Visual Arts Review: “Seeing Silicon Valley” — Our Future Dystopia?

By Peter Walsh

This is an important book, a powerful account of the decline of California as America’s paradise.

Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America Photographs and Stories by Mary Beth Meehan and Essay by Fred Turner. University of Chicago Press, 112 pages, 67 color plates, $25.

I met Fred Turner some years ago when we spoke on the same panel at a MIT conference called “Media in Transition.” He was then a junior faculty member at Stanford University. His recently-published book, on the ‘60s icon Stewart Brand, editor of The Whole Earth Catalogue had received a lot of positive press: the atmosphere of the panel, and the whole conference, reflected a cheerful optimism that still prevailed about the Age of the Internet.

The mood darkened considerably in later iterations of the conference. Panelists began to speak as if they were grappling with Ted Kaczynski’s question: were we ruling technology or was it ruling us? At the most recent meeting at MIT, which celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first, notable topics included media-induced ethnic conflict, fake news, the Internet’s role in the spread of disinformation, and the rise of QAnon.

Meanwhile, Turner, now Harry and Norman Chandler Professor of Communications at Stanford, had embarked on similarly disillusioning project. Turner, who lives in Mountain View, in the heart of Silicon Valley, had studied the region’s culture for some two decades. In 2017, he invited Mary Beth Meehan, known for her “large-scale, community-based portraiture,” to spend six weeks in the Valley, photographing its inhabitants and listening to their stories.

“He told me that he was troubled by the power of the region’s mythology,” Meehan recalls, “and wanted people to see the place as it is. He asked if I’d be willing to come and try to see it through my own eyes.” After her work got underway, Turner asked Meehan to his house once a week for a home-cooked dinner and would “pepper me with questions: ‘What are you seeing? What are you finding out there?’”

The collaboration has now produced a book, Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America, to which Turner has contributed an introductory essay, “The Valley on the Hill,” and Meehan her photographs, the stories of her subjects, and an afterward.

Seeing Silicon Valley is very much in the tradition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), the semi-anthropological study, by American writer James Agee and American photographer Walker Evans, of white tenant farmers in the Depression Era south. Similarly, the core of Seeing Silicon Valley consists of Meehan’s photographs of people she met in the valley through a network of contacts, usually in their homes or natural settings, along with images of the local landscape and urban environments, paired with a summary of the stories they told her.

This is no ponderous, academic tome. In total, the text barely amounts to as much as a long magazine article or short story. Meehan and Turner do not cite masses of government data or reel off scholarly studies and commission reports. For the most part, Seeing Silicon Valley stays within the narrow borders of its authors’ direct experience. But brevity, succinctness, and personal focus are among the key strengths of this powerful and important book, an account that fans out into other developing narratives about the decline of California as America’s paradise, social media’s mendacity and lack of civic responsibility, and the super-charged rise of economic injustice and insecurity. It is likely to attract a lot of attention, discussion, and controversy.

In their respective introductory essay and afterword, Turner and Meehan bracket the photographs with analogies from New England history. Turner compares the arrival of silicon-based electronic component manufacturers to the agricultural Santa Clara Valley, just south of San Francisco, to the voyage of the Puritans to Boston on the Arabella, under John Winthrop, who, before embarking from Southampton, warned his fellow immigrants that they would be “as a city on a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” The analogy strikes me as a bit too grand. The place Turner so vividly describes, which came to be known as “Silicon Valley” only in the ’70s, is more like an American Emerald City. Everything is dyed the color of money and the kingdom ruled over by a class of apparently wise and benevolent wizards whose (false) public images are shaped by the very media they helped to create.

Like Oz, Silicon Valley hides secrets. “From the early 1960s to the early 1980s, local companies manufactured the computing hardware and silicon chips that gave the valley its name.” writes Turner. “We know now that they used highly toxic chemicals in the process and often dumped them onto the land around their plants. Those chemicals caused miscarriages and birth defects at the time and linger in the soil today. In some neighborhoods, underground plumes of solvents threaten drinking water. And as they evaporate, they send toxic gases into the homes above ground.”

Like the fruit orchards and canneries they replaced, these silicon-based industries are long gone from the Valley, having been moved offshore, well away from the sight of American consumers. Turner pointedly notes that this toxic legacy is invisible to the eye: “it’s impossible to know what’s under your feet And without that knowledge, it’s all too easy to imagine the bright sunshine and green hills that frame the valley as signs that technology development has no impact on the natural world.”

Former auto worker Richard in Seeing Silicon Valley. Photo: Mary Beth Meehan.

