In a very recent Harvard Business Review piece, Justin Fox argues that Silicon Valley has become The Man. I not only agree, I’ve been espousing the same point of view since 2010.
He sets forth the notion that this is the product of an historical tension between “flower power” and a present defined by unchecked power and elitism. While I find his brief analysis of the ethos of Silicon Valley culture interesting, he falls short of making a critical link between the American Dream and The Man.
While the phrase “The Man” is a somewhat amorphous derogation about people or institutions in positions of power, it was always central to the American Dream. Historically, we saw the American Dream as part mythology, part television performance, part of what might trickle down to us if we would just be good and play nicely with our betters.
At a time when phrases such as “Think Different” and notions such as disruption have become buzzwords of the status quo, it follows that Silicon Valley has become The Man.
This is all deeply reminiscent of the defining conversations about the American Dream between Hunter S. Thompson, Óscar Acosta, and employees of a California taco stand. The American Dream is so important that it borders on a tangible thing and one that has been held out to the masses as their carrot for over 80 years.
The reality of today’s Dream is that it’s pure illusion for all but a few. From where most of us sit, we are still privy only to the lottery stories of the few locals and many immigrants to the Valley who make it big. It’s the stuff of The Social Network for sure, but it’s equally the stuff of Steinbeck, as we watch a generation of Americans nurtured to be Joads, in search of a land of milk and honey that never really existed.
The San Francisco 49ers ceased to be a San Francisco team long before the planned destruction of the hovel known as Candlestick Park. Yes, long before the 49ers announced the much-heralded appointment of VC/tech executive Gideon Yu as their President and co-owner, the team had become part of the daily fabric of the lives of the Valley techgentsia, not residents of the City by the Bay, of which Journey sang so longingly.
Two harsh realities slam up against city dwellers who want to attend a 49ers game: good tickets routinely go for up to $1,000 on the grey market, and many young tech professionals pay $4,000 rent to live in the city. This team is, to put it lightly, not accessible to most who live in the area and is reviled by many who live outside Silicon Valley because of the tech culture it mirrors.
The National Football League had an “America’s Team” for many years. The Dallas Cowboys were the team of that Dallas — the one of the TV show. It was a notion born in an oil boom, as the current 49ers mythology was born in a tech boom. While the Cowboys’ position as America’s Team faded as a result of an owner with borderline sociopathic tendencies, years of craptastic on-the-field performances, and a national attention shift away from all things Dallas, the 49ers descent to become the antithesis of America’s Team was perfectly deliberate.
This is the team of Silicon Valley, the same Silicon Valley hated and, arguably, misunderstood, by a sizeable majority of Americans. They are the team of privilege and a team who sees rules as applying to everyone but them. As many have argued, the team, the front office, and their fans, are the most significant whiners in the entire league when things don’t go their way. Which, as is the case with Silicon Valley itself, is rarely when measured by any reasonable standard, quite often when measured internally.
The American Dream is the Myth of Meritocracy. With what San Francisco and Silicon Valley look like today, there’s no way that we can have a broader conversation about The Man and the American Dream without an intelligent dialogue about race and gender, both of which are so deeply underrepresented and underserved. When we’re talking about The Man, we’re talking about unequal power relationships. What differentiates Silicon Valley from almost all of the rest of America is a hyper-stratification of that society, as documented daily by American and global tech journalists.
The game run by The Man is a particularly insidious type of game, as is the game run by the National Football League. Both games involve a massive number of losers with few winners. Those who win sometimes win big, those who lose almost always lose bigger with unpredictable and long-lasting consequences.