Seeing Silicon Valley
Life inside a Fraying America
Seeing Silicon Valley
Life inside a Fraying America
It’s hard to imagine a place more central to American mythology today than Silicon Valley. To outsiders, the region glitters with the promise of extraordinary wealth and innovation. But behind this image lies another Silicon Valley, one segregated by race, class, and nationality in complex and contradictory ways. Its beautiful landscape lies atop underground streams of pollutants left behind by decades of technological innovation, and while its billionaires live in compounds, surrounded by redwood trees and security fences, its service workers live in their cars.
With arresting photography and intimate stories, Seeing Silicon Valley makes this hidden world visible. Instead of young entrepreneurs striving for efficiency in minimalist corporate campuses, we see portraits of struggle—families displaced by an impossible real estate market, workers striving for a living wage, and communities harmed by environmental degradation. If the fate of Silicon Valley is the fate of America—as so many of its boosters claim—then this book gives us an unvarnished look into the future.
"[Seeing Silicon Valley] reveal[s], if not the future I thought I would find, a critical part of Silicon Valley that most people never look for or think about, let alone see. . . . Each photograph tells a story, and it's rarely the one you might imagine. . . . Insistently draw[s] the reader’s focus to how Silicon Valley's success and image are based on the outright elision of other bodies, often brown or black, or immigrant. . . . The people who cover 'tech'—whatever that term even means these days—too often portray Silicon Valley as a place apart from America. But, as Seeing Silicon Valley . . . reveal[s], with its racism, casual misogyny, economic inequality, and environmental devastation concentrated among poor communities, Silicon Valley is America. . . . [The book] point[s] to the heart of what makes the region run: people, many of them hidden or invisible. Making them visible is a start to creating a more praiseworthy place."
Los Angeles Review of Books
"In uber-rich Silicon Valley, [Meehan's] camera captures those struggling to survive."
"Brevity, succinctness, and personal focus are among the key strengths of this powerful and important book, an account that fans out into other developing narratives about the decline of California as America's paradise, social media's mendacity and lack of civic responsibility, and the super-charged rise of economic injustice and insecurity. It is likely to attract a lot of attention, discussion, and controversy. . . . The images are saturated in California sunlight and color and classically composed, suggesting the long heritage of Western portraiture. The various poverties they encompass do not immediately strike the eye, as [Walker] Evans' images do. The pain lurks below. . . . Unflinching."
“It is a Silicon Valley rarely described and never shown that photographer Mary Beth Meehan sought to document. . . . Without descending into pathos, she reveals the striking contrasts between the world of start-ups and that in which their employees live. . . . But underneath, Meehan also depicts another, more subtle dissonance—between the way Silicon Valley sees itself, and the way it really is.”
"Meehan focuses her lens on the forgotten faces behind the myths and the marketing. . . . From Brockton to Providence, from small-town Georgia to Silicon Valley, photographer Mary Beth Meehan is challenging communities to see themselves in new ways, spurring discussions about race and inequality, the economy and the environment."
"Seeing Silicon Valley spotlights people lost in the shadows of the tech capital. . . . Through their collection of around 30 portraits and mini-narratives of everyday people, Meehan and Turner take us through the unique lives of a swath of the region's residents who each struggle, in their own ways, to feel a sense of stability."
San Francisco Chronicle
"Facebook, Google and hundreds of other companies that drive our digital lives call Silicon Valley home, but so do people who find it almost impossible to make ends meet, even if they are key to keeping billion-dollar industries running. In a new book, photographer Mary Beth Meehan presents a series of portraits that show another side of the people who power the world’s tech capital."
"Meehan's photos dissolve distances between people. . . . [This] is a book of images that speaks to the human toll exacted by the relentless economy."
Christian Science Monitor
"Meehan juxtaposes glimpses of the region's humanity with an unflinching view of the tech industry's unceasing ambition. . . . She asks readers to consider the costs of allowing the unrestricted pursuit of innovation to become ingrained in our society."
