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.