The myths and scripts of Silicon Valley

The fact that the utopian mantras Silicon Valley tech companies espouse is disingenuous seems to be getting traction lately. A few examples: Franklin Foer’s new book, this article about virtual reality, and Scott Galloway’s The Four.

Now that it’s fashionable to be critical of the big tech companies, I’d like to plug an essay I wrote for grad school last year. I think my framing of the issue is novel and helpful for understanding the allure of Silicon Valley’s utopian myth.

The basic idea is this:
For generations, social revolutions have followed roughly the same script (as in, the script of a movie or play). Revolutions unfold according to:

  • Set cast of characters
  • Established scene
  • Concurrent narrative
  • Script containing a set of actions

Silicon Valley tech companies use a similar script to introduce their new products. Their script roughly follows this outline:

  • First, a new product or service is developed.
  • Next, the breakthrough invention is introduced by its creator. A typical presentation includes the identification of a malevolent oppressor, and the new product is positioned as the revolutionary antidote.
  • Then the inventor describes all the ways in which the new product will change the world, often using egalitarian countercultural ideals such as individual autonomy, harmonious co-existence, transparency, decentralized systems, and personal freedom and liberty.
  • Finally, the product is purchased by the consumer, and the individual’s journey toward freedom and enlightenment begins.

I think there’s a lot to be learned by looking at Silicon Valley tech companies through the lens of social movements. Read the full essay for more, including a bunch of examples from Uber, Facebook, and Nicholas Negroponte’s 1 Laptop per Child.

View story at Medium.com

How snow can total your car when it’s parked on the street

Prius totaled by snow

My car was recently totaled by falling snow during last week’s snowstorm. (It happened in the middle of March, in Philadelphia for the record. Not a time of year known for its blizzards.)

Let’s start at the end.

The little tissue box that could

I was a copywriter at QVC from 2011-2014. I learned way more about Guy Fieri, Rachel Ray, pressure cookers, and cordless vacuums than I thought was humanly possible. I also stocked up on office supplies.

QVC had a pretty generous office-supply policy. Need some pens? Just find what you want in the communal Office Depot catalog, email the item number to the department admin, and receive your order 1–2 weeks later.*

I sat pretty close to the admin who processed the orders, which gave me a front-row view of the orders of my co-workers.

And what I saw opened my eyes

People ordered a lot of stuff. Novelty tape dispensers. Stainless steel staplers. And boxes of tissues. Tissues! I always need tissues! But it never crossed my mind to order them from work… I can provide those just fine thank you very much.

So when it came time to place next month’s order, I ordered a box of tissues. And since I’m a good eco-conscious consumer (and because I wasn’t the one paying), I ordered Seventh Generation tissues. Nothing but the most environmentally friendly tissues for my nose, thank you very much.

Except there was one teeny tiny problem: I ordered a whole case of tissues. 24 boxes of tissues showed up at my desk in a giant box. WHAT AN EMBARRASSMENT. That guy must be abusing the system, my colleagues surely muttered to themselves.

To save face, I immediately distributed boxes of tissues to my preferred co-workers and stashed a bunch under my desk. And I took a box to my car, of course.

Now back to the car

Prius getting towed away

As mentioned above, my car was recently totaled in a snowstorm.

It was a 2011 Toyota Prius in great condition. An avalanche of snow came down from the roof of the University of Pennsylvania Hospital at Seventh and Spruce streets and landed right on my car. Multiple snow bricks rained down on my car during the middle of the night, denting the roof, smashing the windshield, and crushing the whole side of the car.**

So yesterday I removed everything from my car before it was towed to the salvage yard. For those keeping track at home: I still have some tissues left.

Seventh Generation tissues

Important notes:

*I never abused this policy nor did I ever order more than was required as a copywriter.

**Penn’s property insurance is covering the damage no hard feelings ok?

The revolutionary script of Silicon Valley

I took a communication class about social revolutions last semester. One of the books from which we read was Scripting Revolution. It was about how many social revolutions come to adopt the same way of using language, dress, and tactics, as a way of building support for their movements via sheer familiarity.

