I could not have imagined when I entered the PhD program in anthropology at the University of California, Davis in 1973 that I would spend my career working as an anthropologist in Silicon Valley. I have always liked technology and did well in math and science, but to work alongside physicists, chemists, mathematicians, computer scientists, and engineers for the better part of 40 years—really!
In the summer of 2016, during preliminary fieldwork in California, I met with virtual reality (VR) innovators in San Francisco and Los Angeles. I wanted to find out what was happening with this technology in Silicon Valley versus the place Angelenos were beginning to call Silicon Beach. Others were also flowing between these locations.
In May 2018, I spoke with Tom, an elderly man who has lived in the same house near Franklin Square in Santa Clara since the age of five. Now in his eighties and with limited mobility from a surgery targeting a brain tumor, he spends his days on the couch with a view of the park he played in as a child through his front window.
In March 2014, Business Insider published the article, “Here’s Why Companies Are Desperate to Hire Anthropologists.” Referring to the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Intel, author Drake Baer describes how corporations want to hire anthropologists to enhance their marketing strategies and product designs.
Silicon Valley is a geographic region, shorthand for all things tech, the global hub of the technology industry, and a synonym for places transforming through impositions of technocapitalism. In California, a confluence of Cold War defense spending, venture capital, support from Stanford University, and white flight from urban cores to the pastoral suburbs led to the establishment of a regional technology hub.
You can spot the extremes on the street in Silicon Valley. You can find monumental architecture and tour “the mothership,” a gigantic circular edifice that is the home to the Apple headquarters. You might spot a few autonomous vehicles, piloted by a host of competing companies, especially Waymo, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet.
Roxana Wales, recently retired, is a respected corporate ethnographer and research scientist. She was one of the first anthropologists to begin working on corporate ethnographic projects and she has many great stories to tell. This is her prized “anthropological moment,” about being invited to join a NASA team attempting to send a robot to Mars to search for signs and evidence of the existence of past water.
The Middle East is yet again witnessing a very significant wave of protests. After protests in January and July this year, Iran endured yet another week of uprisings in many of its major cities, including the capital Tehran, in August. Tens of thousands took to the streets. The response of the government has been serious: heavy police intervention, mass detentions, and the death toll of around 25 people—including law enforcement, as of January 4, 2018.
One crisp January afternoon one of us (Sarah) sat in the living room of Guadalupe, an immigrant farmworker in California’s Central Valley, as she explained why she had refused to accept Emergency Medicaid to cover her children’s delivery. Quietly and calmly, as though she were describing an ordinary event, Guadalupe shared how she and her husband scraped together the funds each month—on a farmworking salary averaging about $18,000 a year—to pay off the more than $20,000 debt they owed hospitals for the births of their children.
In late September 2017, in the quiet days that followed the annual feast of the Holy Cross in Santa Cruz Mixtepec, Oaxaca, I found a coin in the mouth of Jesus Christ. The silvery five centavo piece was lodged in the open mouth of a large wooden statue of Christ carrying the cross, known locally as El Dulce Nombre.