Silicon Valley contains an implicit vision of a classless society. Whether one turns to startup culture, the increasing prevalence of crowdsourcing, the growing popularity of biometric devices such as FitBit and the Apple Watch, the “disruptive” social effects of “sharing economy” companies like Uber, and the cultural prominence of tech moguls such as Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, the industry appears to promise a novel, techno-presentation of self: one can become one’s own classifier, and thereby escape historical forms of inequality, stratification, and prejudice. As companies in the Valley become fodder for political debate, and contribute to political campaigns in ever greater quantities, the implications of this vision for actual social change become front and center.
But can such a vision be realized in practice? How do companies in the Valley actually operate? And do their products really lay the groundwork for such fundamental transformation? Because the history of the Valley is so recent and its social implications so broad, social scientists have been slow to establish its empirical significance as an object for inquiry and its usefulness as a case in developing better theories of society and technology. The purpose of this forum is to confront this hesitancy head-on and pry open, for critical analysis, the Pandora’s box of social forces contained in our smartphones, apps, and tablets. We hope to reshape a conversation on the social nature and function of technology already begun in the public sphere, whose terms and stakes are still under dispute.
The three pieces in this forum aim to both conceptualize and empirically investigate the intellectual, historical, and above all moral stakes of Silicon Valley as a possible engine of 21st century social transformation. Their focuses of inquiry are distinctive, and their lenses are incommensurable. What they share is a strategic concern with indexing the Valley relative to the wider political struggles in which we are already engaged.
In his piece, Eric Giannella presents a Weberian critique of Silicon Valley as fundamentally amoral. Looking at recent examples of technological development, Giannella notes how the ideological statements of leading figures deploy the rhetoric of “progress” in order to mask a deeper indifference for personal accountability and moral judgment. Against this view, Freddy Foks claims that Silicon Valley has unclear moral foundations, making the political and social stakes of its technological artifacts fundamentally uncertain. He suggests a genealogical exploration of key informational and material innovations that have paved the way for objects like the smartphone, as well as a comparative approach to other periods of mass technological shifting. Finally, Ben Shestakofsky presents an ethnographic study of the working conditions present in software production, noting unexpected parallels and differences with previous models of labor productivity such as factory work. He problematizes the notion of a distinctive Silicon Valley “culture” by revealing it as just another form of work: one whose distinctive internal practices and place in society do not separate it from history or necessarily lay the groundwork for radical change, good or ill.
As such, these pieces both extend and complicate the ways of thinking about Silicon Valley that are prevalent in mass media and academic debates, reframing a conversation whose intensity and urgency will only increase in the coming years.