Here’s an excerpt of an excerpt:

This volume argues that the American and French Revolutions provided the genesis of the revolutionary “script” that was rewritten by Marx, which was revised by Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution, which was revised again by Mao and the Chinese Communist Revolution. Later revolutions in Cuba and Iran improvised further. This script is once again on display in the capitals of the Middle East and North Africa, and it will serve as the model for future revolutionary movements.

For my final paper in the class, I took that argument and applied it to Silicon Valley, drawing majorly from Fred Turner’s excellent book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture. In the paper, I show how tech startups draw from the counterculture with features such as flexible work hours and casual dress codes, to legitimize business practices that would seem totally opposed to counterculture ethos, and to appeal to young people who fancy themselves as revolutionary rebels.

Read a version of my paper on Medium:
The revolutionary script of Silicon Valley.

The Platform Is the Message

There’s no doubt about it: The blogging/writing platform founded by Blogger and Twitter entrepreneur Evan Williams, Medium, is beautiful. Lots of great writers like the late great David Carr used it and wrote about it:

Because it is such a pleasure to work with, Medium has become something of a fetish object for writers. In the last year, Medium has published the biographer Walter Isaacson, the author Emily Gould, the journalist Ben Smith, the entrepreneur Elon Musk and many, many others.

The focus on typography, on the reading experience, is unparalleled in the online publishing space.

Not that I’ve done much research to the alternatives: I prefer to go at it my own. I want to own the experience, and I’ve been doing that in some incarnation or the other since 2001, with my first blog that I cobbled together using Dreamweaver MX, back before it was Adobe Dreamweaver. (Now we’re using a self-hosted incarnation of WordPress, thank you very much.)

My reasons for doing so are equal parts stubbornness, curiosity, and mistrust of others. I think it’s fun to experiment with new storytelling media. And I’m really picky… so being in control of everything is the only thing I’ll accept.

What if I had invested my time and resources into a writing platform that went bankrupt? What if they decided to sell ads next to my work without compensating me?

And we’re back to Medium and this fantastic piece about the platform that was published on a non-publishing-platform website by Matthew Butterick.

[…] Medium pays for only a small frac­tion of its sto­ries. The rest are sub­mit­ted—for free—by writ­ers like you. Af­ter a long time be­ing elu­sive about its busi­ness model, Medium re­vealed that it plans to make money by—sur­prise!—sell­ing ad­ver­tis­ing. This means dis­play­ing ads, but also col­lect­ing and sell­ing data about read­ers and writ­ers. So Medium will ex­tract rev­enue from every story, whether it paid for that story or not. (By the way, will that rev­enue be shared with writ­ers? Um, no.)

So there you go. My stubbornness/curiosity/mistrust of others seems well-advised after all.

Especially when you put it this way:

In truth, Medium’s main prod­uct is not a pub­lish­ing plat­form, but the pro­mo­tion of a pub­lish­ing plat­form. This pro­mo­tion brings read­ers and writ­ers onto the site. This, in turn, gen­er­ates the us­age data that’s valuable to advertisers. Boiled down, Medium is sim­ply mar­ket­ing in the ser­vice of more mar­ket­ing. It is not a “place for ideas.” It is a place for advertisers. It is, there­fore, ut­terly superfluous.

Read the full piece here: The Billionaire’s Typewriter.

Full disclosure: I have a Medium account but haven’t found a use for it yet.

Via {daring fireball}.

To Search is to Be

Thought-provoking article about the evolving meaning of “search” on Nicholas Carr’s blog.

When we talk about “searching” these days, we’re almost always talking about using Google to find something online. That’s quite a twist for a word that has long carried existential connotations, that has been bound up in our sense of what it means to be conscious and alive. We don’t just search for car keys or missing socks. We search for truth and meaning, for love, for transcendence, for peace, for ourselves. To be human is to be a searcher.

He goes on to illustrate the ways the meaning of “search” is evolving even for Google, and how that could further attenuate our understanding of the word and, indeed, the act itself.

A related post: A Bad Thing the Internet Is Good At