May 27
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The Horrible Wonderful World of the Tech Startup


For a long time, the most interesting news articles about technology were vapid product reviews. The most popular Kickstarters all shared the same mentality of trying to make everything from smoke detectors to coolers smart. Inspired by this culture, I would imagine the smart home company I would start. The product line would even include a WiFi connected soap tray for the shower. The future looked bright as the world became more engulfed by the big tech companies. As time went on, every Kickstarter project started to blend together; each video had the same number of jokes with logos designed by the same ad agencies. In 2018 Kickstarter's most successful project, the Pebble watch, was discontinued, and in a way, this era of tech optimism found itself in the same fate. When these meaningless startups dissolved away, we were left with “disruptive” companies like Twitter, DoorDash, and Uber. In hearings, congressional leaders turned away from asking Mark Zuckerberg tech support questions and started taking a closer look at the real problems in society caused by big tech. Uncanny Valley: A Memoir, written by Anna Wiener, came out during a crescendo of tech criticism in 2020. While most of America and I still held the tech industry in high regard, the book gave a voice to the growing worries about the male work culture, corporate control, and exclusionary workplace practices for people of color and women that Americans had about the venture backed startups and juvenile tech founders that ran the world. While the tech industry in Silicon Valley has been idealized and glorified by many, it still is not a utopia. Weiner's novel offers a different and more human perspective, which is why her book is so interesting. In the book, she used a few literary tricks to communicate her opinions about both the genericness and irony that is so prevalent in Silicon Valley. Wiener obscures the name of the companies discussed, preferring to refer to each company with a blanket term: “Facebook” is "the social network everyone hated." Her experiences of working the fallen angels of corporate America and then the tech industry is a new opinion of Silicon Valley not heard before.
 
The Book
Wiener's career in publishing in New York felt stagnant. Even if she did not want to admit it, she wanted her life to move a little faster, and the tech industry offered that opportunity. She heard about an "e-book startup" that had recently raised three million dollars, which sounded like a hefty sum of money in the context of the frugal publishing industry but was just a drop in the bucket in the extravagant venture backed startup world. Wiener joined the start-up, optimistic about the opportunity. The new job was exciting. She had never had so much freedom at work. The fast pace and casual office culture was a welcomed change from the stiff environment of the publishing industry. However, Silicon Valley could not escape America's typical gender roles in the workplace, and Wiener became the chaperone and secretary of the all-male team. A few months after she joined the startup, the founder sent a message to the entire company chat room saying that she accidentally spent too much time learning. The Founders later justified letting Weiner go by explaining that “This was not the right moment in the company’s journey… for someone like me to get up to speed. The areas where I could add value would not be active for some time” (Weiner).
 
Wiener got a new job working at an "analytics startup" in a new city, San Francisco, which the founders set up for her. The new job offered double what she was paid a few months ago in her old literary job. She was moving up. At work she met her new co-workers who were all brash conformists typical of The Bay Area; Wiener was the polar opposite. The culture went against all of her natural inclinations. A few weeks later, at a co-worker's birthday party, she met someone who made her feel interesting, writing, "Never in my life had I pulled a man across a crowded room” (Weiner). Maybe she could be one of those Silicon Valley people with a high salary to match. Her life was improving because of the wonders of the tech industry. 
 
In 2013, Edward Snowden's files on the National Security Agency were released to the public, changing Americans' views on Silicon Valley. This made Wiener think about the company she worked for in a new way. Indeed, she was not part of the mass surveillance industry, and her company was "just allowing product managers to run better A/B tests" and "improve their products, so that people would love them” (Weiner). She asked her friend who worked for a tech nonprofit if they thought she worked at a surveillance company. Since Wiener was a moral person, her fear was avowed: she did. The new information shifted her perspective of her job and herself. Working for the tech industry presented moral quandaries, the same as in other fields such as tobacco, soft drinks, or oil.
 
