Distraction Free Reading

Innovation and its discontents

Nostalgia for the Future

“I’ll never be a billionaire. Now I help other people try to get there, but I just don’t have the emotional well.”

These words from a tech company founder-turned-startup-coach would once have surprised me, prompting frantic scribbling in my field journal. One year into an anthropological study of futurists, strategists, designers, and foresight practitioners in Silicon Valley[1], however, I only nodded and noted the timestamp on my recorder. These once unexpected expressions of emotional and psychological depletion had turned out to be commonplace, imposing themselves to the point of dominating many of our research interviews. Our participants were chosen based on the nature of their work which, in diverse circumstances and with a variety of tools, tasked them with producing visions of imagined futures for use in institutional decision making by corporations, startups, investment firms, or NGOs. Yet, from the first, these practitioners had much less to say about the future or the methodologies they used to bring it into the present than they did about the past. That is to say, the interviews conducted by Dr. Gaymon Bennett and I have been and continue to be laced with palpable, often poignant, nostalgia about the way the Bay Area or Silicon Valley (in cultural terms, the latter has largely absorbed the former) “used to be” and frustration – even despair – directed at what they saw as the circumstances of its corruption.

Not all of them told the same story. Actually, few did. Each had their own assessment of what factor contributed most to the corruption — entitlement, managerial thinking, outdated process — as well as when the rot set in. The content of their stories, however, is less significant to our research team than the fact that they all have them and that they contradict the all-sunlight-and-no-shadow mythology of Silicon Valley. All seem to principally consist of a renegotiation — sometimes a fundamental one — of the interviewee’s own positionality, identity, and entanglement with that mythology. Moreover, because the mythology itself is so entangled with the work of “innovation” in Silicon Valley, these stories are personal adjustments of the practitioner in relation to the task of introducing novel products and new organizational processes. In other words, a new subjectivity crafted as compensation for dissatisfaction encountered in the work of “innovation” and with the place where that work happens.

A driveway leads to a free standing garage with green doors locked by a padlock. On the left a thick row of hedges follows the driveway. On the right a bay window with green frame extends over a narrow strip of grass.

“Birthplace of Silicon Valley” – the infamous garage where Bill Hewlett and David Packard built their first product has taken on mythological status and is a destination for tourists and techno-optimists. @Oliver Korbl, Flickr Creative Commons.

Buying In and Opting Out

These renegotiations can take many different forms. The circumstances of one’s personal history, employment, values, and ambitions all come into play. However, thinking about them in clusters based on a spectrum of positionality relative to conventional corporate culture has proven fruitful. At one end of this spectrum are those who have bought into corporate cultures rather than resisting them (accepting conventional dollar-based conceptualizations of value over socially-derived ones, for instance, or acquiescing to incremental institutional reform rather than radical change), adopting, to a varying degree and with varying enthusiasm, the views, values, cadences, and discourse of institutions over their own. Consider a venture capitalist who reflected ruefully on young, idealistic Valley operators: “I used to march, too, okay? I used to be a revolutionary,” he told us in a Zoom interview, his head and shoulders virtually framed by Beijing’s Forbidden City. “But sometimes you have to be totally focused. Survival is better.” Consider also the founder, consultant, and Bay Area native who lamented the loss of San Francisco’s eclectic edginess and informed us that he so resented the changes he’d witnessed that he refused to take on Valley clients. This same person, however, admitted that he had acquiesced to practical demands and was “doing his latest startup ‘the Salesforce way’” — i.e. conforming to the same organizing forces and managerial mentalities which he had derided. Here, novelty, rebelliousness, and maybe idealism are stultified by an acknowledgment of an apparently inevitable practicality.

At the other end of the spectrum, conformity is rejected as the individual decides to opt out altogether. Renegotiations over here are built around wholesale rejections of “Wall Street thinking” and bureaucratic red tape, or of unpalatable cultural mores which our interlocutors refused to adopt. Such was the case with a former design strategist who became “very disillusioned with Tech. It’s become more and more sell out.” Dismissive of the way venture capitalism has changed Valley culture, she has recently left the scene to work for a “slow-moving luxury goods holding company” which she nonetheless considers “a refreshing change.” Many of the other folks our team interviewed had abandoned the Bay Area altogether, moving to Seattle, Colorado, or as far as Lagos and Tasmania.  “I’ll never go back,” a strategy consultant told us, “There’s just too much there you have to willfully ignore.”

