Sunday, May 20, 2018

"High-Tech Bildungsroman: The Hysterical Optimism of Silicon Valley"

LARB, May 12:
SILICON VALLEY’S CONTEMPORARY CRITICS are being proven right at a speed that seems increasingly breakneck. Measuring the gap between a dark warning and its validation is easy enough: take any high-profile example of technological overreach or data abuse, and peruse Google until you find the individual(s) who identified this danger as latent within the technology itself, if not also within the permissive regulatory regime nominally tasked with preventing such offenses. Once in a while, however, you’ll be reminded of some clarion call you had previously dismissed.

Thus, I recently had occasion to recall a profile of one of Silicon Valley’s most persuasive and rigorous detractors, the Belarusian writer Evgeny Morozov, which appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2014. The profile’s author, Michael Meyer, seemed to imagine a reader sympathetic to Morozov’s critiques of “solutionism” — “the idea,” as Meyer puts it, “that we should recast our problems, from political gridlock to weight loss, as things to be solved primarily through technological efficiency” — and “internet-centrism,” which Morozov defines in his book To Save Everything, Click Here (2013) as “the firm conviction that we are living through unique, revolutionary times, in which the previous truths no longer hold,” but a reader also wary, as I probably was myself at the time, of what Meyer calls Morozov’s “bombast.” Suggesting that Morozov might be overzealous in his readiness to trumpet the sinister possibilities of emergent technologies, Meyer writes:
The most benignly progressive ideas can, in Morozov’s hands, become gloomy and confounding — for instance, he believes that people trying to lose weight with fitness-tracking apps are setting a dangerous precedent that could foster abusive practices by health insurers.
There’s a seductive, if potentially faulty, syllogism in play here, one that I regularly use to calm myself: if a given prediction evokes dystopian science fiction, and if science fiction often projects a hyperbolic future that is, at best (or worst), only partially borne out, then that prediction is therefore unlikely to be accurate.

But to trivialize such concerns as “gloomy and confounding” risks sacrificing a valuable alertness, or so it seems to me now. For it was “abusive practices” along these very lines — underwritten, as it were, by a “benignly progressive idea” — that helped catalyze this year’s inspiring West Virginia teachers’ strike. As one teacher explained to The New York Times:
They implemented Go365, which is an app that I’m supposed to download on my phone, to track my steps, to earn points through this app. If I don’t earn enough points, and if I choose not to use the app, then I’m penalized $500 at the end of the year. People felt that was very invasive, to have to download that app and to be forced into turning over sensitive information.
Considered in context, these remarks provide a misleading index of our society’s collective willingness to fight back against weaponization of the data that we passively engender as we go about our daily lives; needless to say, such large-scale organized resistance in our right-to-work era is not the norm. Furthermore, the incursion upon individual privacy represented by Go365 was not the teachers’ only grievance, or even their principal one: West Virginia’s public school teachers are among the lowest paid in the country. But as separate as the workers’ grievances might seem — with stagnating wages on the one hand, and the unsolicited monitoring of extracurricular activity, which then becomes the basis of a significant penalty, on the other — they are related, and this relation helps tell a story about American precarity writ large, with the state ceding certain vital functions to private corporations whose work is, by and large, poorly understood and minimally overseen.

Corey Pein’s brisk and entertaining new book, Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley, attempts to tell this story, presenting the linked erosion of the public sector and of organized labor as at once accelerants and symptoms of Silicon Valley’s economic ascendancy. Equal parts memoir, ethnography, reportage, and jeremiad, Live Work Work Work Die starts as an account of Pein’s abortive effort to become a startup entrepreneur, widening into a bleaker, more holistic portrait of Silicon Valley — its history, economics, politics, dominant personalities, and vision for the future. “Silicon Valley,” one of the United States’s best-known metonyms, functionally extends beyond the geographic region itself, into San Francisco, which has in some sense become Silicon Valley’s suburb; local literary eminences Rebecca Solnit and Ellen Ullman have both lamented the city’s new status as a “bedroom community,” an inversion that, as Solnit has observed, harkens back to earlier days when Gold Rush arrivistes flocked to the city in hopes of getting rich nearby.
The opening chapter sees Pein, a seasoned journalist and regular contributor to The Baffler, moving to San Francisco in 2015 with little but a nebulous determination to cash in on the tech boom. What distinguished him from his fellow aspirants, however, was his plan to convert this experience into a book, as well as his fundamentally adversarial stance toward the very boom he hoped would make him rich.
Pein sets up Live Work Work Work Die as a nonfictional bildungsroman, the literary-historical form that, in its focus on one (typically male) individual’s arduous self-actualization, most precisely panders to Silicon Valley’s image of itself. But it soon becomes clear that Pein’s deployment of this form is sarcastic, as when he recounts an early entrepreneurial failure that, because he had so fully imbibed the Valley’s insistence on its own meritocratic ordering, he initially interpreted as a harsh measure of his own worth:
My first startup had failed. Thus I had failed. What other explanation could there be? As everyone knew, the internet was a level playing field, a free and frictionless medium for exchange, where the best ideas would inevitably rise to the top. Such was the foundational rhetoric of the internet, repeated like scripture, questioned only by cranks and cynics.
Pein comes to see the regional doctrine of heroic self-sufficiency and “hysterical optimism” as a “specious ideology.” As this early passage indicates, the book is the story not of one young man achieving success through brute force of will, but of one young man realizing that such success stories — for which there is a sizable market — largely miss the structural point.

But if, as literary scholar Joseph Slaughter argues, the typical bildungsroman narrates one individual’s journey toward becoming someone capable of narrating that very journey (a circular process Slaughter calls “narrative self-sponsorship”), this is one feature of the form Pein’s book adapts earnestly, if problematically. “When I started writing this book,” he writes,
it was provisionally titled “How to Make $30 Billion the Silicon Valley Way.” My idea was to pitch a tech startup and get obscenely rich while writing a book about how to pitch a tech startup and get obscenely rich — the Silicon Valley way!