry that, as long as it has existed, has been anxious about its own future, which established the publishing industry. And I just wanted to feel like I was going somewhere and that I had some place and that I was valuable to society, which in hindsight just feels a little painful to admit because it’s painful to admit now. I was so easily seduced by these narratives about, you know, your values directly correlated to your salary and the tech industry as a future. And this is different and this is new and this is the place to be if you’re a smart young person with ambition. I don’t think I was aware of those narratives explicitly, but I definitely found myself caught up in them. So for me, it wasn’t. It wasn’t particularly like I want to become a product manager at Google by the age of 27. It was. I want to feel like I’m going somewhere.

S2: Do you think you were naive or do you think you were part of a moment in time?

S6: Why not both? I think probably both could be true. I think that I was naive.

S3: I was also really impressionable and also wanting something that these people had. I think that the industry has capitalized on and also accelerated institutional erosion, inequality. So the personal story is just interwoven with the structural story. Right. Like if I had graduated college 10 years before I did, which was in 2009, I probably would have been working in book publishing for my entire career. So it’s hard for me to separate those out.

S2: I guess you don’t name any companies in this book. On the one hand, I assume this is about d.a.’s, but on the other I was struck when I read things like the online superstore or the social network that everyone hated. It feels both about kind of naming the absurdity of these things that were very used to, but also making them feel more universal.

S3: My reason for not naming company names or executive names, with one exception, which is this friend of mine who was an executive elsewhere, is that I’m I don’t really think it matters. I felt that what I was experiencing, which had to do with human environments and interaction, could have happened in any number of start ups during this time. And for me, that’s more important because it’s a structural story. It’s not this individual narrative that could be seen as exceptional in any way. My hope was just that they just remind people what these companies are. I also just hate the names. I hate their names. They’re just so goofy that I think a big part of what’s gone wrong in Silicon Valley is the sense that this is not just like a form of accelerated capitalism, that there is something different and sort of playful and light hearted and childlike, even youthful. I think the names in a lot of the language, in the culture obscure that. And I think language can be exculpatory and so. One of my titles at a job that I write about in the book was I was doing customer support, knows the name was Support a Cat. And that’s like you see happiness heroes for customer support reps. And I just find that condescending and infantilizing. When I sign that paperwork for the job, I support a cat. I was like, I can’t imagine identifying myself to the IRS as a support account. Like, I know it’s just another way of like circumventing reality, I guess. Silicon Valley is quite good at.

S4: Silicon Valley is also well-known for entrenched sexism. In 2014, Anna went to Phoenix for a conference of women in computing.

S2: I want to read your description and then ask you about it during the conference’s keynote speech. The CEO of a highly litigious Seattle based software conglomerate encouraged women to refrain from asking for raises.

S7: It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along. And that, I think, might be one of the additional superpowers that, quite frankly, women who don’t ask for a raise have, because that’s good karma.

S8: It’ll come back because somebody this is quite famously Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, and it blew up when it happened because it was shocking.

S2: What was it like to observe that moment and be in a sort of space full of women getting that push toward them?

S3: So I did not attend that keynote. I attended that male allies panel the next day. It’s a grasshopper conference and. It’s really exciting in a way, because it’s just thousands of women who work in engineering or in science and are interested in engineering, a lot of students who are moving into the industry or want to. And there’s something really exciting and inspiring about that. It’s a very supportive space. And so that Kino is sort of is just sort of like a slap in the face, like just a reminder that, you know, this is what they’re all going to confront when they move into the industry or this is what everyone is dealing with anyway.

S2: We should note, Nadella later apologized for his comments, but sexism comes up a lot. Nanna’s book. Well, I’ve noticed in other interviews that you in some ways, when when asked about sexism, say things like, well, my experience wasn’t nearly as bad as others. Yeah, which is both true. But it also strikes me as maybe a way of shrugging off this thing that was around you all the time.

S3: No, I wouldn’t say that. I’m shrugging it off. I take it very seriously. I think that I tend to freeze up in interviews because about when talking about sexism because. It’s interesting you’ve noticed that it’s something that I feel like I haven’t quite figured out how to talk about, which is funny because it’s such a big conversation.

S4: Well, and you write about it a lot. You just got one of your jobs as immersion therapy for internalized misogyny.

S3: Right. Yeah. You’re surrounded by men and you’re trying to mollify them at all times. I guess part of what I run up against talking about sexism in tech is that it’s not unique to tech, that these are endemic problems. And I don’t want it to seem special. I don’t want it to seem like it exists to the exclusion of sexism elsewhere. What people been asking me in interviews is. Sort of like what’s it like to be a woman in Silicon Valley? And I just have trouble answering that because it doesn’t feel unique to my experience being a woman in any other space. It feels similar to being a teenage girl at a math and science high school, feel similar to being a woman traveling alone. It’s just such a satisfying answer that I should really just come up with a soundbite.

S6: Maybe it’s more complicated. Mozambique. It is complicated, but it’s also pervasive in tech. I don’t mean to downplay that. Do you think I’ve been downplaying the. Is that what it seems like to, you know? It seems like to me that there’s this sort of phenomenon of a frog being boiled alive, that it’s.

S2: Around you all the time, maybe in a slightly higher temperature way than it is even in sort of the daily existence of a woman anywhere.

S3: Mm hmm. I think what’s been strange about talking about sexism with respect to this book and I when I was when it was out on submission in the publishing industry, I had the distinct feeling that people are some of some of the editors I was talking to had wished I had been sexually harassed. More for the story. Well, and I think that might be why I’m sort of soft pedaling my own experiences, because I do think I got incredibly lucky and I don’t want to sensationalize my own experience. I guess this is when I’m hedging against. But but I suppose it does run the risk of underplaying the reality for a lot of other women, which is obviously not something I want to do.

