Tech + Health

04.25.14

Silicon Valley’s Giants Are Just Gilded Age Tycoons in Techno-Utopian Clothes

The $300 million payout from tech giants like Google and Apple to settle a lawsuit brought by employees makes it clear that Silicon Valley is out for profit, not to change the world.

Silicon Valley’s biggest names—Google, Apple, Intel and Adobe—reached a settlement today in a contentious $3 billion anti-trust suit brought by workers who accused the tech giants of secretly colluding to not recruit each other’s employees. The workers won, but not much, receiving only a rumored $300 million, a small fraction of the billions the companies might have been forced to pay had they been found guilty in a trial verdict. 

The criminality that the case exposed in the boardrooms the tech giants, including from revered figures like Steve Jobs who comes off as especially ruthless, should not be jarring to anyone familiar with Silicon Valley.  It may shock much of the media, who have generally genuflected towards these companies, and much of the public, that has been hoodwinked into thinking the Valley oligarchs represent a better kind of plutocrat—but the truth is they are a lot like the old robber barons.

Starting in the 1980s, a mythology grew that the new tech entrepreneurs represented a new, progressive model that was not animated by conventional business thinking. In contrast to staid old east coast corporations, the new California firms were what futurist Alvin Toffler described as “third wave.” Often dressed in jeans, and not suits, they were seen as inherently less hierarchical and power-hungry as their industrial age predecessors.  

Silicon Valley executives were not just about making money, but were trying, as they famously claimed, to “change the world.” One popularizing enthusiast, MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, even suggested that “digital technology” could turn into “a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony.”

This image has insulated the tech elite from the kind of opprobrium meted out to their rival capitalist icons in other, more traditional industries. In 2011, over 72 percent of Americans had positive feelings about the computer industry as opposed to a mere 30 percent for banking and 20 percent for oil and gas. Even during the occupy protests in 2012, few criticisms were hurled by the “screwed generation” at tech titans. Indeed, Steve Jobs, a .000001 per center worth $7 billion, the ferocious competitor who threatened “war” against Google if they did not cooperate in his wage fixing scheme, was openly mourned by protestors when news spread that he had passed away.

But the collusion case amply proves what has been clear to those watching the industry: greed and the desire to control drives tech entrepreneurs as much as any other business group. The Valley is great at talking progressive but not so much in practice. In the very place where private opposition to gay marriage is enough to get a tech executive fired, the big firms have shown a very weak record of hiring minorities and women. And not surprisingly, firms also are notoriously skittish about revealing their diversity data. A San Jose Mercury report found that the numbers of Hispanics and African Americans employees in Silicon Valley tech companies, already far below their percentage in the population, has actually been declining in recent years. Hispanics, roughly one quarter of the local labor force, account for barely five percent of those working at the Valley’s ten largest companies. The share of women working at the big tech companies - despite the rise of high profile figures in management—has also showed declines.    

In terms of dealing with “talent,” collusion is not the only way the Valley oligarchs work to keep wages down.  Another technique is the outsourcing of labor to lower paid foreign workers, the so called “techno-coolies.” The tech giants claim that they hire cheap workers overseas because of a critical shortage of skilled computer workers but that doesn't hold up to serious scrutiny. A 2013 report from the labor-aligned Economic Policy Institute found that the country is producing 50% more IT professionals per year than are being employed. Tech firms, notes EPI, would rather hire “guest workers” who now account for one-third to one half of all new IT job holders, largely to maintain both a lower cost and a more pliant workforce.

Some of this also reflects a preference for hiring younger employees at the expense of older software and engineering workers, many of whom own homes and have families in the area.  

 “I want to stress the importance of being young and technical," Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at an event at Stanford University in 2007. "Young people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30? I don't know. Young people just have simpler lives. We may not own a car. We may not have family. Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what's important."

Of course what’s really “important” to Zuckerberg, like moguls in any time and place, is maximizing profits and raking in money, both for themselves and their investors. The good news for the bosses has been that employees are rarely in the way.  Unlike the aerospace, autos or oil industries, the Valley has faced little pressure from organized labor, which has freed them to hire and fire at their preference.  Tech workers wages, on the other hand, have been restrained both by under the table agreements and the importation of “technocoolies.”

Rather than being a beacon of a new progressive America, the Valley increasingly epitomizes the gaping class divisions that increasingly characterize contemporary America.  Employees at firms like Facebook and Google enjoy gourmet meals, childcare services, even complimentary house-cleaning to create, as one Google executive put it, “the happiest most productive workplace in the world.” Yet, the largely black and Hispanic lower-end service workers who clean their offices, or provide security, rarely receive health care or even the most basic retirement benefits. Not to mention the often miserable conditions in overseas factories, notably those of Apple.

It’s critical to understand that the hiring restrictions exposed by Friday’s settlement, reflect only one part of the Valley’s faux progressiveness and real mendacity. These same companies have also been adept at circumventing user privacy and avoiding their tax obligations.

One might excuse the hagiographies prepared by the Valley’s ever expanding legion of public relations professionals, and their media allies,  but the ugly reality remains. The  Silicon Valley tech firms tend to be  every bit as cutthroat and greedy as any capitalist enterprise before it. We need to finally see the tech moguls not as a superior form of oligarch, but as just the latest in long line whose overweening ambition sometimes needs to be restrained, not just celebrated.