The soul of Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley is a fascinating place. This is partly personal: I almost always have warm, sunny weather there, a treat for visitors from London. There are loads of interesting people to meet. Once you get away from the freeways and undistinguished shed architecture, the countryside is beautiful. I’ve been getting there twice a year, learn a lot, and always enjoy the trips.

It is also of course one of the cultural epicentres of the modern world, and not necessarily for the good. Fairly recently I read The Philosopher of Palo Alto, by John Tinnell, which was a glimpse into how different it might have been. My latest read is Work, Pray, Code: When work becomes religion in Silicon Valley by Carolyn Chen. It’s a really interesting ethnography of tech workers, partly – as the subtitle suggests – looking at how their work has become the nurturing community places of worship used to be; but also at the way versions of Eastern religions have been co-opted by tech firms to make their workforces as productive as can be through effectively mind-altering processes.

The first part of this looks at the wrap-around ‘maternal’ employers, whose HR functions in large part are about ordering in healthy food, providing concierge services, making sure the workplace has a gym and a dentist and yoga classes. Many tech workers hardly ever leave the embrace of their campus or HQ. All their life and their effective family is there. If works is life, no need to worry about their ‘balance’. The HR justification is that this wraparound care prevents burnout and makes life less stressful – although of course expecting fewer hours of work would be less stressful too. Chen points out though that the separation of ‘life’ and ‘work’ has been a phenomenon of the industrial age.

The second part is the use of meditation and mindfulness as a deliberate company technique to ensure employees are focused and always at peak productivity. Executive coaching is part of this; senior or high potential employees are taught how to be their ‘authentic’ selves and discover their purpose and passion (which coincides with raising investment funds or shipping new products). I don’t think I have it in me to be mindful, not that I want to completely mock the whole phenomenon; but there is something deeply creepy and late-capitalism about it being your employer who is concerned with your spiritual well-being and authentic self so that you are passionate about your life/work.

Work, pray, code is a very interesting insight into aspects of Silicon Valley work and life. There are lots of individual stories, which is of course fascinating. I found it cast a thought-provoking light on this strange place that has shaped the modern world.

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The Free World, not in a nutshell

I finally finished The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand, all 700+ pages of it. I did enjoy reading it, an account of Cold War, mainly US with some French, intellectual and cultural history that is both panoramic and detailed. It ranges from philosophy, art and music to the 60s counterculture, tracing the way the domestic and international political context shaped some of the currents across the waterfront of ideas. Having said that, I find it hard to sum up the book and put this down to the fact that I had to read it in relatively short chunks over a long period because it’s just too big to carry around or even hold for long. I do think it would have benefited from some editing out of the detail. For example, every new character in some circle, from art criticism to linguistic philosophy is introduced with a biographical note – where they grew up, what their connections with to others in the circle, who slept with whom. We are treated to some snippets about their personality: Pollock always drank too much, Sartre “did a great Donald Duck impression.”

Having said that, the book certainly deserves the adjective magisterial. The famous cultural figures, from John Cage to the Beatles or Kerouac to Baldwin, are located in a milieu that helps explain their art and also somewhat downplays it. For it is evident that Sherwin Rosen’s superstar effect has long been in operation: people who are only slightly better than their rivals at whatever they do become the main focus of general attention and fame, for reasons of serendipity, or connections.

On reflection, perhaps the reason I’m left with quite a bitty impression is less to do with its length and my feeble biceps than with the inherent difficulty of the task Menand set himself. Maybe the 2nd half of the 20th century is just too close to our own lives for the focal length to be set in a way that gives a single coherent image rather than this impressionistic account. Maybe covering everything from A J Ayer’s philosophy to the success of the New Yorker is too large a territory. Having said this, perhaps it doesn’t matter either. It’s beautifully written and there are 700+ pages of fascinating detail.


Is weird wonderful?

I’ve been slowly reading The Weirdest People in the World by Joseph Henrich. Slowly because I’ve dipped into a reading group and that gave me an excuse to dawdle. And also because it’s one of those too-heavy-to-lift books that need an arrangement of cushions to read. Perhaps it’s because of this dilatory pace that I found myself decreasingly impressed by the book as I went on.

Or perhaps it’s because the freshest part of the argument is in the early sections, which document the different responses to psychology experiments from different kinds of people around the world and make the argument about the origins of the unusual ‘western’ psychology lying in the mediaeval Church’s prohibitions on kin marriage. Henrich callis it the ‘Marriage and Family Programme’, although doesn’t really explain where it came from. For those still unaware of the acronym, ‘weird’ stands for ‘western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic’. The book’s accumulation of evidence that there is a distinctive ‘weird’ psychology, correlated with the footprint of western Christianity, is reasonably persuasive – although it is far from obvious to me that an accumulation of individual experimental results and survey correlations of this kind amounts to decisive evidence. Many chapters are a list of: here’s one study in place X; here’s another at another time in place Y; then Z; and here are some scatter plots with regression lines.

