How greedy was my Valley?

A noir mystery and an academic study anatomize Silicon Valley's culture of fast money and culture splicing.

Topics: Silicon Valley, Business, Books,

How greedy was my Valley?

Like an ebb tide that leaves little behind save rotting seaweed and dead fish, the national obsession with all things Silicon Valley has drained away, replaced by a grim fixation on Enronitis and Jack Welch’s divorce. But for those of us who live in or around its environs, or are still caught up in quaint techno-fascination, the quest to understand the Valley continues. Never mind that the exercise now sometimes seems more like picking a scab than uncovering the ineluctable Future of Capitalism. The itch must be scratched; the Valley is still there, even if Excite and Webvan are not.

But now that the dot-com era no longer provides easy headlines — “a new millionaire every six minutes!” — and PC sales are flat, the question becomes, how best to seek the essential nature of the Valley zeitgeist? Mark Coggins, a budding hard-boiled mystery writer, chooses a fictional approach in “Vulture Capital.” His book gives us a Valley of noir glamour, a trip through the dark satanic mills of venture capital with Chandler or Hammett as tour guide.

J.A. English-Lueck, chairwoman of the Department of Anthropology at San Jose State University, treads the less exotic route of granular reality in “Cultures@SiliconValley.” Her observations, built on meticulous survey data and hundreds of interviews, explore a terrain of confusing cultural diversity in which every action is mediated by technology and subordinated to the imperatives of work.

Oddly, at first glance it is Coggins’ fictional portrayal that comes off as more evocative of the “real” Valley, while English-Lueck’s dry nonfictional treatment sucks the life right out of the place. This is despite “Vulture Capital’s” near science-fictional plot twists and action-thriller conventions (Hollywood, are you listening?) and “Cultures@SiliconValley’s” abundance of quotes from actual people.

But the comparison is unfair, because the two authors are attempting very different things, one of which is far more difficult than the other. Coggins is working over familiar ground, deftly using the tropes of classic private-eye fiction to give readers a cold, delightfully nasty look at the venture capitalists who rode to fame and glory on the tech boom. His eye is sharp and the details are crisp; while not quite a stylist of Raymond Chandler quality, the inevitable comparisons aren’t misplaced. From the boardrooms of Palo Alto to the wineries of Napa, “Vulture Capital” gives us Northern California in the 21st century, as noir as it ever was.

English-Lueck’s job is far more challenging. Eschewing the easy plotline of “venture capitalist screws start-up innovator,” she grapples with the complex, ever-changing task of determining the nature of the new society being created in the Valley. What does it mean, all these engineers and product managers running around with Palm Pilots and cellphones, working flextime and hopping from company to company like epileptic bumblebees? How is a new cultural identity emerging from the mix of races and classes and lifestyles swirling through the nondescript towns of Sunnyvale and Cupertino and Santa Clara and Milpitas?

Useful and/or entertaining for very different reasons, both books share a central insight: that despite the ever-changing fortunes of the technology sector and the fickle attention of headline writers, the Valley goes on, through boom and bust, providing grist for both fevered imaginations and sober contemplation. Coggins takes the low road, with sex, violence, evildoers and cyborg chip implants. English-Lueck takes the high road, painstakingly laboring through an exploration of the “twin processes of identity diversification and technological saturation.” Together, they demystify, and end with the same question: What’s next?

It wasn’t until after I zipped through “Vulture Capital,” turning pages as fast as my fingers would allow, that I learned that Coggins was a veteran of the tech industry, that he had worked as a director of developer relations at Netscape, and that he had recently surfaced from a failed dot-com called ShortCycles, a classic late-90s start-up that based its business plan on the premise that money could be made by automating the organization of sales and marketing presentation materials.

