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2014 Stanford-Area Movement (A3M-plus) Reunion
Research Life, Not Death
The May 17 Discussion on Silicon Valley
I’ve pulled this imperfect summary together from notes supplied by Richard Sack, Dave Ransom, and Amanda Hawes. — Lenny Siegel
Richard Sack framed the discussion asking several questions:
Depending on one’s perspective and location, the vision of Silicon Valley can be radically different. From within, one sees overcrowding, displacement of long-term residents, traffic congestion, and severe economic inequality. This is leading to activism such as the San Francisco protests against Google commuter buses and the anti-growth movement in Silicon Valley communities. From afar, the rest of the world, one sees great things, a freewheeling life style, idealized working conditions, well paid young people in a meritocratic work structure creating new and cool everythings. It all seems very progressive and politically liberal (Santa Clara County used to be a safe Republican Congressional seat), even though huge amounts of capital are being accumulated and the new rich seem to enjoy all the perks of success. Is the old order on its way out, with the Valley leading the way? Or is it the same old wine in new bottles? What does it mean that the average high-tech professional in Silicon Valley is progressive on most issues except economics?
New York Times technology writer John Markoff began, “Innovation happens at the edge of chaos.” He and others observed that activists and the counterculture, epitomized by the Free University, provided the ferment that influenced tech leaders such as Steve Jobs. He pointed out the important role played by Stewart Brand. Though a symbol of the counterculture, he had libertarian views. Markoff observed, “The libertarian thread was always there.”
Venture capitalist John Shoch argued that many other factors were just as important in the rise of Silicon Valley. The semiconductor firms from which the Valley got its nickname were here because transistor-inventor William Shockley’s mother lived here. Furthermore, large outside firms played a role in the Valley’s development. For example, Xerox paved the way for Apple Computer. And many key tech entrepreneurs, such as Bill Gates, had no connection to the counterculture.
Lenny Siegel pointed out that chips were invented simultaneously in Texas and Silicon Valley. While Texas remained a relative backwater, Silicon Valley became the hub of innovation because Stanford Engineering Dean/Provost Fred Terman had already created what he called a “community of technical scholars,” using Pentagon money. But the military fell behind. Intel invented the microprocessor in 1971, and the Japanese soon copied it. The Defense Department didn’t qualify a “mil-spec” version for years. The constant innovation and chaos left the inflexible military behind. In the 1970s and thereafter, the best people didn’t go to work for the Pentagon, as Terman had wished. They preferred a creative freedom that the military and other large bureaucracies did not offer.
A software engineer said many tech workers and users feel so empowered by technology that they don’t have to worry about social values, while another participant found the discussion of Silicon Valley’s success “disturbingly celebratory.”
Attorney Amanda Hawes reminded us of the systematic mistreatment of production workers. She explained, “The Silicon Valley electronics industry’s reputation for highly profitable innovation obscures a dark legacy—toxic harm to assembly workers' offspring. Exposing women of child-bearing age to heated metal fumes and vapors of volatile organic solvents puts their future offspring in harm’s way. Recognizing and acting on the dangers of in utero toxic exposure isn’t rocket science, but it does require a commitment to worker health and safety that has been missing in action in the electronics industry far too long.”
Siegel reminded us that capitalism generates products that millions of people love. He said, “The Occupy people loved Steve Jobs. We have to come to grips with that.” Another participant reminded us that the revolution in phone technology welcomed by many is also an unwelcome revolution in surveillance technology.
Dave Ransom warned that we need a vision beyond capitalism, because capitalism is being undermined by labor-replacing technology, while Siegel said that Mountain View, in the heart of Silicon Valley, has too many jobs. Silicon Valleycentered technologies, such as digital imaging, destroyed the economy of Rochester, New York, the home of Kodak.
Several speakers said that we need to update our political theory, our understanding of the system, while other participants focused on growing economic inequality. One said we need a road map to offer those angered by the inequality.
Returning to the question of what Silicon Valley really represents, one person brought up what Chou En-Lai reportedly said when asked, in the latter half of the 20th Century, about the impact of the French Revolution. He replied, “It’s much too early to tell.”