Sil­i­con Val­ley has changed life, but at what cost to its work­ers?

San Francisco Chronicle - - OPINION - By Shobha Va­sude­van Shobha Va­sude­van is a pro­fes­sor of com­puter engi­neer­ing at the Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois at Ur­bana-Cham­paign, a top-five school for engi­neer­ing. She came to the Bay Area to spend her sab­bat­i­cal at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity. She has two young ch

We re­cently moved to the Bay Area and rented a house in a place where we could sneak a peek at life in Sil­i­con Val­ley.

My fas­ci­na­tion with the com­put­ing in­dus­try was whet by vis­its to the cam­puses of var­i­ous com­pa­nies. These sprawl­ing, beau­ti­ful cam­puses, with free-flow­ing food and drink, are mod­eled on par­adise. The gods and demigods that prowl them sim­ply ra­di­ate “I mat­ter.” Also adding to my awe were the names so ca­su­ally strewn about in the neigh­bor­hood — in­ven­tors of browsers, search en­gines, so­cial net­works, health soft­ware, mo­bile apps, in­ter­net and mo­bile tech­nolo­gies. The names of people who have pro­foundly changed life on this planet and have their fin­ger on the fast-for­ward but­ton of hu­man so­ci­ety’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties. The Sil­i­con Val­ley czars have af­fected (even en­riched) the lives of a stag­ger­ing num­ber of hu­mans in Planck time (the short­est pe­riod of time con­ceiv­able), when com­pared with the timescale of hu­man evo­lu­tion.

To go about the busi­ness of af­fect­ing lives, the sol­diers of in­no­va­tion em­ployed by these com­pa­nies are or­ga­nized into pla­toons, bat­tal­ions, bri­gades. These ar­mies pre­pare with count­less key­strokes and then charge si­lently on to the vir­tual bat­tle­field. Swarms of sen­tinels who pos­sess the skill of mak­ing a ma­chine do their bid­ding, and the man­agers who sup­port these skilled be­ings, are re­warded with their weight in gold ev­ery day. The Sil­i­con Val­ley dons the sheen of “green” and pea­cocks the aura of “mak­ing im­pact,” a term eas­ily bandied about here.

I had taken a long swig of this Kool-Aid as an out­sider look­ing in un­til, hav­ing two young kids, I be­gan to see a dif­fer­ent side of the val­ley.

The chil­dren of the czars and their sol­diers, I found, are raised by nan­nies, au pairs, af­ter-school-care work­ers, much-af­ter-af­ter-school-care aides, and in play dates, classes and camps. In short, by ev­ery­one other than par­ents.

Each par­ent works out a com­plex ma­trix of plans and ar­range­ments to keep the child tended dur­ing their im­pos­si­bly long hours toil­ing on the dig­i­tal plain.

Chil­dren of a screen-de­vour­ing age are kept away from screens by nan­nies who ferry them to af­ter-school classes. Most chil­dren get home af­ter 6 p.m., see their sib­lings and par­ents for an hour be­fore they go to bed, and re­turn to the daily grind the next morn­ing. Their child­hood has no empty spa­ces, no af­ter­noons of ad hoc play with sib­lings and neigh­bors, no read­ing li­brary books ob­ses­sively over an en­tire day, no one to gos­sip with about what the mean kid in class did that day.

For some, two in­comes are re­quired to pay the Bay Area’s steep mort­gages. For oth­ers, both par­ents work to be a part of the ac­tion. Given the pun­ish­ing stan­dards of pro­duc­tiv­ity in the val­ley, these as­pi­ra­tions can only be achieved with un­com­pro­mis­ing hours, of­ten ex­tend­ing into nights and week­ends.

“In the Bay Area, ev­ery job is 24/7,” says a weary ex­ec­u­tive in a tech gi­ant, who also is a mother of four.

While people here ac­cept their role as a week­end par­ent, the con­stant in­ter­nal strug­gle be­tween work and fam­ily cre­ates a per­cep­ti­ble strain. Per­haps more frus­trat­ing is find­ing that one’s pri­or­i­ties have bipo­lar dis­or­der. Some­times the chase seems worth it. Other times, the pic­tures of a happy tod­dler play­ing in the sand­box sent by the nanny make one feel de­prived of the pri­mal hu­man joy of par­ent­ing. The val­ley can feel lush and green, or wan and sal­low.

Does pro­duc­tiv­ity need to come at such a cost? Can we move to­ward sus­tain­able pro­duc­tiv­ity in tech­nol­ogy work? Work-life bal­ance is es­poused as a cause, but progress to­ward it reg­is­ters as but a blip. What is needed is a rewrit­ing of the pro­duc­tiv­ity-ful­fill­ment equa­tion.

Maybe this means com­pa­nies give em­ploy­ees an op­tion to go on a more rea­son­ably paced “par­ent track.” Or of­fer the op­tion of work­ing fewer hours some days of the week. Some­thing should change though, so the chil­dren of the val­ley spend qual­ity time with their par­ents, and not view life as a tight ma­trix of im­per­sonal sched­ules. For life is not the ma­trix but what hap­pens in the in­ter­sti­tial spa­ces.

Dustin Franz / New York Times 2018

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