The Hidden Workers of Silicon Valley

The Hidden Workers

How Silicon Valley has tried to transform our understanding of work.

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Last year, I went on tour for a live journalism stage show, which meant I got to visit a handful of cities—San Francisco, Nashville, Los Angeles—that I hadn’t been to in a while. As someone who rarely has an excuse to travel around the United States, I quickly discovered not just a love of touring but also a new scourge that had taken over the country right under my nose: electric scooters.

Ride-sharing e-scooters like those from Bird and Lime had not yet reached New York. But in other cities, the scooters were everywhere. They littered the streets like a high-tech version of chewing gum, smeared on the sidewalks and slowly calcifying into the terrain. This is the future that liberals want, I joked to myself. But the scene was illustrative of the kind of future Silicon Valley was creating: scooters lying unused on city sidewalks, blocking the foot traffic, while others zipped around in the public bus lanes. What could easily have been labeled a “broken windows” quality-of-life issue in some neighborhoods was instead hailed as the pinnacle of innovation.

The situation was unsettling. Overnight, these scooters had taken over entire cities, and yet there wasn’t a single person involved with their upkeep in sight. In fact, that was the whole point—the technology behind the app was built in offices in California, while the scooters were maintained by a slew of independent contractors working in the shadows and bringing them home to charge overnight. The only thing the public saw were the vehicles themselves, summoned to appear seemingly out of nowhere and ridden for a cool 39 cents per minute.

The scooters are simply one of the more obvious examples of a common phenomenon that has come to define early-21st-century life. Many products of the tech world are meant to obscure the people who build and maintain them (other than, of course, the founders at the very top). This workforce doesn’t just include engineers but also cooks, recruiters, cleaners, shuttle drivers, and technical writers, who are all vital to keeping these companies running. We may see the detritus of this work, and we may benefit from the service it provides, but rarely do we engage with those helping to make and run the products.

In recent years, though, as tech companies have gained more power, the hidden workers maintaining their growing market share have begun to reveal themselves. They are not only pushing for their voices to be heard, whether through unions or by speaking to journalists; they are also demanding more control over the terms of their work. Ben Tarnoff and Moira Weigel’s new book, Voices From the Valley, is an attempt to put these workers at the forefront. Consisting of seven anonymous interviews with people who work in Silicon Valley, it offers a fuller picture of what is happening behind the scenes of the tech industry. That task is immense, and Tarnoff and Weigel offer just a small glimpse. As they write in the introduction, “This book aspires to be representative. It is not exhaustive. It could not be, because Silicon Valley is now everywhere.” But it nonetheless gives us a sharper view into the perspectives of those who shape so much of our world today.

Tarnoff and Weigel interviewed a wide range of workers who, speaking anonymously, talk frankly about both the material and intellectual conditions they face. There’s the technical writer who is unappreciated because, despite her title, her job is considered “nontechnical” in an industry dominated by engineers and programmers. There’s the massage therapist who describes working on tech employees whose backs feel like “a single slab of marble” and who worries about the women among them, who appear “stressed and sad.” (In the course of her job, she develops arthritis, damaging her own body to fix others’.) And there’s the start-up founder who has become disillusioned along the way and gives us a candid look into the dynamics of the upper echelons of the industry. As the founder admits, “I wasn’t actually solving problems—I was just riding a wave of ridiculous overinvestment in social apps.”

While there are some through lines in the book, the interviews themselves don’t quite cohere into an overarching message. Instead, they add complexity to the often self-flattering narratives the tech industry tells about itself. The stories offered by the interviewees remind us that Silicon Valley isn’t democratic; hierarchies are central to a structure that funnels its returns to those at the top. The industry’s fabled “disruption” brings about destruction as often as it does innovation. And while it might seem like this structure is immutable, the truth is that there are people working and making decisions behind the algorithms, apps, and scooters that have come to rule so much of our lives.

Perhaps the myth that Voices From the Valley most successfully explodes is the idea that some workers are vital to the industry while others are not. As Tarnoff and Weigel write, “The tech industry places a premium on ‘technical’ skills. But one recurring theme of our conversations is that all work involves technique, whether it is preparing steak for several hundred people or massaging bodies that hours of coding have turned into slabs of concrete.”

The most efficient and effective way that companies instill these divisions is by classifying some workers as full-time employees and others as contractors. During the 2020 election, gig companies like Uber and Lyft poured hundreds of millions of dollars into getting Proposition 22 passed in California. The controversial ballot measure, which successfully passed in 2020, exempts these companies from reclassifying their workers as employees, instead allowing them to be retained as contractors, thus depriving them of benefits and protections. And as Vice noted, California was “just the start.” In 2019, The New York Times reported that Google worked with 121,000 contractors, which is a larger workforce than its 102,000 full-time employees. This isn’t an anomaly—contingent labor in Silicon Valley accounts for 40 to 50 percent of the workers at most tech companies. Nor is this phenomenon limited only to blue-collar workers.