The trouble is that the book then dissolves into a less convincing argument that this attitude to kin marriage – which drove people in the west to look for social relations and build trust outside their immediate clan – explains everything. My firm view is that history is over-determined and nothing has only one cause. As the chapters went by, the book more and more seems to be an amalgam of all those other Big Histories such as Guns, Germs and Steel, or Why the West Rules for Now. Inevitably, it has to engage with feedback loops. Having said that, highlighting the feedback loop between psychology and institutional change is interesting and productive.

And oh yes, one last point. There’s the implicit teleological determinism in Weirdest. It always refers to “development” in inverted commas, but there is a value judgment; the west has progressed more than the rest. Cast the argument forward and it’s another matter: will the west stay democratic and prosperous? Aren’t there worrying signs of family dynasties in the US and jobs (only) for mates in the UK (couldn’t one see Eton and Oxbridge as tribal?). Yet this sits oddly with the book’s avoidance of any explicit normative discussion. Is weird good? If it really does correlate with prosperous, surely yes? As a WEIRD person, I htink so.

I think it’s well worth a read, there’s plenty of food for thought and economics tends to underplay psychology and culture. But maybe wait for the paperback.


If it isn’t creative, you don’t have much of an economy

I went to the launch last week of Patrick Kabanda’s The Creative Wealth of Nations, and was lucky enough to hear the great Amartya Sen (who wrote the foreword) give an introduction. It’s a terrific book, looking at the role of the arts in human well-being and economic development.

Kabanda grew up in Uganda in troubled political times, won a scholarship and graduated from Juilliard, then became for a time a World Bank development expert. This interesting range of life experience has convinced him of the importance of culture and the arts for three reasons: the direct economic importance of the cultural sector, the role of culture in stimulating the imagination and generating ideas, and its encouragement of collaboration and social capital. If it isn’t creative, you don’t have much of an economy.

The book covers several perspectives: there is a section making the general case for the economic importance of the arts; one looking at trade including the role of digital and tourism; chapters on gender and on the role of the arts in mental health and urban life; and one about data, and the paucity of statistics and weaknesses in conceptualising and measuring the creative industries and their economic development role.

There is an astonishingly small literature on the economics of arts and culture, given their importance in our lives but also – patently – the economy In the UK for instance it’s only recently that we’ve come to debate the ‘creative sector’ even though it’s comparable in scale to the financial sector. There are exceptions – Tyler Cowen is a prominent one. I’ve wondered if this reflects an avoidance of some difficult economic questions concerning how to handle public goods, externalities and self-fulfilling phenomena but this hasn’t kept economists from analysing environmental issues or financial markets. So I’m not completely sure of the reason. It’s tempting to suggest it’s because economists so often either don’t have or (more often) hide their human hinterland because of the culture of economics itself. Perhaps it’s because of the absence of data, the gaps in our understanding of how to measure intangibles with public good characteristics), and indeed the unmeasurability of some aspects of the arts. (The book kindly quotes me riffing on this.)

This lacuna in the economics literature of course makes The Creative Wealth of Nations all the more welcome. I particularly liked the chapters on mental health – so important for economic development in some countries and, crucially, in some rapidly-growing mega-cities fraught with violence in their slum areas – and on cultural tourism, both very thought provoking. The chapter on digital considers the oligopoly in the music industry and advocates a competing platform (dTunes, music for development) to create a market for local musicians who are below the radar of the big players.

As well as being a fascinating exploration of an area too little considered in economics, the book is also a throughly enjoyable read. It’s really well written and constructed around an extended musical metaphor – above my head but much appreciated anyway.

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Resisting the temptation of quantum economics

On the train yesterday I finished an enjoyable book, The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein and Heisenberg taught us to love Uncertainty by Robert Crease and Alfred Scharff Goldhaber. It’s the book of a course this philosopher and physicist teach to students who are a mix of humanities and science majors, and it concerns the interactions between discoveries in physics and the wider culture. Now, I must confess that, despite the simplification here, I still don’t understand quantum mechanics, condensates, entanglement and all that jazz: it feels like my brain can almost grasp what’s going on but despite straining can’t quite get there. I’m not alone but at least I don’t pretend; the book has nice examples of ‘fruit loopery’, meaningless claims of spurious authority based on the impressive sound of quantum terminology. The idea of there being no ‘out there’ outside the model, from which an expert and impartial observer can analyse everything, has obvious resonance for a social scientist. But let’s not pretend to do quantum economics.

Even so, the book is convincing in its argument that the Newtonian world (as imported into culture) of straightforward cause and effect has been replaced by a more uncomfortable world of ‘gaps, inconsistencies, warps and bubbles’. The authors think this is a good thing – perhaps it prefigures a ‘new humanism’ they suggest. Hmm. I’m not so sure about that. But I would agree that: “Understanding and appreciating quantum language and imagery – along with the ability to recognise its misuse in fruitloopery – is part of what it means to be an educated person today.” But is there any truly accessible explanation of it for the non-physicist?  51otp0kfvil-_sx331_bo1204203200_