Only in Silicon Valley can a person like the CEO of the "analytic startup" have his only prerequisites to run a company responsible for other people's lively hoods be a summer internship and an idea he had. The CEO lacked managerial skills. He fired a top employee  when he requested more pay. Wiener had a conversation with the CEO about showing compassion after this incident. The CEO responded, frowning, "'Why would I thank you for doing your job well? … That's what I'm paying you for” (Weiner). With lots of expectations and very few boundaries between work and her personal life, Weiner's job required a total reinvention of herself. She had to be DFTC, down for the cause, for a company that offers a product that makes the world worse. The desire for a less all-consuming job, ironically in an industry that prides itself on work-life balance, drove her to turn in her two-week notice. 
 
She got a new job at "the open-source startup," known as GitHub. The twenty-year-old male founders spent their “venture funding” creating a workplace fashion after the decadence of a Las Vegas hotel. The office was full of themed rooms, one styled to look like the Oval Office, with a flag stating: "IN MERITOCRACY WE TRUST." The startup had just gone through a sexual discrimination scandal. Wiener thought this might not be such a bad situation:

I also wondered, privately, if there might be some benefit to joining an organization immediately after this sort of blowup. I did not anticipate a matriarchal feminist utopia…but I pictured a standard-issue boys’ club deteriorating under the corrosive effects of chatter and public scrutiny. At the very least, I figured, employees would be talking about sexism openly. (Wiener)

 
One day randomly, Wiener lashed out at the founder of a startup that shortens books for people on "the microblogging site"—Twitter— in a fit of rage about how Silicon Valley was so dedicated to stamping out any form of media she cared about. The founder invited her to lunch to talk with her. He was surprisingly polite and thoughtful. After dinner, they hung out, and slowly she became friends with someone inside the belly of the beast. 
 
Her company later sponsored a conference for women inside of tech. Being a customer support agent and commanding a six-figure salary for answering emails, she felt like a fraud. After going to the conference, she saw how she was more so a woman around tech than in tech. She realized that she did not even want a life in Silicon Valley because the culture did not fit her east coast ideals.
 
Facebook and Twitter spread Russian propaganda across America, fueling the rise of Donald Trump, who later won the 2016 presidential election. Silicon Valley looked inward; how could the liberal tech industry create this? Wiener also found that her role in Silicon Valley was not giving her satisfaction or helping people in the way the ecosystem promised. She cashed out her stock options and landed a job with more depth at the New Yorker, where she is now a contributing writer. She has not abandoned her interest in the tech and startup industry and she still shares her humanistic outsider perspective as she writes about Silicon Valley. 
 
The Promise
Publishing is a demanding profession to support oneself starting off since the pay is minimal and the industry is built off of paying your dues with time. Most people imagine that after college their first job will lead to their subsequent promotions. Wiener is an example of how nonlinear the modern career is. In 2013, the little perks of the publishing industry, such as having a constant supply of free books and answering the phone for other people, and listening in on their conversations, were starting to wear off. The reality of being paid thirty thousand dollars a year in New York City became clear. The clubby publishing industry kept out many who want to work by inflicting newcomers to a few years of poverty before being promoted. Wiener was only able to support her life because her parents could help pay her bills. All are not as fortunate as she was to have parents that can provide financial support. The life of Anna Wiener perfectly resembled a stereotype of a downwardly mobile millennial. The publishing world was consolidating with the merger of the two largest publishers, Penguin and Random House, creating a two-billion-dollar conglomerate1. The battle over e-book pricing between a small $2 billion business and a $130 billion behemoth— Amazon— ended up bringing the publishing industry to its knees, but leaving Amazon untouched. The fight ended up inconsequential as e-book sales have decline for three years straight from 2016 to 2019 and still paper books make up 2.5 times more sales than digital books (Perrin). At this point, the future looked bleak for the publishing industry and Wiener. "I no longer wanted to amuse myself with submissions from the slush pile or continue filing author contracts and royalty statements in places where they did not belong, like my desk drawer" (Weiner). Tech startups were popping up across New York, growing vast fortunes for their founders. The tech industry offered a chance to say goodbye to her unlivable wage. However, fitting in with the new work culture would be hard.
 
