Cults & Miracles

HackerNews is a discussion forum hosted by YCombinator, Silicon Valley’s premier “startup accelerator” investment fund. It has a longstanding and reflexive hostility to any ideas critical of the tech-worker turf, so I was surprised when a write-up of how to escape “toxicity in tech” proceeded to gain traction, and a lot of sympathetic replies. I was also surprised because it had not resonated with me when I first read it, shortly after its initial submission, before it took off. So I revisited it [1].

It is understandable for criticism to be received more kindly when it is made by “insiders”, when it speaks the same language as its targets. However, in the particular case of Silicon Valley, it means trading in the same self-aggrandizing language that it is deriding. It would seem that the only way to convince a techie that their scene is terrible, and that they’re drinking kool-aid, is to make it seem like the deception itself has been novel and grand-scale, that it’s worthy of them. They’re not just some chump laborer, they’ve been tricked by a particularly marvelous trick! The exposé Chaos Monkeys [2], an insightful yet obnoxious confessional, fits somewhere in here.

Alienation is traditionally discussed, in the Marxist sense [3], in terms of an exploited, impoverished worker and their estrangement from their work. What can we say about those who understand, on some level, that they earn too much for the little value they add to society? Do they feel a need to make sense of it somehow?

My experience in cities such as NYC and Montreal is that you can work in technology, but there is life outside of that industry. You can easily be someone else. However, in Silicon Valley (and its adjacent “Bay Area”), the dominance of its namesake industry is approaching totality. Subway advertising promotes random apps you’ve never head of. Billboards promote enterprise software solutions. You’re tech-adjacent and rich, or you’re left-behind, tolerated-at-best. As a result, regardless of wealth, SV is now recognized as a dull and homogeneous place.

The existence of a clearly defined tech-worker caste raises certain questions. Explanations like “public trusts have been raided, there’s increasingly absurd amounts of money in private hands, it must be parked somewhere, and esoteric tech stocks work” are in fact correct. Matt Bruenig said it best,

The unwritten story of the Juicero debacle [4] is that high income inequality causes capital to be misallocated towards luxury production.

However, such explanations are too crass and political for the notionally-apolitical tech-worker.

A more self-flattering alternative is to imbue the industrial processes in Silicon Valley with mysticism. To argue that what’s happening in SV is rooted in something deep, predestined even. That is has something to do with the “unconventional” way business is carried out over there, with how executives wear hoodies instead of suits, with the effort put into typography, with the hippie “roots” of the SF they displaced.

It’s instructive to compare them with their not-so-distant cousins in finance: Envy of Jamie Dimon becomes adulation of Elon Musk, “hookers and blow” become “cuddle pool parties”, nondescript bacchanalia becomes Burning Man, etc.

It turns out that when your work is all-encompassing of your social scene, justifying why you make so much money is essential to giving your life meaning. Cults form to explain miracles.

  1. HN [web] 

  2. Chaos Monkeys [web] 

  3. Stanford [web] 

  4. Juicero [web]