Muddling Through and Living on the Margins

At more moderate points on this same spectrum are those who try to muddle through within the machine, like the director of strategy who shared insights from a three-decade career of nudges, small wins, and more frequent frustrations within a large software company. “We should be shapers of the market. We like to say that, but we don’t actually do it.” Now nearing retirement, he judges that the company is “somewhat aware, parts of it less so. The executives are just beginning to think like this.” He noted that the company still has overdeveloped “followship muscles.” Fair enough. The notion that institutions aren’t naturally inclined to innovate is not new — it was fundamental to Clay Christensen’s thinking and, long before that, to Thorstein Veblen’s. But theorizing at the level of the institution doesn’t tell us what it’s like being a human who has taken up the seemingly Sisyphean task of moving them in new directions. “It’s scary,” another foresight lead told us, this one from a large financial company. “You’re up on a mountaintop waving your flag, hoping you won’t be seen as useless or stupid.” Ever and always, the work of exposing institutions to novelty is incremental and obliged to justify its own necessity. As the director of strategy said, “The worst thing that can happen is it becomes transactional.”

But becoming transactional is exactly the strategy of innovators who are tired of being bogged down by bureaucracy, tired of risk aversion prompted by an “ossification toward revenue,” tired of “dud” executives standing in the way of progress. By working on the margins of Silicon Valley, independently or in incubators and consultancies, these folks have more agency in choosing their clients and bounding their involvement, as well as the solace of knowing the association can be temporary. The founder quoted at the top of this essay was one such, as was the designer who said, “The only companies I’ll work with are the ones I think are already doing good.” For her, “good” was predicated on the designers’ values in terms of social impact but also on an institutional practice that applied design thinking throughout the entire structure, even to things like the wording of contracts. Another interviewee who moved from a tech company into a startup incubator is worth quoting at length: “At the company where I used to work, we had an amazing executive, but he retired, and his successor was less adventurous. The amazing journey we’d been on for two years ground to a halt right when we could see the Promised Land.” It was too much to countenance. “When you’re living in that environment every day, it takes a lot of emotional commitment. Now I can keep it all at arm’s length. The stakes are just different.”

Affective Negotiating

Buying in, opting out, muddling through, and living at the margins are differing modes of compensation for the same frustrations, suggesting a side of innovation that is often ignored. Implied is a whole suite of personal skills and capacities that are never thought of as part of innovation but that are absolutely crucial to it. Working in this space is not just about optimizing one’s routine; nor is it simply about enhancing intuition and pattern-matching aptitude. It’s not even just about developing and maintaining eclectic and individualized health regimes to maximize one’s longevity in a fast-paced and highly stressful work environment. Being responsible for spurring novelty and inculcating an institutional sense for the future implicitly necessitates emotional resilience. The point, quite literally, is that being innovative in Silicon Valley takes a toll on the mind and the spirit. Renegotiations, re-narrativizations of one’s role, one’s identity, one’s relationship to that work, are compensatory to the affective wear and tear of innovation and always accompanied by a broader narrative about the Valley itself. In associating or disassociating from Silicon Valley and its mythology, these innovators’ narratives establish a kind of temporal boundary, on one side of which Valley innovation is figured as pure and uncorrupted, and they align themselves accordingly. Thus, the VC who “buys in” to the mythology sees the “old days” of idealism and activism as naïve and immature, lacking focus, while the consultant who “opted out” draws his line at the point when all the “khaki-wearing MBA students” came to town.

