Silicon Valley’s cult of work

One of the clearest themes in Wendy Liu’s Abolish Silicon Valley is the disturbing embrace of work and her attempts to move beyond it. Much of the book is a memoir of her own experience entering the tech world as co-founder of a startup, what this lifestyle entailed for her and the meanings she has since come to reject. She explains on loc 1159 and 1173 respectively how work was seen by her as something which could solve any problems which they confronted in their enterprise:

I wasn’t sure how we would get there, but I was positive that we could brute-force it by working as hard as possible, which I started to see as a badge of honour. The founders who never came in on weekends were clearly not dedicated; they would fail within the year.

That was my main takeaway from reading Elon Musk’s biography—as long as you worked hard, you would figure it out

This led to a clash within the startup between the core group and the one co-founder who refused these expectations. At the time Liu found this baffling, writing on loc 1279-1311:

Mainly we felt that we did not understand him. We didn’t share his need to have a life outside the company, and we were baffled by his numerous personal obligations to friends and family which seemed to us like a distraction; we were convinced that we would be a rocket ship if it weren’t for his bizarre attachment to the idea of work-life balance.

This led them to create a Slack channel “dedicated to surveying Tim’s work ethic and sharing articles about how to deal with co-founder incompatibilities” (loc 1413). What I found interesting was her description of the argument that took place between them, with Tim’s observation that the other participants in their incubator didn’t work as hard as they did. From loc 1228:

Tim countered that most of the founders in our program didn’t work as much as we did. That was true, but whereas Tim saw the other founders as the baseline, we saw them as mere occasions for us to reach personal bests. We thought we were just better at being founders, and we felt that our demands for Tim to ascend to our level were eminently reasonable.

Is there a term for this orientation? It’s accelerative insofar as that people who act in this way vis-a-vis the baseline inevitably raise that baseline in the eyes of others. Obviously this is a familiar dynamic in the academy. What I’m interested in is how the pursuit of these ‘personal bests’ can become meaningful in its own right, even as the original motivation for the competition might drift away. This is something Wendy conveys with a Kafka quote I’d never encountered before:

But back I cannot go, this waste of time, this admission of having been on the wrong track would be unbearable for me. […] The time allotted to you is so short that if you lose one second you have already lost your whole life, for it is no longer, it is always just as long as the time you lose. […] As long as you don’t stop climbing, the stairs won’t end, under your climbing feet they will go on growing upwards

Another way of posing my question would be to ask how people come to depend on the stairs under these circumstances. It’s comforting and familiar to continue, providing a shape and structure to life, permitting of reliable progress while still requiring (satisfying) effort on a regular basis. It strips away ambiguity in a way that can prove alluring. Does it also undermine our capacity to deal with this ambiguity over time as we become reliant on short, sharp affirmations to keep us going rather than the more nebulous domain of what Charles Taylor calls our ‘ultimate concerns’?