Some of the differences in the treatment of full-time and contract employees are materially obvious: For example, the former are entitled to health and retirement benefits, stock options, and company perks, while the latter are not. But as the people in Tarnoff and Weigel’s book attest, the hierarchies seep into every aspect of company culture in pernicious ways. The massage therapist describes how, even though contract workers have access to the entire building, they usually sit in a specific place in the cafeteria because “that’s where we all felt safe.” She recalls a time when she brought her fifth-grade daughter to work because her daughter was interested in coding, and she wanted to introduce her to one of the female engineers. But when they entered the engineering area, everyone began to stare at them. “It felt like I had done something wrong,” the massage therapist says. “It made me realize that people can be nice, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily want you in their space.”

One cook relates to Tarnoff and Weigel how unionizing at their company helped break down some of the divisions between fellow workers. “When people actually realize that they are worth more, it’s nice,” the cook says of the early changes that took place when workers began to talk with each other. Even before they won their contract, their workplace felt different, with their managers no longer speaking to them “like peasants” but actually “treating us like people.” The cook also notes how organizing began to instill solidarity between groups that were normally treated as distinct. “I knew a tech worker who said she was a contractor like me. I didn’t even know they had tech workers as contractors at those companies,” the cook recalls. “So now a lot of the tech workers, they’re feeling like us.”

Even those in full-time positions have started to recognize the negative effects of the tech world’s flourishing hierarchies. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, those divisions only became more obvious. At Google, employees sent a memo to the company’s leadership in March demanding that it extend benefits such as work-from-home policies and paid time off to contract workers.

While conditions still vary drastically among workers in the tech industry, it has become increasingly clear that what’s detrimental to one class of workers is usually bad for all. As one Google engineer tells Tarnoff and Weigel, their jobs have also become more difficult since companies began hiring people as TVC (temporary, vendor, or contract) employees rather than full-time workers, leading to constant turnover and the regular use of third-party contractors who don’t have access to the company’s code base. “It makes everyone’s life worse,” the Google engineer says. “That’s the point.”

Over the past decade, as more has been revealed about how tech companies work behind the scenes, the industry’s altruistic image has started to erode. The interviews in Voices From the Valley give us a nuanced range of political views about this shattered image and where the tech world can and should go next. While the contract workers, some of whom are long-time Bay Area residents, are clear-eyed about the dystopian tendencies of the tech companies, other employees still see possibilities for optimism within the industry.

Take, for example, the data scientist who acknowledges that the industry’s impact has been far from perfect and that there are many fallacies to its way of thinking, but who continues to believe in many aspects of a tech utopia. “On the one hand, there’s no better shepherd for the economy than an engineer,” this person contends; “on the other hand, there’s no worse shepherd for the economy than an engineer.”

The data scientist understands that power in the industry is concentrated among a select few, but their solution fits into an insidious framework popular among the tech elite: “I don’t see another endgame other than pretty high taxes plus basic income as the way of making that okay, because I don’t think that’s going to go away. I’m not even totally sure we should discourage it from happening.” While it could be a powerful addition to the welfare state, universal basic income is often cast by policy advocates as a catchall way to redistribute money while avoiding the need to create pre-distributive, systemic regulations to ensure that no single class of individuals can become so powerful.

And then there’s the public relations professional who asserts that while tech companies may not always get it right, their innovation is “generally not driven by people thinking about growth or market share in a systematic way” but by “people trying to create value for users.” The statement comes across like a classic PR pitch—the only thing I could think of was, “Does it even matter what people’s intentions were?”

In contrast, the takeaways that the contract workers provide to Tarnoff and Weigel are more concrete; they offer a clearer view into the actual ways in which Silicon Valley has changed the landscape, both literally and politically. As the cook, who grew up in West Oakland, points out, all they see driving down El Camino now is hotel after hotel, rather than any actual housing. “They’re building those hotels for the tech industry, so all these people can come in and do big business here. But they ain’t let us—the people that’s living here—get no part of the big business,” the cook says.

Perhaps the most candid view of the industry comes from a founder whose start-up was acquired by a bigger company to prevent it from becoming a competitor. “People were becoming founders and investors not because they wanted to solve the problems that would help humanity but because they wanted to be in the Silicon Valley scene,” the founder says. “They wanted the cultural cachet. They wanted to go to the parties.” A generalization, to be sure, but that sentiment as an actual driving force in the industry makes plenty of sense—after all, who doesn’t want to go to parties? I was reminded of a line in Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley: “Business was a way for men to talk about their feelings.”

The lessons provided in Voices From the Valley are more insightful than those in any of the hagiographies we’re usually served up about tech founders. But while we’re getting more and more of these workers’ views, the dominant narratives have only begun to shift. Understanding the people behind an industry that now infiltrates all parts of our world is a prerequisite to making that industry more equitable. As Tarnoff and Weigel observe, “The fact that the people at the top were the only ones allowed to talk to the media reinforced the idea that they spoke for everyone.”

Sharing stories, however, is just the start. What must come next includes things like breaking up the tech monopolies, ending the industry’s rampant misclassification of workers, and organizing unions. But it’s still an important pushback against the tech elite’s preference to erase the people behind the scenes who labor to build their products. It overturns the narrative that algorithms, not people, are in control of what happens and that responsibility is diffuse. Unlike the proclamations of many tech company founders, Tarnoff and Weigel’s book offers no silver-bullet solutions for what comes next. The cook perhaps sums it up best: “The near future is gonna be hard. Really hard.”

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