"For more than seven decades, business leaders, politicians, and would-be entrepreneurs have tried to unravel the secrets of Silicon Valley. In just over one hundred powerful, haunting pages, Meehan and Turner have captured a side of the valley rarely seen: the deeply inequitable landscape of contingent and disproportionately foreign-born labor that makes its high-tech magic possible. Humane, insightful, and deeply compelling, this book tells the story of Silicon Valley in a completely new and utterly magnetic way."
Margaret O'Mara, author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America
"Meehan’s photographs provide a compelling cross section of peoples and places in the valley, featuring hidden and untold stories. The photographs are excellent, the selection is clever and balanced, and the accompanying texts are well written and engaging."
Phillip Prodger, Yale University
Table of Contents
Photographs and Stories Mary Beth Meehan
Ravi and Gouthami
Abraham and Brenda
Ariana and Elijah
Melissa and Steve
Gee and Virginia
Branton and Shirley
Elisa and Family
Today that mythology is beginning to dissolve, but only just. People around the world continue to imagine Silicon Valley as a kind of American utopia. Like the Pilgrims who sailed across the Atlantic in the 1600s, technologists and entrepreneurs still travel to the valley from around the globe. They may fly or drive, but their sense of mission and their search for profits is as old as America itself. In 1630, Puritan minister John Winthrop famously addressed his flock as they sailed toward the New World: “We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill,” he told them. “The eyes of all people are upon us.” He could as easily have been speaking to a planeload of engineers landing in San Francisco.
Because the valley still conjures up such visions, we need to try to see it as it is. Who lives here, and how? Silicon Valley has long been a shining example for those who dream of a society built around individual initiative and enabling technologies. But what does it feel like to live in such a world? What kind of society does the relentless pursuit of technological innovation and wealth produce? And what kind of future does it suggest for the rest of us?
Some of the answers lie hidden in the land. Unless you live here or visit, chances are you won’t know the green hills that run up the ocean side of the San Francisco Peninsula, nor will you recognize the flatlands that melt into the mud of the San Francisco Bay. What we call Silicon Valley stretches between the bay and the hills from the city of San Jose in the south to San Francisco in the north. Until Spanish missionaries arrived in the late eighteenth century, it was inhabited primarily by native Ohlone peoples, tens of thousands of whom were ultimately massacred and enslaved.
If you look down on the valley from the air today, you’ll see none of that history. Dense green forests run down the hills into golden fi elds; block after block of suburban housing packs the flatlands; cars and trucks stream north and south, east and west across the valley. Water stretches out from the shore first in the shallow multicolored squares produced by salt manufacturing and then into the slate gray, windblown center of the bay. Long-legged willets peck for mollusks along the waterline. And flocks of sandpipers whistle through the air. Thanks to open space preservation, the hills that rim the valley are still wild enough to host mountain lions. Walk through any of the dozens of towns that fill the valley floor and you might see eucalyptus trees or spiked orange blooms called birds of paradise growing at the edges of lawns.
What you won’t see are the poisons flowing underground. From the early 1960s to the early 1980s, local companies manufactured the computing hardware and silicon chips that gave the valley its name. We know now that they used highly toxic chemicals in the process and often dumped them onto the land around their plants. Those chemicals caused miscarriages and birth defects at the time and linger in the soil today. In some neighborhoods, underground plumes of solvents threaten drinking water. And as they evaporate, they send toxic gases into the homes above ground. Santa Clara County, which covers the southern half of the valley, has the highest number of Superfund sites of any county in America: twenty-three. Superfund sites are places that the Environmental Protection Agency has marked as among the most polluted in the United States and the most in need of immediate, government-funded cleanup. Journalists have identified more than five hundred other patches of contaminated land that were not quite polluted enough to make the Superfund list.
