History repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce”—especially in Silicon Valley. In April 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress for 10 hours over 2 days, following revelations that a political consulting firm had received access to user data without consent.
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.