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.

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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.