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High-Tech Culture Fosters Ideals, Study of Silicon Valley Says

November 17, 2000|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Behind the Silicon Valley image of geeks squinting at lines of code and counting stock options lies a society that in many ways defies the stereotype.

While technology has seeped into the routine of ordinary life--from language to parental expectations--Silicon Valley also can be a surprisingly social, even spiritual place, according to a team of San Jose State University anthropologists.

The researchers, who have interviewed, watched and listened to Silicon Valley residents for thousands of hours as part of a long-term study, are finding that high-tech culture is shaping not just the office, but the home and the way people view themselves and their place in the world.

"Everybody thinks Silicon Valley is just associated with technology and completely ignores its cultural complexity," said anthropologist Jan English-Lueck, who, along with two colleagues, will present her latest findings today at the American Anthropological Assn.'s annual meeting in San Francisco.

There may be greed in the valley, but there is also a missionary-like sense among many high-tech employees that their work is changing the world for the better, that it will solve many of society's problems, the scholars found. Even shipping clerks and secretaries feel that way.

"High-tech work is swept into one grand endeavor, one that has moral implications," wrote San Jose State anthropologist C.N. Darrah.

In a paper he will deliver today, he quotes one employee as saying Silicon Valley is developing "new technologies so that we have a better quality of life that can reach all levels of society."

At work, the computer screen may seem the dominant form of interaction, but high-techdom actually demands considerable social skills, researchers concluded. "It's deeply social work," said English-Lueck, chairwoman of the San Jose State anthropology department. "A lot of favors need to be exchanged and information."

Moreover, tasks must be shared by a dauntingly diverse group of people. Silicon Valley draws from the world. A company team may include workers from 20 different countries. Bigotry is simply not practical. "There's a really high premium for tolerance," English-Lueck said. "It's not good business to be nasty to any particular culture."

Silicon Valley values could be described as an extreme expression of American values--risk taking, individualism and innovation are prized, and not just in the workplace.

"People think you can tinker with and redesign and engineer yourself. . . . How do you improve the product and the product is yourself," English-Lueck said.

That competitive spirit trickles into family life.

"I think it puts tremendous pressures on kids," said James Freeman, a San Jose State professor emeritus of anthropology and one of the Silicon Valley study team. "There are those who say they want to be the next Bill Gates and others saying, 'I really don't want to be, but my parents are pushing me.' "

The concentration of high-tech companies and high value placed on knowledge makes parents demand even more than those in some other high-pressure communities.

"In many families, parents are kind of loading up their children with a huge variety of activities to prepare them to become socially desirable people," he said.

For adults in Silicon Valley, networking has become nearly as automatic as breathing.

"We often find people are always on display," Freeman said. "Life becomes like a performance. You're always out there hoping to be noticed and be called."

Freeman cited one father who selected his son's soccer team based on the networking potential of the players' parents.

At the same time, Freeman said workers in the high-tech field can be very reflective, contemplating far deeper issues than the price of company stock or the next new product. He also observed more church-going than he expected.

More predictably, they have woven job lingo into virtually every aspect of daily life.

Parents will wonder if they have "the bandwidth to be a good parent," or will refer to family members demanding a lot of time and attention as "drag units."

"It's often done with irony," said English-Lueck. "People laugh at the fact that technology has permeated their lives."

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