Nowadays, the economy of Silicon Valley is based mostly on software, biotech, product development, and gigantic, Internet-based companies like Facebook and Google. Silicon and its industrial byproducts are no longer the raw materials of the region’s wealth, which is mostly generated via brand names and intellectual property. Meehan’s photographs and stories portray a different kind of environmental damage: economic and social disruption, especially the upheavals caused by a catastrophic rise in housing costs.

Meehan’s informants include Cristobal, an Iraqi War veteran and full-time security officer at Facebook. At $21 an hour, his job doesn’t pay enough for a house or an apartment in the Valley, so he lives in a shed in a Mountain View backyard. He sees himself, Meehan says, “as part of an army of workers who are doing their best to support the big tech companies. But he doesn’t see any of the wealth trickling down to them.”

Other Valley support workers are photographed in their tiny trailers, parked on borrowed land, often without running water or power, subject to eviction at any moment. Stanford grad Elizabeth, employee of a “major tech firm,” is homeless.

Even the better off in the book do not exactly live in comfort. Teenagers stagger under the pressures to succeed and compete. Thanks to a large mortgage and other living expenses, a couple whose combined income is $350,000 a year can’t afford to furnish their multi-million dollar home. Erfan, whose husband is an engineer at Google, articulates the anxiety that Meehan finds at every social level in the Valley: “We really pay too much for it all. Not in physical costs, but in emotional costs. We are sometimes happy, but also very anxious, very stressed. You have to be worried if you lose your job, because the cost of living is very high, and it’s very competitive. It’s not that easy — come here, live in California, become a millionaire. It’s not that simple. The cost is too much.”

Meehan’s photographs are unsentimental. Nobody smiles. The images are saturated in California sunlight and color and classically composed, suggesting the long heritage of Western portraiture. The various poverties they encompass do not immediately strike the eye, as Evans’ images do. The pain lurks below, like Turner’s underground toxic plumes.

It is perhaps an inevitable limitation of the book that the class strata it explores do not extend to the Valley’s upper reaches. The billionaires, the overweening winners in this economic game, do do not appear on its pages except as brief references. One imagines they, at least, can rise above the economic anxiety of their employees and neighbors.

These people do appear in books like Jason Ferrell’s recently-published Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West, and photographer Tina Barney’s bizarre images of her own stratospheric social class. As unflinching as Turner and Meehan’s, these are portraits of deep emotional, social, and cultural detachment — of a class of people without true empathy, self-awareness, or even a good sense of humor. They supply a chilling counterpoint to Seeing Silicon Valley: one that, if anything, is even more unsettling.  

Stretch your horizons and the narratives Meehan and Turner lay out expand to cover the entire country. The economic dislocations, stress, and spiritual vacuums spawned by Silicon Valley are reflected in its high tech offspring, including in such booming tech centers as Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, and Boston. Books, articles, and documentaries increasingly focus on the huge and growing disparities of wealth in American society. Seattle and company are places that other cities strive to become, despite the horrifying truth that centralized wealth in the hands of the indifferent is creating human disasters.

United States veteran Cristobal in Seeing Silicon Valley. Photo: Mary Beth Meehan.

In her afterword, Meehan turns to another New England comparison: “Back in 2017, I never imagined I’d make a connection between my grandmother assembling shoeboxes in Massachusetts and the high-tech engineers of Silicon Valley. Yet, I found myself asking how it was that a twentieth-century factory town could provide more security for my grandmother than this twenty-first-century center of wealth and innovation was offering many of its workers.”

Meehan is so disturbed by pervasive distress she finds in the Valley that she ultimately wonders if she is seeing things correctly. She is. “A friend of mine in Berkeley, a journalist whose husband covers the technology industry, likened it to an American Third World: ‘This is the future,’ she said, ‘and it is a dystopia.’”

Editor’s Note: The Short Fuse podcast features a conversation about Seeing Silicon Valley with Fred Turner and Mary Beth Meehan.

Peter Walsh has worked as a staff member or consultant to such museums as the Harvard Art Museums, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Boston Athenaeum. As an art historian and media scholar, he has lectured in Boston, New York, Chicago, Toronto, San Francisco, London, and Milan, among other cities, and has presented papers at MIT eight times. He has published in American and European newspapers, journals, and in anthologies. In recent years, he began a career as an actor and has since worked on more than 80 projects, including theater, national television, and such award-winning films as Spotlight, The Second Life, and Brute Sanity. He is a graduate of Oberlin College and Harvard University.

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