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Valley Fever

May 23, 2013

The Bay Area titans of tech are having a rough week, at least in the press. While news organizations reported on the billions of dollars in taxes that Apple has allegedly avoided paying by maintaining large foreign subsidiaries, the New Yorker’s George Packer pondered Silicon Valley trickle-down socio-economic theory.

Indeed, Packer cites a 2011 paper co-authored by Megan Finn (PhD, 12) in New Media & Society that turns a critical eye to some of what passes for common wisdom amongst Valley nobility. Finn graciously agreed to talk to California magazine’s Glen Martin about her conclusions, but first here is what Packer observed.

Several sources spoke of a “leveling” aspect of digital culture– the notion that it somehow is a more elegant and egalitarian construct than the highly stratified, top-down economic model now bedeviling us. Packer was not convinced. We are still, in Wordsworth’s words, obsessed with getting and spending; there are still top dogs and peons, and the top dogs of the present like to build sprawling estates at the expense of oak woodlands and pave expansive acreages for company campuses—notwithstanding the basil-infused tofu wraps and climbing walls in the employee lounges.

Moreover, their massive accrual of wealth at the expense of open space and working class opportunities are presented, without irony, as philanthropy. Packer quotes a Silicon Valley entrepreneur speaking of his peers:

“Many see their social responsibility fulfilled by their businesses, not by social or political action.  It’s remarkably convenient that they can achieve all their goals just by doing their start-up.  They actually think that Facebook is going to be a panacea for many of the world’s problems.  It isn’t cynicism – it’s arrogance and ignorance.”

And the masters of this digital universe increasingly function as transnational citizens, expressing resentment when their activities – most particularly their accounting practices – are questioned.  Hence the pique demonstrated by Apple CEO Tim Cook when a Senate subcommittee simultaneous gently prodded him this week over the $44 billion they assert he sheltered from taxes..

Further, the idea that everyone somehow benefits equally from the digital transformation of our culture is deeply flawed. True, we are all succored by smart phones and instant Internet access, but are they sufficient compensation for blighted hillsides and soul-deadening McJobs?  Probably not, Packer implies.

This is where he invokes the essay of Finn and her coauthors which questions the concept that “peer production” is a boon for the hoi polloi.

Finn and her colleagues write in fairly dense academese, but their message is pointed:

…. We marvel at the efflorescence of web-based peer production and the range of tasks networks of distributed individuals have taken up. But we do not believe that networked information exchange necessarily levels the social playing field… On the contrary… such claims rest on a set of historical and analytical assumptions that are not only inaccurate, but that have begun to obscure the ways in which technologically enabled peer production may be changing our lives for the worse…

In her conversation with California, Finn, who is now doing postdoctoral work for Microsoft Research New England and is writing a book on the history of post-earthquake communication in the Bay Area, said Packer accurately guaged the emerging inequalities of Silicon Valley.

Even with the much-vaunted peer networks, she says, there is still hierarchy – and inequities.

“You often have charismatic leaders who are not beholden to any legal measures or rules. There are no protective mechanisms in place. So if a woman becomes pregnant and can’t work, she loses standing – or her position – because value is placed solely on the amount of work you do.”

Further, there is no independent analysis of those companies that claim to do the right thing.

“For example, You Tube announced a ‘partners program’ for people who produce videos that get lots of views,” she says.  “They claimed they were going to share a percentage of their ad revenues. But nobody knows the criteria used for the selection, or if they’re employing a standardized revenue sharing model – or anything about the program, really.  It’s opaque.”

— Glen Martin

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