The complexity of what Silicon Valley is hasn’t stopped growing, in step with the simplification of tools as well as the next bubble that some expect will burst in the near future. We whistle while we tinker away at the next fitness app or wearable tech, making every effort to stay naively unaware of the shaky underpinnings of our techie culture.
They’re shaky because they’re inconsistent, and many of the visions and routines we boast of are glaringly at odds. With no way of knowing what works and what doesn’t, not before enough time passes as to see which "holy grail" works and which is plain nonsense, we nonetheless tout our way as the way because… who’s to tell it isn’t?
Living inside the tech ecosystem is risky, as it might endear us all to the notion that that’s all there is to the world. To keep yourself grounded in reality, you might want to put up a post-it somewhere within eyeshot that reads: 4 billion people still haven’t got access to the internet, that’s more than half the world’s population.
The app industry
We glorify cloning (code, apps) and innovation all in one breath. To get an idea of what I mean by the former, look no further than aggregators or app-skinning mavens or Rocket Internet that keep raking it in.
- Techmeme uses humans and algorithms at the same time, and while it came up it only used the bots.
- Fitness apps/trackers that basically do the exact same thing (and can even hinder your health goals) keep cropping up to much media ballyhoo, while obesity rates are holding steady.
If you’re limiting yourself to the copycat model, but you’ve got a marketer playing up your app, chances are you’ll be landing on your feet, and on the front page of tech mags, side by side with the new Apple dongle. And that’s as much a product of lazy journalism practiced by some media outlets, as a need for exaggerated coverage that might validate a still nascent industry.
Perhaps the higher-profile dichotomy in the cyber ecosystem right now is the privacy issue. While we all put a premium on users’ data and make sure everybody knows it, the breaches are becoming so prevalent, there’s even a marketplace where hackers peddle DDOS attacks and any kind of hacking imaginable to whoever’s willing to pay – no questions asked.
Also, while the warnings are everywhere these days (read, Ashley Madison) many apps, like custom keyboards for the iPhone, require a high level of trust from the get-go.
And I won’t even get into social media, which facilitates interaction between people on opposite sides of the world… lumped together with harassment, cyber-bullying, and ever more ways of attack. I’m thinking about the GamerGate ploys, for instance, but also automated systems that (lets anyone) prey on sensitive information online to wreak havoc in real life.
It increasingly seems like, to get the most out of the internet these days, the trade-off is steep. And tech companies’ interest in developing "antidotes" to these problems created by tech is minimal.
On the one hand, we’re stressing commitment to social issues, on the other, we’ve got Ellen Pao whose fight against Silicon Valley gender bias has just been shut down in court. And the non-techies are enraged, with good reason too, by the gentrification dividing the cities where tech plants its flag – you can read about "the ultimate selling out of San Francisco’s soul" to get an idea of what I’m on about.
Office culture inconsistencies
Remember how Google introduced the open office trend, which took off like gangbusters, only to fail miserably industry-wide when it turned out the sharing plan was hindering people’s well-being, health or productivity?
That doesn’t mean countless other startups aren’t still following suit, in hopes that the open office will foster a better collaboration between employees. As it turns out, the entrepreneurial CEO is a contradiction onto himself, eager to see people get along and share a meal, cafeteria-style, as well as be productive individually; to put a playful spin on work, as well as toil relentlessly towards the bottom line.
So, which is it, a culture that nurtures office friendships or a cold sweatshop-style company that only notices and rewards those sacrificing life for work, while punishing everyone else?
While everyone is publicizing their support for a healthy work-life balance, some even suggesting a 4-day work week should be the norm, "the dream", aka the Google way, is a close-knit, closed-off work ecosystem where the hours are long inside the bubble (with perks and downtime included) and socializing outside of work is rendered unnecessary as well as impossible. Ersatz meaning, top-down manufactured experiences for the company win.
To circle back to the perks, which are always salient on job ads for software companies, the eating-together mantra is one of the big ones.
So there are highly advertisable perks – cooking classes, and Michelin-star chefs on standby, and fast food heaped floor to ceiling – provided for employees at the well-oiled happiness machines commonly known as tech startups. On the one hand, you’ve got Soylent everything being seen and consumed by the bucketfuls, as the secret to engineers’ productivity, seeing as it takes the thought, decision-making and time (and taste!) out of eating.
So which is it, mindfulness, yoga classes and health before work, or bodily concerns sped-up or obliterated for the good of the company? Generous parental leave for a happier employee or fine-print-heavy parental leave?
Sum and substance
Most of these contradictions inherent in our always renewing techie lifestyle are puzzling – many are just par for the course, normal in an industry still trying to find its identity. But the problem lies with perception – if you’re expected to be tied to your desk while the world around you is starting to redefine the workplace as remote, there’s going to be friction. Not because one option is better than the other, but because there is a blatant lack of clarity overall.
And if there’s one thing we know for sure about techies, and people in general, less the genius entrepreneurs, is that they’re not at peak efficiency with the rug being pulled out from under them every couple of months.