Today valley firms concentrate on software development, biotech research, and product design. Most computer technology manufacturers shipped production overseas starting in the 1980s. The toxins of earlier eras are still in use but out of sight: off shoring hides them somewhere in Asia, far from American eyes. Likewise, the ground itself covers over the price of technology development. Without a map of Superfund sites in the valley or a historical atlas that marks the location of long-gone manufacturers, it’s impossible to know what’s under your feet. And without that knowledge, it’s all too easy to imagine the bright sunshine and green hills that frame the valley as signs that technology development has no impact on the natural world.
The Silicon Valley we know got its start in the wake of World War II, when the dean of Stanford’s School of Engineering, Frederick Terman, began to lure technologists and engineers from around the country to the edge of campus. Fueled by Defense Department dollars
and the can-do ethos of Cold War engineering, companies like Fairchild Semiconductor transformed the region into a hive of computer manufacturing, software development, and collective entrepreneurship. Companies like Apple and Google grew up in their wake.
Journalists and marketers soon knit the new industries into the fabric of American myth. They depicted engineers as explorers, laboring in their garages or tinkering in their bedrooms until they conquered new frontiers. They offered us computers and cell phones with the promise that they would make us heroes too. With these devices in hand, they claimed, we could leave the ordinary, workaday world behind and step out onto an electronic frontier, where none of the old rules applied.
At the same time, in Silicon Valley, the technologists they celebrated were creating a culture rooted in some of America’s earliest ideals. Though Northern California sits three thousand miles and four hundred years away from colonial New England, the Protestant ethic that animated the seventeenth-century Pilgrims suffuses its high-tech industries. The Pilgrims arrived in the Americas believing that God had already decided who among them would go to heaven and who would not. They also believed that if God loved someone enough to bring them into heaven, He would want them to prosper on this earth. Day after day the Pilgrims worked to make themselves wealthy and so accrue evidence of their likely salvation. Day after day, they watched one another as they imagined God watched them all, to see who among them would be saved.
Today, they would scan the media. On television, in magazine profiles, in an endless stream of TED talks, the valley’s engineers appear to be not quite of this earth. Often young, socially awkward, barely at home in their bodies, they seem exquisitely tuned to the celestial frequencies of technological innovation. Journalists recount their professional achievements as a series of spiritual tests. They tell us how the winners in Silicon Valley failed fast and bounced back; how they stood tall under the withering inquiries of venture capitalists; how they aced Google’s famously difficult hiring interviews. In such tales, the landscape of Northern California becomes a new stage for the drama of salvation, and every company’s profit and loss statement an accounting of spiritual worth.
This way of depicting Silicon Valley obscures the persistence of a darker side of America’s colonial past. Even as they tended to one another, many Pilgrims regarded the natives who surrounded them as demons in human flesh. They feared the longings of their own flesh too—their hungers for intimacy, for food, for sleep. To build a proper community they believed they had to turn their eyes upward, forget their bodies, and devote their attentions to their spiritual mission. Only by unseeing their own humanity and that of the native peoples who greeted them could the Pilgrims think of themselves as uniquely favored by God.
Such denials of the body fuel the development of new technologies today. The leading firms of Silicon Valley make their money by transforming our lives into patterns of data, bits of electricity that spin off from what we do and rise up into a cloud of servers around the world. These patterns remain invisible to most of us—the algorithms that produce them are, after all, trade secrets. But the “big data” on which our digital systems depend are nothing more than our own history, aggregated and repurposed. As they listen to our conversations or record our faces, our Amazon Echoes and Apple iPhones capture everything we do, including the patterns of our prejudice, and return it to us as suggestions, nudges, recommendations.
By turning our attention toward themselves and their signals, such devices teach us to look away from one another. They also teach us to imagine that tiny machines, all on their own, can do magical things, and so not to think about the people who build our computers, monitor our online conversations, and tear apart our computers after we’ve thrown them away.