In late 2010, during a fireside chat at the tech-industry conference TechCrunch Disrupt, the venture capitalist and entrepreneur Peter Thiel disclosed that he would award 20 enterprising teenagers $100,000 apiece over two years to bypass college in favor of entrepreneurship. “Stopping out,” Thiel called it. Having decried student debt (not to mention universities’ inculcation of political correctness), he endeavored to make the case that college was a limiting and outdated model. The Thiel Fellowship, as it came to be known, was representative of a particular strain of anti-establishmentarianism in tech-industry culture. Who needs higher education?
In Valley of the Gods: A Silicon Valley Story, Alexandra Wolfe, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, zooms in on a handful of Thiel fellows from the 2011 inaugural class. Among them are John Burnham, an antsy teen who has his sights set on asteroid-mining robots; Laura Deming, a prodigy working on life extension; and James Proud, who founded GigLocator, an app for locating tickets to live concerts, and sold the company in 2012. As the fellows adjust to their new environs in the Bay Area, Wolfe follows them into a constellation of mentors and affiliates, subcultures and institutions—“Silicon Valley’s elite and underbelly.” Her goal is a portrait of the tech industry as “a new social order, one with an anti-‘society’ aesthetic that has taken on a singular style.”
Wolfe is an entertaining writer, if not an outstanding prose stylist, and she largely lets her subjects speak for themselves, skimping on broader context. Her subjects, mostly entrepreneurs, founders, and figureheads, are indisputably more elite than underbelly, but no matter. From the futurist and author Ray Kurzweil to Todd Huffman—a biologist, an early participant in the now-defunct San Francisco “intentional community” Langton Labs, and an aspiring cryogenically preserved corpse—Wolfe lands on characters who are vibrant and open-minded, each deserving of more inquiry than a 250-page book allows.
Through visits to start-up incubators, communal-living groups in mansions, and polyamorous households on Paleo diets, Wolfe constructs an argument that in Silicon Valley, “institutions and routines such as raises, rents, mortgages—marriage—were as inconsequential, breakable, and flexible as the industries technology disrupted.” She deploys her anecdotes to serve her vision of the culture as a reaction to “the East Coast’s hierarchy,” as well as its foil. She pokes fun at the tech industry’s own self-aggrandizing fetishes while also affirming them. Incubators are “a sort of West Coast Ivy League,” a fast track to access and social capital. Millennials prefer the “freedom” of Silicon Valley to the “old world” of the East Coast. Gone is Wall Street’s uniform of Thomas Pink and Tiffany; in its stead, “the only outward signs of tech success are laptops and ideas.” Pitting East against West even gets ontological. Using New York City hedge-fund managers as an example, Wolfe writes that the “retrowealth” of the East Coast is “a harkening back to what it was to be human last century.” Silicon Valley, by contrast, has trained its sights on how to “disrupt, transgress, and reengineer … humanity as a whole.”
Wolfe’s book spans five years, but the bulk of her reporting appears to be from 2011 and 2012. And a lot happened in the years between the cocky-nerd drama of 2010’s The Social Network and the first quarter of 2016, which brought zero initial public offerings from tech companies. In 2012, new start-ups were flush with money and the tech sphere was overwhelmed by ardent media coverage; the verb disrupt was elbowing its way into vernacular prominence and had not yet become a cliché. Facebook’s IPO was not only record-setting but a flag in the ground, and the West Coast seemed a hopeful counternarrative in an otherwise flailing economy. Stories about Silicon Valley were imbued with a certain awe that, today, is starting to fade.
Since the genre’s takeoff in the late 1990s, during the first dot-com boom, writing about the tech industry has traditionally fallen into a few limited camps: buzzy and breathless blog posts pegged to product announcements, suspiciously redolent of press releases; technophobic and scolding accounts heralding the downfall of society via smartphone; dry business reporting; and lifestyle coverage zeroing in on the trappings, trends, and celebrities of the tech scene. In different ways, each neglects to examine the industry’s cultural clout and political economy. This tendency is shifting, as the line between “tech company” and “regular company” continues to blur (even Walmart has an innovation lab in the Bay Area). Founders and their publicists would have you believe that this is a world of pioneers and utopians, cowboy coders and hero programmers. But as tech becomes more pervasive, coverage that unquestioningly echoes the mythologizing impulse is falling out of fashion.
The backlash is unsurprising. Accelerated, venture-capital-fueled success is bound to inspire more than just wonder. In the past year alone, three Silicon Valley darlings—Hampton Creek, Theranos, and Zenefits—have been subject to painful debunking by the media. Thiel’s own reputation, always controversial, has come into question since his financing of a lawsuit that shuttered Gawker and his emergence as an avid Donald Trump supporter. Valley of the Gods, which opens with a tribute to Thiel and the “counterintuitive idealism” he aimed to encourage, feels like a time capsule from a previous iteration of tech media, a reminder of the sort of narratives that have contributed to growing impatience with the mythos.
