Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Dark Skies Over the Silicon Valley : BEHIND THE SILICON CURTAIN The Seductions of Work in a Lonely Era by Dennis Hayes (South End Press, Boston : $30, cloth; $10, paper; 208 pp.; 0-89608-351-9 ; first edition)

July 16, 1989|Charles Bowden | Bowden writes frequently on environmental topics. His most recent book is "Blue Desert" (University of Arizona Press). and

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.

The argument proceeds less by firsthand reporting than by research from books, magazines and newspapers. (Footnotes in the 208-page book consume 47 pages, an almost German tonnage.) The prose often has that opaque quality celebrated by sociologists:

"Above all, the new worship of work amounted to a movement to personalize it, to take on as one's own the absorbing challenge of computer work, and thus to become an intimate part of something larger, something meaningful. It was the practical response of isolated people to the vacuum of community, the erosion of traditional ties, and the suspension of social coherence. . . ."

This is a book devoted to telling us rather than showing us, and we seldom see what life is like in the Silicon Valley. Though he has worked at various places in the industry, we only briefly hear the voices of real people or sense that we are in an actual place. In a cybernetic world apparently going to hell in a hand basket, he manages to come back with very few slices of the life. All this is too bad because Hayes basically has scored some sound points, and, given the guff put out by Chambers of Commerce across the nation as they woo computer companies, provided a corrective to the propaganda of the self-styled Information Age.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|