The 2008 Financial Crisis devastated the lives of many Americans. Variable-rate mortgages, loans where the interest rate increases exponentially after a set time, forced unsuspecting consumers to foreclose on their houses and destroyed the wealth people had in the process. Wiener started her career in a rough job market, which was an unfair burden and colored her outlook on the American Economy. Five years after the 2008 Financial Crisis— 2013– the financial outlook for many looked bleak: unemployment was still high (BLS), and the median income was lower then before (Census Bureau). Weiner could feel the growing income disparity between the new class of technical workers and liberal arts professionals:

I would learn that the year I spent drinking in dive bars with friends from the publishing industry, moaning about our impossible futures, was the same year many of my new friends, co-workers, and crushes swiftly and quietly made their first millions. (Weiner)

While the tech industry in Silicon Valley has been idealized and glorified by many, it still is not a utopia. Often the tech industry's successes come in contrast to or at the expense of other industries' failings.
 
Since the 1950s, however, the United States economy has been steadily improving. The poverty rate has been cut in half (Census Bureau) and inflation spikes only hit 4% leading up to the worst financial crisis in 2008 (OECD). The numbers tell a rosy story about how people's lives are better off. Before I knew these stats, the story portrayed in Uncanny Valley worried me about my future job prospects, just like Anna Wiener. She was not around in the 1950s, and the short-term changes in employment colored her vision of how the economy is performing. The upward trajectory of the American economy is clear on a macro scale and foggier with a micro view. The tech sector has outperformed corporate America for many years now. Such unprecedented financial success in Silicon Valley in such a short amount of time skewed the narrative around the human experience of the tech industry. Wiener takes a much more pragmatic view of what it is like for real humans in The Valley.
 
The Arrival
The office perks for which the tech industry is so well known can also be inefficient and vacuous. Half of Silicon Valley's culture seems to be built on company swag, and the other half is hype, two frivolous features of the industry. In San Francisco, the startup pretends to fill a need for purpose, meaning, and family in one's life. In actuality, The Valley pays people gobs of money and is more materialistic than it wants to appear. Silicon Valley created the most ingenious way to have their employees work harder, longer, and more DFTC— Down for The Cause, free food. The tech industry always has carried this excitable energy that other traditional American industries such as publishing have not. When I was younger, I trusted most PR propaganda about the tech industry. I believed that iPhones were manufactured exclusively in humane factories in China. I wanted to imagine there to be an industry that put humanity over profits. Wiener never expected the tech industry to be a humanitarian dream and could see right through the corporate jargon. “I had no qualms,” she writes, “about disrupting extant corporations in the big-data space, no inherited nostalgia or fondness for business” (Weiner). Her depiction of the startup life takes a pragmatic view of the inauthentic fervor of the analytics startup: the false sense of family. Throughout the book, at parties, at work, and a nudist gathering, Wiener felt removed from The Silicon Valley culture. Beneath the veneer of community and free draft beer, lyes a typical office. The people who work in tech are longing for community, but all they end up with is free lunch.
 
Most people view employees of the big tech companies as “successful.” Rightfully so, salaries for people who have technical computer skills are about 217% more then the national median salary (BLS). Except, the tech industry offers mobility to a small cross-section of society that fits the norms of the white male culture of San Francisco. Silicon Valley has a shared delusion that everyone in the world should learn how to code, and if the world were to listen, all people could make a six-figure salary. Despite the 9% future decline of computer programming positions by 2029, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the “analytics startup,” everyone tried to hoist this dream onto Anna Weiner. The current role she had as an unskilled customer support agent was a second-rate job in comparison to the high class of technical positions at the startup. Compelled by her boss, Wiener tried to learn how to code over the weekend. "I spent a weekend dutifully completing the programming exercises while thinking about all the other things I would rather be doing." (Weiner) In most industries, the tradespeople are subordinate to marketing, accounting, and other corporate positions. With the tech industry the script was flipped. The importance placed on programmers is thought of as a perk of the culture, but excludes other people with more of a diversity of skills from this high-paying industry.
 