Valley of the Gods is fine as an artifact hurtled from a more innocent time, as far as scene-driven reportage is concerned. But what feels like a throwback perspective takes a toll on the larger argument of Wolfe’s book. She relies at every turn on stereotypes such as “Asperger’s Chic” and “engineering geeks [who]barely knew how to make friends or navigate a cocktail party, let alone be politically manipulative.” Statements like “Only the young and ambitious who grew up with the computer saw it for what it might become” aren’t just vaguely ageist, but also ahistorical. (What the computer has thus far “become” is only one version of many potential outcomes and visions.) Peter Thiel’s friends, in her summation, are part of “a whole new world of often-wacky people and ideas that didn’t seem to subscribe to any set principles or social awareness.” Leaning on Silicon Valley tropes, Wolfe fails to take her subjects—and their economic and political influence, which has only increased over the past five years—seriously.
She also undercuts her own point about the disruptive ethos of the place. “Today’s uber-nerds are like the robber barons of the industrial revolution whose steel and automobile manufacturing capabilities changed entire industries,” she writes. “But instead of massive factories and mills, they’re doing it with little buttons.” Portraying Silicon Valley’s powerful as “uber-nerds” who struck it rich is as reductive and unhelpful as referring to technology that integrates personal payment information and location tracking as “little buttons.” The effect is not only to protect them behind the shield of presumed harmlessness, but also to exempt them from the scrutiny that their economic and political power should invite.
The sort of mythology that celebrates a small handful of visionaries and co-founders blurs important social realities. Technology has always been a collective project. The industry is also cyclical. Many failed ideas have been resuscitated and rebranded as successful products and services, owned and managed by people other than their originators. Behind almost every popular app or website today lie numerous shadow versions that have been sloughed away by time. Yet recognition of the group nature of the enterprise would undermine a myth that legitimizes the consolidation of profit, for the most part, among a small group of people.
If technology belongs to the people only insofar as the people are consumers, we beneficiaries had better believe that luminaries and pioneers did something so outrageously, so individually innovative that the concentration of capital at the top is deserved. When founders pitch their companies, or inscribe their origin stories into the annals of TechCrunch, they neglect to mention some of the most important variables of success: luck, timing, connections, and those who set the foundation for them. The industry isn’t terribly in touch with its own history. It clings tight to a faith in meritocracy: This is a spaceship, and we built it by ourselves.
After four years of working in tech, almost all of which were spent at start-ups in San Francisco, I’ll happily acknowledge that the industry contains multitudes: biohackers and anti-aging advocates, high-flying techno-utopians and high-strung co-founders, polyamorous couples and M.B.A.s. But they’re just people, and their lifestyle choices are usually in the minority. They’re not a new social order. Even if they were, plenty of people just like them live in New York City, too.
Valley of the Gods is journalism, not ethnography. As with any caricature, the world depicted in its pages is largely an exaggeration—even, in some cases, a fantasy—but certain dimensions ring true, and loudly. It’s important to note what Wolfe gets right. This is a culture that champions acceleration, optimization, and efficiency. From communication to attire, some things are more casual than they are on the East Coast, and people seem to be happier for it. Irreverence is often rewarded. This is far from punk rock (the irreverence is often in the name of building financially successful corporations), but experimentation is encouraged. Silicon Valley is hardly a meritocracy—diversity metrics make that clear, and old-school credentials and pedigree still have clout out west—but it’s more meritocratic than other, older industries like consulting or finance. Few women figure in Wolfe’s book, which also feels accurate, especially at the higher levels.
The trouble with telling “a Silicon Valley story” is that the real stories are not just more nuanced and moderate but also relatively boring. Many people working in technology are legitimately inspiring, but they don’t necessarily gravitate toward flashy projects, and won’t be found strolling across a ted stage. If they fail, they may not fail up, and they certainly won’t write a Medium post afterward in an attempt to micromanage their personal brand or reconfigure the narrative.
The other, less flattering truth is that the difference between the East and West Coasts is not fundamentally all that great. The tech industry owes a huge debt to the financial sector. Wolfe is eager to depict Silicon Valley as the new New York, but much of the money that funds venture-capital firms comes from investors who made their fortunes on Wall Street. (The tech industry also owes a great debt to “Main Street”: Private-equity funds regularly include allocations from public pension plans and universities.) Cultural differences abound, but they’re not a function of the tech industry. They’re a function of history, of the deeply entrenched cultural and social circumstances that slowly come to define a place. As the mythology gets worn away, the contours of the Valley become easier to see. The view, though less glamorous, still offers plenty to behold.