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Adrian Daub and Anna Wiener on gender and power in Silicon Valley

cover of What Tech Calls Thinking
Feb 16 2021

When you think about Silicon Valley, what concepts come to your mind? “Disruption,” “genius,” and “innovation” – these are all words commonly associated with the tech industry. In What Tech Calls Thinking: An Inquiry into the Intellectual Bedrock of Silicon Valley, Adrian Daub, the director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, probes into the foundational concepts upon which Silicon Valley was built and sustained. In a recent event celebrating the book’s launch, Daub and Anna Wiener, a former tech industry worker who last year released her memoir, Uncanny Valley, had a stimulating conversation about gender, power and privilege in Silicon Valley. 

The two began their conversation with a discussion of what makes“tech masculinity” distinct and in what ways tech masculinity shapes our broader culture. In Uncanny Valley, Wiener observes that the culture dominant in Silicon Valley consists of three main elements: capital, power and heterosexual masculinity. During the event, Daub echoed her ideas by pointing out that heterosexual masculinity has played an important role in shaping the problematic culture that has come to define Silicon Valley, and the way that culture has in turn shaped the world we all live and work in. As Daub and Wiener both pointed out, while Silicon Valley likes to pretend success, wealth and talent are open to everyone, the tech sector is not an even playing field for people of all genders. Instead, women in the tech industry often find themselves in a working environment where they are not valued as equals to their male counterparts, and in which their labor is subtly devalued. This masculinist ideology not only affects women workers in Silicon Valley, but also users of apps and websites developed by companies there.

photo of Daub during online event
Daub during book talk

One example Daub gives in What Tech Calls Thinking is the gendered relationship between Yelp programmers and users. Daub notes in his book, “whereas the programmers at Yelp are predominantly men, its reviewers are mostly female.” Daub attributes this phenomenon to the ideology of the tech industry that says that “men build the structures; women fill them.” Although the existence and success of a review portal like Yelp highly depend upon its users’ active involvement and selfless input, the users’ labor consistently goes unrecognized. In fact, female reviewers’ acts of providing comments on Yelp are not considered a form of labor, but merely an interest or hobby. 

In addition, Daub and Wiener discussed Silicon Valley’s fetishism of “contrarian” positions, which pride themselves as being as at odds with the mainstream. Wiener observed that there has been an ongoing mythologization of independent and oppositional geniuses who dropped out of elite colleges to start their own businesses, notably represented by Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. People admire contrarians’ courage to take risks in choosing an unusual path, idolizing them for their success and wealth. However, Daub pointed out that Silicon Valley contrarianism is deeply paradoxical. According to him, “there is a ton of emphasis [in Silicon Valley] about ‘being a non-conformist,’ which strikes me as such a funny thing in that it is essentially self-help from a very successful and wealthy man to other people who want to emulate his level of success.” Considering that Jobs and Zuckerberg are widely regarded as role models whose paths are enthusiastically emulated and followed, Daub said the so-called Silicon Valley contrarianism “feels like a very conformist discourse.” 

photo of Anna Wiender during event
Wiener during event

Futhermore, Daub argued that the popularity of the brand of contrarianism associated with Silicon Valley leaders fails to recognize other kinds of contrarianism represented by feminist or anti-racist struggles. As Daub put it during the event, Silicon Valley contrarianism implies that “a white man is more at risk for having different opinions.” Hence, “a certain kind of non-conformism is being emphasized, while other forms of non-conformism are just seen as identity politics.” As Daub described it, Silicon Valley contrarianism seems insensate to privilege based on gender, race, and class.

Daub and Wiener also discussed the relationship between Silicon Valley contrarianism and the 1960s counterculture prevalent in the Bay Area. Many have interpreted the act of dropping out of world-class universities as a rejection of elitism and, consequently, a continuation of the 1960s counterculture. From Daub’s viewpoint, although “dropping out is still understood as a rejection of a certain elite…it is an anti-elitism whose very point is to usher you as quickly as possible into another elite.” In other words, this form of “anti-elitism” aims at turning dropouts into a new elite marked by extreme wealth and high social status.

From Daub’s viewpoint, although “dropping out is still understood as a rejection of a certain elite…it is an anti-elitism whose very point is to usher you as quickly as possible into another elite.” In other words, this form of “anti-elitism” aims at turning dropouts into a new elite marked by extreme wealth and high social status.

During their conversation, Daub said that many concepts commonly used to describe the tech industry have actually evolved far from their original meanings. For instance, whereas start-up founders are frequently described as “geniuses,” this description tends to draw on a very specific understanding of “genius,” one that has less to do with boardrooms or seminars, and more with the world of art. This understanding, which treats “genius” founders as essentially the artistic auteurs of the companies they steward, has had the curious effect of eliding the collective, cooperative, codependent aspects of any corporate structure. 

In closing the event, Daub expressed his hope to “build a bridge between academia and Silicon Valley.” Wiener mentioned that while Silicon Valley’s tech industry is not generally open to criticism, she believes that the ability to receive consructive criticism is what moves an industry forward. Regarding the fact that issues such as gender equality have constantly been pushed aside in Silicon Valley, Daub contended that “where you put your intellectual hats communicates where you put your priority.” By calling into question the foundational concepts upon which Silicon Valley has been built and sustained, Daub and Wiener push us to critically assess Silicon Valley’s relationships among gender, labor and values. 

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