S6: When you were working for this international kind of open source company, you operated online as a man. Why did you do that and what was it like? I use a pseudonym in responding to customer emails.

S3: Most of the people that I was dealing with were men. I think based on their names. So maybe they were also pseudonyms. And actually, this is something that happens a lot in the open source world. The company was an open source platform, had a open source platform, and a lot of women, I think, used male pseudonyms, an open source because they’re taken more seriously. And. Doing customer support. I felt that I was probably being taken more seriously. Under a male pseudonym. I also was doing some work that was sensitive, related to content, moderation, and just didn’t want to rile the wrong person. I’m hesitant to talk about that in the book and I’m hesitant to talk about it in person because I still harbor some fear and anxiety about that sort of backlash because the work I was doing was related to online abuse and harassment. You just have a front row seat to kind of the worst behavior on the internet and hiding behind a male pseudonym felt safe.

S2: Anna writes about a certain relentlessness in her tech work, solving problems for customers every day, but questioning the end goal. Plus, she grew more aware of the mismatch between the tech industries, articulated values like openness and meritocracy and what was really happening every day. I asked Danna to read from a section of the book where she starts thinking differently about her role and the industry.

S3: I knew even as I was moving through them that I would look back on my late 20s as a period when I was lucky to live in one of the most beautiful cities in the country, unburdened by debt, untethered from a workplace obligated to zero dependence and love freer and healthier and with more potential than ever before and anytime thereafter, and spent almost all of my waking hours with my neck bent at an unnatural angle, staring into a computer. And I knew even then that I would regret it. I had reached the Promised Land for millennial knowledge work. I was making 80 90 than 100 thousand dollars a year doing a job that only existed for and on the internet. Mostly I wrote emails for a living. Mostly I worked from home. The job asked so little of me. I might have forgotten I had it, except for the fact that it required me to be online.

S6: There are all these little red flags in the book of sort of painful things that happened to you.

S2: And yet when I was reading it, this section felt like a turning point to me in your own kind of realization of that, what was going on inside of you?

S3: I think these were really empty years for me. I sold the book on a proposal which was basically the first half and then got to writing a second half in 2018. And that was largely about this third company that I had worked for. And. I had worked there for almost four years and just looking back on it, I just felt this like it was like this blank expanse and it was so hard to account for my own life. And I had just it had just happened. It wasn’t like trying to think about being five years old. And I think that’s because the the nature of customer support works pretty transient. Things go and they come. They go out. I don’t know what I was working toward. And I just have this like image of myself in my studio apartment, like. Realizing the sun had set again and being like, okay, well, maybe tomorrow I’m going to make this work at the same time.

S9: Anna was feeling all these things. We the public started to question our dependence on tech, our lionised version of an industry. Suddenly there were campaigns to delete popular apps, employee protests and walkouts. The cute name for all of this is the tech lash.

S3: I think the tech lash is really interesting because I think there’s a lot of criticism of tech right now, but I haven’t seen anything change structurally. We’re not seeing many shifts in power. If anything, it’s crystallizing and. I do think that the part of what might be considered the tech lash, that’s exciting and hopefully the future is some of the collective organizing that we’re seeing. I think that it’s long overdue for employees to have more say in the work that they’re doing. And I also think we’re in a a window that could close sooner than anyone would want, where tech workers do have quite a bit of leverage due to the desirability of their skillset. I find that very powerful and exciting. And I think that it’s really a challenge of like the industry’s self-described open mindedness and progressiveness. So I will believe in that as like a real social force rather than like much deserved overdue criticism when something changes.

S2: One question that comes up in this sort of tech lash moment and as we’re reckoning with companies like Uber being a great example.

S6: Can someone found a company? Can you build something big without that megalomania or I guess if you want to be sharper about it, can you do it without being an asshole?

S3: A lot of people believe no. I think yes. But I think that behind that question is like, what are the incentives of this business model? And it’s a business model that privileges speed and scale and acceleration and domination. You know, basically like accelerate toward monopoly and start to say that, like, there are assholes who run non-profits. They’re assholes everywhere they are. They walk among us. But I reject that story, actually, that it’s gonna be this aggressive, like iconoclasts, like I. I reject that. I don’t think that that’s necessary to run a successful business.

S6: You’ve been doing a bunch of interviews. People ask you questions. Are we missing what you wanted to write about? Are there things you wish we were talking about more? I suppose I wish that people were.

S3: Talking more about what comes next and not in like a futurist way, but. How do we make this work and can this work? And and if it can’t work, should these companies exist?

S10: Like, is there a way to run a company like Facebook or Google that is ethical and morally sound and treats all of its workers? Well, not just the people who are full time employees in Menlo Park.

S5: Can you moderate a platform like Amazon responsibly? Can you moderate YouTube responsibly if you can’t? Should they exist and a winner? Thank you very much. Thank you, losee.

S4: And a Winner is the author of the new memoir Uncanny Valley. She’s also a contributing writer for The New Yorker. And that’s our show. What next? TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks and hosted by me, Lizzie O’Leary. And it’s part of the larger What Next family. TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. If you missed what, next episode on Wednesday, go back and listen. Mary talks to Emily ATKIN about the fires in Australia and how energy companies have shaped the way we think about climate change policy. Mary and her team will be back on Monday. Thanks for listening. Talk to you next week.