Venture Capital has made it possible for tech companies in the early stages not to care about money, and the opportunities this affords the companies have changed the world for better or worse. Once Wiener started working in San Francisco, she could see the future influence the tech industry would mount. "We were hurtling toward a billion-dollar valuation. Our revenue soared every month. We were winning, and we would be rich” (Weiner). No other industry was able to change the way we searched, dated, or drove with the low overhead of the tech industry. Having our society based around coding gives more power to those who went to college and are "systems thinkers:" leaving out the creative and lower classes. The freedom a company has when they have 190 billion dollars, Apple, is striking. With great power comes great responsibility. Apple has spent their money on a 100 million dollars program to donate iPads and internet access to schools across the United States and studied the results to see how effective iPads were at helping students learn (Apple). Google runs a division dedicated to high-risk projects with significant social reward named “X.” Traditional Companies have not been able to invest in uncertain projects that have the possibility to change their industry. Despite ExxonMobile's shareholders’ push for the company to expand into renewable energy, ExxonMobile has favored reliable returns instead of expansion. Silicon Valley is afforded the chance to mess up and reinvent their business.
 
The Changing Tides 
When the tech industry was made up of small startups, that were “changing the world,” they appeared to be fun places to work where everyone could have an impact. However as they become the largest companies in the world, their culture had to change to support the large corporate bureaucracy. Wiener has new commentary on age-old criticisms of the tech industry. "Tech, for the most part, wasn't progress. It was just business" (Weiner). The office culture in Silicon Valley is full of fads that act as meaningless differentiation between indistinctive analytics startups. When everyone's lives are about work, everyone's lives still seem lonely. The higher salaries payed to tech workers improve people's lives, but only for the few who have the skills and are able to fit in with the work culture. Silicon Valley is not saving us from the growing income disparity. The wealth accrued by these ultra efficient money making corporations is larger then seen before, but this places a great responsibility on a few CEOs to decide what to do with this new power. Anna Wiener and I had different views on the tech industry. I was optimistic, she was unconcerned. After going through the journey of the modern culture of Silicon Valley, we came out more sullen about how the tech industry will change the future.

1. A conglomerate is a large Corporation with many various brands under one roof. For example, PepsiCo is a conglomerate manufacturer of everything from maple syrup to Kombucha.
 
Works Cited
Apple. “ConnectED.” Apple, www.apple.com/connectED. Accessed 17 May 2021.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Unemployment Rate.” FRED, Federal Reserves of Saint Louis, 7 May 2021, fred.stlouisfed.org/series/UNRATE.

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. “FRED Economic Data.” FRED, Federal Reserve of St. Louis, 12 May 2021, fred.stlouisfed.org/series/CPALTT01USM657N.

Perrin, Andrew. “One-in-Five Americans Now Listen to Audiobooks.” Pew Research Center, 25 Sept. 2019, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/09/25/one-in-five-americans-now-liste....

United States. “Computer Programmers : Occupational Outlook Handbook: : U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.” Bureau of Labor Statistics, 9 Apr. 2021, www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/computer-programmers....

United States. “Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2019 : BLS Reports: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.” Bureau of Labor Statistics, 18 Dec. 2020, www.bls.gov/opub/reports/womens-earnings/2019/home.htm.

United States. “May 2020 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates.” Bureau of Labor Statistics, 31 Mar. 2021, www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm#00-0000.
 
United States, U.S. Census Bureau, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2019, Semega, Jessica et al. Census.gov, U.S. Government Publishing Office, Sept. 2020.

www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2020/demo/p60-270....

Wiener, Anna. Uncanny Valley: A Memoir. Bookshare ed., Macmillan, 2020.
 
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