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

I miss grad school.

I’ve been in school for two-thirds of my life. And for half of that first third, I was under 4′ tall. I’ve been in school (K-12, undergrad, and grad) for 3/4 of my twenty adult years.

Why so long? Well, there’s this. A brief stint where I fooled myself into believing I could be a competent graphic designer. Plus the four-ish years of grad school, which I attended while working full-time. And those are just the reasons I feel proud admitting. The truth: I attended six colleges, and have two degrees (one bachelor’s and one master’s) to show for it. While at least three of the six schools can be attributed to that, the truth is, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, couldn’t see what I was good at, and wasn’t able to narrow my interests down to just one topic.

Besides, being in school is fun, relatively easy, and predictable, from a time management point-of-view; your life is essentially scheduled out for you in tidy 3-month intervals.

I finished my graduate degree at Penn last May. I’m glad I’m done with school. I get to relax a bit, see my wife more, and focus on ways I can accelerate my career rather than use those few “free” hours in a day to go to class, or do research for a media history term paper at the library. But I do miss certain aspects of grad school.

What I miss about grad school:

  • Grad school forces you to read (at least 200 pages/week). This means you’re processing different theories and thinking about stuff critically every single day.
  • I like having something else going on. While I was in school and working full-time, I was stimulated professionally and academically. I was writing and editing ebooks and white papers by day, while learning things that had nothing to do with my job at night. The two informed each other and gave me a unique perspective on both.
  • Grad school forces you to take in new ides. I probably never would’ve read Hannah Arendt, Edward Bernays, or Ortega y Gasset if it weren’t for that media class.

While you can take classes online or engage friends and co-workers in challenging conversations, it’s not the same. The internet is great at helping you find what you’re already looking for. But if you’re new to a topic, it’s tough to know where to begin. Sure, you can browse Goodreads, Twitter, and a million blogs.

But grad school sets you up with an expert in the field who will guide you through a subject with high-quality and diverse readings that help you develop your attitudes and beliefs towards said topic. The internet tends to set you up with what’s popular and loud. When researching a topic like media, one of the first people you’ll come across online is Marshall McLuhan. But are his theories still relevant? How have his ideas been adopted and adapted over time? Is he full of shit, as my media professor asserted?

Without a guide, you’re likely to think projects like Nicholas Negroponte’s 1 Laptop Per Child, which I’ve written about favorably (and unfavorably) before, is a universal good thing. It’s bringing technology to people who don’t have it, what’s not to like? But if you don’t have access to potable water, what use is a computer?

School also forces you to read the source materials in their respective books and journals, so you don’t have to rely on cherry-picking pop academics like Malcolm Gladwell (more here, here, here, and here.)

Conclusion

While I miss school, I don’t think I’ll be going back any time soon. But I am looking for ways to stay engaged with challenging ideas without the help of a tenured professor. Let me know if you have any suggestions.