Anthropologists Peer Into a Valley of Silicon
SAN FRANCISCO — Anthropologist Jan English-Lueck has studied the habits, rituals, and beliefs of communities in Suriname and China. But they had nothing on the exotic behavior just outside her door.
"Where else do you find a family getting together and calling it a 'team' meeting?" she asks. "Or where else would a trip to Fry's [electronics store] be a normal family outing?"
The place is Silicon Valley, the defining edge of America's emerging cyberculture and the subject of a multiyear field study by Ms. English-Lueck and colleagues Chuck Darrah and James Freeman, all teachers at San Jose State University.
Silicon Valley, once dotted by orchards of plums and apricots, is now the epicenter of the nation's Digital Revolution. Companies and communities around the globe are trying to understand and mimic its formula for success - or at least not get blindsided by the next technological innovation to emerge from here.
Mr. Darrah's project won't give anthropologists complete answers right now. The study, which began in 1991, will continue for another three to four years. But he and his colleagues are beginning to draw some early conclusions from more than 240 interviews of people in and out of the technology industry.
"This is a place marked by a faith in the application of technology to all kinds of problems, in and out of the workplace. You use hardware and software to assemble data, and information to solve problems," says Darrah, chairman of the university's anthropology department. "I go to a PTA meeting and we're talking about El Nio and another parent says we should assemble a database to help us track the weather," recalls English-Lueck by way of illustration.
There are two other overriding features to Silicon Valley culture, according to Darrah. One is the valley's ethnic diversity (the nonwhite population, dominated by Asians and Latinos, will soon outnumber whites) - the result in part of the technology sector's shortage of home-grown skilled labor. The other is the power of the "mythology" that living here offers a ringside seat to history, a belief that has a way of being self-fulfilling by attracting top talent driven by almost missionary zeal.
The valley's uniqueness
Those hoping to capture and transport the magic may be disappointed.
"People have spent millions trying to find out how to emulate this elsewhere in the world," says Annalee Saxenian, author of "Silicon Valley: Regional Advantage" and an associate professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California at Berkeley. But she sees circumstances here not likely to be matched elsewhere. "The early pioneers had a tabula rasa here. They not only pioneered new technology, they pioneered new organizational forms."
Unlike the traditional East Coast corporate model, companies here grew from garages, their founders and employees part of a relatively close-knit community that created networks for sharing ideas and changing jobs with much greater frequency than was typical elsewhere in the 1950s.
Fast forward to the 1990s, and that networking phenomenon is only more pronounced, says English-Lueck. "It's incredibly important here. People may not know their neighbor, but they know lots about the person in the cubicle next to them, about the person they went to graduate school with, and, particularly with immigrants, about members of their extended family," she says. These networks provide solutions to everything from finding a new job to working out child care.
While history cast the Silicon Valley technology industry from a different mold, it also gave it a size and weight that makes that industry a dominant force in the valley community as a whole.
"The high-tech culture, proportionately, is a greater part of the overall culture than anywhere else," says Darrah. "Here it permeates everything."
That dominance is evident in the statistics. By almost every economic index, Silicon Valley is the world's technology powerhouse. The region's inventors grabbed 3,500 patents in 1995, 50 percent more than second-place Boston. Firms here attract nearly half the nation's technology venture capital. Technology sales have made this region the nation's leading exporter. The average wage in the valley is $46,000; the national equivalent is $29,000. And on the street, nearly 4 of every 10 workers draw their wages from the technology sector.
Blurring work and home life
It's little wonder a common issue that emerges in the anthropologists' interviews is the blurring of work and family life. Many technology companies, for instance, boast that their employees, thanks to voice mail and e-mail, are expected to be available at all times, unless they leave message specifically announcing their unavailability.
Darrah and his colleagues are not convinced Silicon Valley employees work harder. But they are convinced there is a dramatic integration of work and home life. "The vast majority of the people we've talked to work at home. But it penetrates the other way, too. There is lots of social organizing and tolerance of family interruptions at work," says English-Lueck.
In the end, these anthropologists hope to shed light on a community they see as the first of its kind: a "technofied community that is viewed by many around the world as a model," says Darrah. "It's also a wonderful lab to explain trends shaping much of America, particularly the demographic changes and the rub between work and home."