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Valley Cats and Their Dead Rats

By: Paulina Borsook

ONE DULCET spring afternoon in the late 1980s, I was out for a drive on a first date with a guy much enmeshed in Silicon Valley (house: one of those scarily overpriced-by-the-standards-of-the-rest-of-the-world bungalows in Palo Alto; friends: folks who had really made it big there then). As people do when they are trying to display who they are and where they came from to a potential Love Thing, I talked to him about what it was like to have lived in Manhattan before the stock market crash of 1987 and how one day, at rush hour, I saw a young black man, looking clearly country and not at all like a hardened urban dweller, sitting in front of the McGraw-Hill building, with a sign that read, ‘‘I need money to go home to North Carolina to get some food.’’ I was telling Mr. Possible about the midtown beggar because he represented to me how hard and how heartless life had been during the years of my captivity in New York. Yet all the sleek accomplished male who was driving us both in a BMW along Skyline Boulevard had to say was, ‘‘a long way to go for groceries, don’t you think?’’

I was stunned; this from a guy who’d been a scholarship boy himself, who’d traveled all over the world in rough and not cruise-line conditions. His reaction was my first encounter with the strange lack of empathy in high tech. If a cat really loves you, it will give you what it loves—which is a dead rat on your pillow or doormat.

This disinclination to see how the world outside high tech can have positive value to the world inside high tech isn’t just about self-glorification. It’s also about love: Very much at play is the cat/dead rat phenomenon. To wit, if a cat really loves you, it will give you what it loves—which is a dead rat on your pillow or doormat. Never mind that you may not want a dead rat. And so it is in high tech: In a culture as workaholic and self-validating and insular and technology-besotted as high tech, nothing could be finer to these valley cats than the gift of dead-rat computer equipment. So they give what they love best, what they think has the greatest value, that is, computers and communications systems.

These cats range through territories that are clumped way toward the ‘‘have’’ end of the have/have-not spectrum, where schools are definitely above average and it’s safe to walk the streets at night and the libraries are stocked and you can rely on your late-model car to get you where you are going and you can buy the books you want or need at Kepler’s; their basic needs are very much being met. Thus results a true lack of understanding that throwing a copy of PhotoShop on a Pentium clone may not solve an East Palo Alto kid’s problems. This kid may not have a safe and quiet place to do her homework, enough to eat on a regular basis, or a home where the phone and the gas and electricity aren’t in frequent peril of being turned off.

Throwing technology at the problem

In the 1980s the Richmond, Calif., school district went bankrupt, but it had piles of unused donated computer equipment lying around. The head of Cisco half-jokes that Cisco’s ‘‘take a router to school’’ program was successful, even when the schools in question didn’t know what a router was. (Routers direct electronic messages on their proper pathways to their proper recipients.) Somehow the schools found a way to make use of donated technology, for schools are grateful for anything they can get. It’s a sad instance of cat/dead-ratness.

You can bet that many of the schools that took on Cisco routers didn’t have adequate telephone lines or proper wiring or teacher training or the network administrators these boxes really do require; routers do not, in terms of ease of installation, operate anything like an answering machine, whose simplicity enables it to work anywhere there is a phone jack with a touch-tone line. It’s folks at the graduate-student or the $75- an-hour level who get and keep routers up and humming happily.

The point has often been made that giving schools computers (which quickly become obsolete, which require lots of training, which run hypnotic or boring software of debatable utility for kids) is not such a Swell Thing in itself, if other basics are lacking (fair compensation for good teaching; books and art supplies and musical instruments and lab equipment and proper teacher-student ratios). But a larger point perhaps has not been made. Although it is certainly not up to high tech to fix everything that is broken in public education, there really might be more community value in funding a story-telling hour at a local library than in donating a computer involving complex database operations that confuse patrons, vex librarians, and may not help people find what they need. Funding field trips to the tide pools at Pescadero may be of far greater value, pedagogically and developmentally, than throwing stale repetitive education (or worse, ‘‘edutainment’’) software at kids. Conservatives rightly complain that the liberal solution of throwing money at problems doesn’t work; but neither does the technolibertarian solution of throwing technology at problems.

You can spot technology cats thinking about their dead rats everywhere. Since technologists believe so ardently in the value of the dead rats they’ve created and can point to jobs and wealth and export dollars created, they may feel they have already made their contribution to society. Unlike those who make their money from speculation, technologists feel they’ve created something concrete, so that no atonement (if that’s what philanthropy is) need be made, no guilt money paid. Despite the fact that the net effect of much technology is to eliminate jobs without necessarily improving productivity, many technologists feel a sense of artisanal/good farmer self-justification: To T.J. Rodgers, Cypress’ biggest contribution to the community has been the creation of jobs—a good thing, no doubt about it. But is it enough?

The illusion of invulnerability

The brushing off of philanthropy by high tech rests on the presumption that people will always be well, will always be able to purchase what they need, will have easy access to any cultural artifact they value, will never be disabled, will always be able to work, will always have put enough money away, will have job skills still in demand, and will never need to rely on the freely available community-supported institutions not previously thought about, such as a community Medicare-funded hospice for someone they love—or, perish the thought, for themselves. It’s an extension of the valley’s work-hard/play-hard ethic. (‘‘Sleep is for the sick and weakly’’ was a button being sold at a technical conference for programmers.) If you can’t get by on little sleep, keep all hours all week, then barrel on up to the Sierra for a fun weekend of rock climbing, then roar back home, arriving at 2 a.m. to start all over again, then you clearly aren’t cut out for high tech’s New Games of work and play.

What’s hard to tell, as we enter the new millennium, is if some very high-profile philanthropic gestures within the valley—the social venture funds among them—signify a true change in high-tech thinking or whether it’s more window dressing. There’s a new intimation that social structures are fraying and that something should be done about it. After all, how can the valley continue to attract world-class engineers if the schools for their kids are so impoverished? No one knows whether such highly visible moves as the United Way of Santa Clara County bringing in 10 valley superstars (for example, VC John Doerr and Kathy Levison, president of E-Trade) to kick-start fundraising activities will come to matter, either in terms of raising money or influencing others in the valley. Steve Kirsch, the guy who tried to get his friends to help bail out the United Way, has given tens of millions of dollars. But it’s hard to tell whether such generous gestures are influencing the actions of a relatively few individuals while the great mass of high tech remains unchanged.

Realistically, almost no one, not Henry David Thoreau, much less Theodore Kaczynski, has ever really evaded relying on the social mesh to some extent. But in high tech there’s a presumption of invulnerability (I don’t need anything) and predictability (I will never need anything) that flies smack in the face of the certainty of human loss and suffering and, ultimately, interdependence. And if government is the designated Bad Actor of Last Resort, and traditional religious organizations say they don’t have the capacity to take up the increasing slack in an era of welfare reform, then who will support the community?

PAULINA BORSOOK, a former contributing writer for Wired magazine, writes about technology and culture and lives in the Bay Area. This article is excerpted from the book ‘‘Cyberselfish,’’ ©2000 by Paulina Borsook. Reprinted by permission of PublicAffairs. All rights reserved.

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