Twenty years ago, I had a job at a Silicon Valley research institute and my boss used to lecture me on the dangers of our work. We were busy putting grade school courses on a computer so that kids could stare into a cathode tube instead of a teacher's face. His concerns were the basic Orwellian kind about the technology invading privacy, and cybernetic machines becoming weapons for government control of our lives. Sometimes, he would bring me clippings from critical journals such as the New Republic to underscore his unease. The industry itself, the incredible flowering of capital in the orchards of the south Bay Area, was never discussed. He saw it, as did almost everyone, as clean and modern, the core of a post-industrial society that had moved beyond smokestacks. Back then, the leaders of the industry were treated with the kind of reverence Henry Ford enjoyed in the first two decades of this century when reporters hung on his every, uneducated word.
Now Dennis Hayes has weighed in with an analysis that argues the danger of computers lies not simply in the products of the industry but in the industry itself. He describes a Silicon Valley that would make a robber baron wince, a place where the companies carelessly slop poisonous chemicals that defile the water table and destroy the health of the employees, where the clean rooms are toxic hellholes, where the plants are staffed with serfs who lack unions and are laid off with regularity. These factories are run by managerial elites so pampered with perks and so bored that they maintain their calm thanks to heavy drug use, brutal exercise regimens, constant visits to therapists, and frequent orgies of meaningless shopping. The owners turn out to be less New Age gurus than vintage cutthroat capitalists, and they padlock plants with alarming speed as they chase profits and ignore human needs. Like Andrew Carnegie and early captains of industry, these microchip moguls indulge in financing vague social organizations in order to mask their greed. Even the hackers, celebrated in books by Steven Levy and Stewart Brand, now come across not as heroes but warped personalities given to neurotic behavior. They work in monastic solitude and, thanks to the security rules of the military, have little knowledge of the consequences of their work on the prospects for a hard nuclear winter, and even less interest. As for the floor of the industry, the source of the money, it is basically the Pentagon and so the new clean industry turns out to be the old military-industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned us about in his farewell address. In short, the Silicon Valley is seen as similar to other manufacturing booms that have assaulted American dreams, a place where workers do not count, life is empty, and a politics of reform is unlikely since the employees lack solidarity and are in many cases drugged with the most potent American pharmaceutical money.
The argument proceeds less by firsthand reporting than by research from books, magazines and newspapers. (Footnotes in the 208-page book consume 47 pages, an almost German tonnage.) The prose often has that opaque quality celebrated by sociologists:
"Above all, the new worship of work amounted to a movement to personalize it, to take on as one's own the absorbing challenge of computer work, and thus to become an intimate part of something larger, something meaningful. It was the practical response of isolated people to the vacuum of community, the erosion of traditional ties, and the suspension of social coherence. . . ."
This is a book devoted to telling us rather than showing us, and we seldom see what life is like in the Silicon Valley. Though he has worked at various places in the industry, we only briefly hear the voices of real people or sense that we are in an actual place. In a cybernetic world apparently going to hell in a hand basket, he manages to come back with very few slices of the life. All this is too bad because Hayes basically has scored some sound points, and, given the guff put out by Chambers of Commerce across the nation as they woo computer companies, provided a corrective to the propaganda of the self-styled Information Age.
But too often, I found myself indifferent to the book's evidence even while enjoying Hayes' effort to knock the computer industry off its pedestal. In 1967, I arrived in the Bay Area and in 24 hours had a job as a temporary worker (the 10% to 20% buffer major companies hire and frequently lay off so that they can boast regular employees have job security). I got more money than I'd ever made before, bought my first automobile (a sports car naturally), and for a year or more worked six days a week and squandered every buck I could lay hands on. In Hayes' book, I discovered, "The enduring tragedy is the temporary worker's isolation not only from the permanent worker, but also from other temps. . . . Within this fragmented itinerant culture, there is great potential, but little occasion for solidarity. Divided, they cope." Well, it didn't feel that tragic when it was happening to me. Nor did I notice much tragic moaning among my fellow members of "this fragmented itinerant culture."
The value of Hayes' book is that he makes the interesting case that the Silicon Valley is much like other parts of the American economy--dirty, callous, unstable and unhealthy. All those communities who feel the '70s and '80s have passed them by because they failed to recruit a high-tech wafer plant can read this book and take heart. The problem is that his argument seems brought to the computer industry rather than found there. I had the feeling the text would have sounded much the same if he'd focused on Disney World or Gary, Ind. And so the book reads more like a tract than a report. It is likely to comfort those who already agree and be ignored by those who see salvation in bringing a new chip factory to town. The bibliography lurking in the fat footnotes will doubtless be pillaged by both sides.