I was surprised, but not at the facts of his background — the details of boardroom skulduggery and Silicon Valley start-ups were too on the money to have been easily concocted by an outsider. Po Bronson, for all his talents, did not catch the Valley’s entrepreneurial/venture capital lifeblood in “The First Twenty Million Is Always the Hardest” as unerringly as Coggins does in “Vulture Capital.” The surprising part is how well Coggins writes — it’s not what one expects from someone who used to flaunt such job titles as “vice president of products.”

“Vulture Capital” is billed as an “August Riordan mystery” — the second in what looks to be an ongoing series. Riordan is the private eye. But the protagonist in “Vulture Capital” is Ted Valmont, a venture capitalist. Valmont is not a very likable guy. He’s slick, whiny and exactly as mean as you would expect a successful venture capitalist to be. His life, which includes browbeating CEOs, sipping wine and driving a Ferrari Spider, is not a happy one. His ulcer alone is testament enough that there is something rotten in the Valley.

It’s the stench of greed. Where previous treatments of the Valley, in both fiction and nonfiction, usually try to capture the glory of start-ups making the big time, of Silicon Valley as the locomotive of the global economy, “Vulture Capital” is a post-bubble novel. Riordan aside (and he’s practically a bit player, anyway), Coggins’ characters are neither heroes nor role models. They are simply greedy scum who will do anything to get the big bucks — perfect material for neo-noir.

Illustrated with photos of “For Lease” signs in front of the offices of Excite and Gazoontite, “Vulture Capital” captures the moment, with plenty of vim and vigor. And never mind the seemingly unbelievable futurism of the chip implants; Silicon Valley, to all practical purposes, is science fiction. Somewhere down in Mountain View, someone is surely cooking up something truly horrific.

But that’s not necessarily a flaw, because the investigation English-Lueck is conducting delves deeper than the surface to-and-fro of the boom-bust business cycle. Venture capitalists, CEOs and IPOs get the headlines, but English-Lueck is looking at how people actually live, how the cultural interplay of Chinese and Indian and Mexican and Anglo-American resolves itself in the high-pressure, high-stakes cauldron of the Valley, how the 24/7 nature of work in the high-tech world warps families and schools and friendships.

Others have covered how technology mediates every aspect of life in a hive of “early adopters” like Silicon Valley, but English-Lueck has a nice eye for detail: “‘My batteries must have been dead’ is the new white lie of the information age,” she writes, and it’s hard to tell if the observation comes from her own experience or her survey data. The impact that telecommuting, working in teams across international time zones, and always-on connectivity (whether e-mail or cellular) have on demolishing the difference between work and home is also a familiar theme, though more devastatingly documented here than anywhere else.

The more provocative observations have to do with the cultural integration being pioneered in the Valley. Identity in “Cultures@SiliconValley” is not limited to ethnicity; class, sexual orientation, hobbies and even choice of favorite computer operating system all play a part. Some people are Linux geeks before they are Hindu, and vice versa.

While ethnic diversity is by no means unique to the Valley, it might be possible to say that overt consciousness of such diversity and its potential value is at a premium in the Valley. English-Lueck describes corporations that aggressively seek to diversify their employee base, not out of a desire for fairness or because of affirmative action principles, but to be more competitive, to be better able to understand the needs of foreign markets and the sensitivities of foreign clients. In this sense, Silicon Valley is destined to be no melting pot, but rather a test-bed for how to engage other cultures without submerging one’s identity.

Is Silicon Valley replicable in other places? Is it an isolated oddity, or the leading edge of a worldwide transformation? English-Lueck poses these questions, but doesn’t answer them with authority. How could she? The final chapter in this mystery has yet to be written. What is clear, however, is that the social transformations she illuminates haven’t stopped just because the NASDAQ stopped soaring. The last couple of years may have been very, very bad for the venture capital funds of the Valley, but the locomotive is still chugging, albeit at a slower pace.

Which means, undoubtedly, that more books are yet to come. But probably not until 50 or 60 dissections of Enron and WorldCom get in the way.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>