Visiting and Revisiting Silicon Valley at the 2018 Annual Meeting

The Association of Senior Anthropologists has planned several activities inspired by the venue of this year’s AAA meeting. The gathering in San José, urban center of Silicon Valley, serves as an incentive to investigate anthropological implications of the digital revolution. Those of us who reached adulthood earlier will recall electric typewriters and photocopiers, for instance, as advances in a workaday world that are difficult to imagine for younger colleagues who already experienced cyberspace in their early childhood.

One opportunity to reflect on these changes is a field trip to the Computer History Museum on Thursday, November 15, organized by the ASA. The bus will leave at 2:00 p.m. and return around 6:00 p.m. See below for online registration instructions. The number of spaces is limited, so sign up soon if you would like to go.

At the Computer History Museum, material culture displays and graphic illustrations help visitors appreciate ancient as well as current breakthroughs in the development of information technology. Perennial interests of anthropologists are addressed through artifacts such as the Andean quipu, a record keeping device used by Inka administrators but preceded by thousands of years of advances in methods of memory storage. The museum emphasizes more recent transformations in the management of information. Among portrayals of institutional settings, one compelling subject is PARC, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center that generated crucial prototypes for personal computers and networking. The guided tour will review the sequence of innovations over the last several decades, perhaps previously unknown to some visitors but witnessed in real time by others. Don’t settle for a virtual tour. Join us in person.

Presenters in related sessions sponsored by the ASA—Technological Innovations in Anthropology at the Dawn of the Digital Era and Anthropological Pioneers in Silicon Valley—will participate as interpreters in the guided tour. The two sessions explore initiatives that can be understood in retrospect as precursors to fundamental transformations. Examples include early efforts to manage data on iconic punch cards, first sorted manually but with later iterations fed into massive mainframe computers. Some of the presenters report on their work in the think tanks and start-up businesses that established personal computing and access to the internet as part of our everyday lives.

As societies around the world continue to adopt the technological and lifestyle modalities emanating from Silicon Valley, the synergy of three distinct subcultures in that setting calls out for anthropological analysis. First, the electronics industry already present before World War II provided a critical mass of creative engineers, supported by academic programs at Stanford University. Second, the Bay Area had long been known for countercultural activists, some of whom embraced high-tech alternatives to conventional social practices. Third, a western frontier attitude emboldened business entrepreneurs who espoused libertarian values and defied the risk-averse investment strategies of their eastern counterparts.

Not to rely on oversimplifications of these complex sources of change, we can turn to readings ranging from the prehistory of the region in Christopher Lécuyer’s Making Silicon Valley: Innovation and the Growth of High Tech, 1930-1970 to the influence of key cultural brokers in Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Steward Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. In a new edition of [email protected], J. A. English-Lueck brings us up to date on the windings of a cultural “double helix” of technological saturation and diverse interacting identities in the region. Encompassing the world-historical conjuncture of such contrasting but essential figures as egalitarian video-gamer geeks and empire-building venture capitalists, the verbatim commentaries of well over 200 contributors to Adam Fisher’s Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley offer a kaleidoscopic interpretive survey of the people, unfolding events, and resulting institutions.

In one useful overview, Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age, Leslie Berlin quotes Steve Jobs on generational transitions: “You can’t really understand what is going on now unless you understand what came before.” This observation epitomizes efforts of the Association of Senior Anthropologists in drawing from the long and varied experiences of its members to pass on their insights now and for future generations. A full description of the ASA program in San José will appear in next month’s column.

How to register for the field trip to the Computer History Museum

1. Enter the AAA website.

2. Click on the white Login button at the middle-top of the page. Enter your email address and password in the boxes indicated and click on the Go button. (If you have not yet registered for the annual meeting, you will have to do so and log in again before continuing.)

3. If you have already registered for the Annual Meeting, you can click on Annual Meeting WORKSHOPS/EVENTS/BADGES, which should appear just below the blue block panels on the upper part of the page.

4. Find and click on Add Workshops, which should appear near the top of the page, under the Meetings/Other Events header on the left side of the line for the 2018 AAA Annual meeting.

5. Scroll down and click on the box next to the eighth item on the list: ASA Field trip: Computer History Museum.

6. Scroll the rest of the way to the bottom right of the page and click on Save/Add To Cart.

7. Under the heading quantity change the number from 1 to a higher number if you wish to purchase more than one seat on the bus (to a maximum of three per person); then scroll down to the bottom right of the page, click on Check-Out, and follow the rest of the payment instructions.

Jim Weil is ASA President Elect.

Cite as: Weil, Jim. 2018. “Visiting and Revisiting Silicon Valley at the 2018 Annual Meeting.” Anthropology News website, September 13, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.963

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Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approve. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.