The Soul-Crushing Work of Innovation

Two important questions arise. First, what aspects of the work cause this depletion? Also, what exactly is it that is being depleted? Some of the innovators cited above speak to the first in their attestation to the pains of coping with the preference for incremental change and institutional foot-dragging, the most frequently cited inhibitors to innovation. Our research team has identified two more common pain points. First is the “soul-crushing” distraction of “innovation theater” — a term referring to those occasions when it becomes apparent that the client or company has less inclination to act on the perspectives opened up through innovators’ work than they are to advertise the fact that they commissioned that they employ those innovators. These instances were almost universally deplored among our interviewees, to whom they were always seen as wasted time and interruptions to the “real work” they felt they were supposed to be doing. One interviewee even told us that innovation theater made him feel like a prized horse to be trotted out at cocktail parties.

Less commonly expressed but of even more interest to our team were expressions of a moral dissonance between their own values and those of the company, client, or culture in general. One Valley operator who has helped grow some famed startup but now mostly invests told us that he has been “deeply uncomfortable the whole time. For the longest time, I existed in constant terror of bullies.” A woman who had opted out said, “The Valley has never been a comfortable place to be a woman.”

In a conference room with tall windows, three tables are covered with markers, worksheets, poster-paper, and coffee cups. Seventeen men, all white, and three women occupy the chairs around these tables. In the foreground, an older man in shirt and tie points at a woman who is speaking and gesticulating. Between them, a younger man in jeans and untucked button-up holds a marker and a piece of paper which reads “weak government, strong business.”

A typical scene at a scenario planning session or forecasting workshop @Sebastiaan ter Burg, Flickr Creative Commons.

Sadly, this is true. For instance, 86% of venture funding goes to men and all-female founder teams barely attract 2% of venture capital. The lagging progress and in some cases regression of Silicon Valley leadership diversity is a good example of a point where the Valley’s mythological image as the leading edge of change breaks down. “It’s exhausting being the only representative of my sex.” A VC, an avid meditator and Tai Chi practitioner, regretted that so many of the excellent and accessible spiritual communities had been corrupted by the all-encompassing greed he saw as prevalent in Valley culture. Perhaps the most important voice in this regard was that of a religious leader whose community of care consisted mostly of tech company employees. “Every company pitches itself in terms of life meaning, purpose, etc. — moral theologies that you opt into by working there,” he explained. “What I hear are the pains of those who react to the companies’ failure to live up to their own moral platitudes.”

Appetite for Depletion

I have described several varieties of compensatory re-negotiations of one’s relationship to the work of institutional innovation. I have posited institutional resistance, innovation theater, and moral dissonance as three constituents of a vast range of conditions that might prompt such renegotiations. Some of the innovators Bennett and I speak to are idealists, some utopians, some anarchists. Some are openly motivated by money and some quite clearly only want to see institutions act based on their advice and to be proven right. What holds all this together? The answer, I think, is the same as the answer to the last question to take up here: what are the wages in the affective economy of innovation?

A young founder who had opted out — deciding to start his company, a “uniquely mission-driven” mental health-focused networking product, in Seattle rather than the Bay Area — declared that he didn’t believe it would have worked without the relocation. “Our company couldn’t be what it is if we weren’t the people we are. Every one of us has a therapist. I write about my emotions on Medium. Could we live like this in the Bay Area? Right now, mental health is trendy and cool, but I’m not sure it will be sticky. There’s a shift in dialogue toward empathy, but this is theater. I don’t think there’s a lot of buy in.” Another founder who had remained in Silicon Valley was struggling with similar tensions. By his own admission, he had made a conscious decision to opt-in long enough to try to change things from the inside. But he felt that the “machine was too big, from an individual’s perspective. Maybe that’s not necessarily true but it’s very tough to change.” Now, even running his own company, he can’t help but feel himself being ground down as a cog in the machine. “Sometimes I think, ‘if I can just get a certain degree of material wealth [later he suggested $4 million] I’ll have enough money to escape being a cog. But how do you get to that point without buying in? Hopefully, you retain enough consciousness to keep some idealism by the time you reach escape velocity.” This is by no means guaranteed. I turn again to the woman who now works in luxury, who admitted seeing some of the same trends in her new sector as had “corrupted” the Valley. “I’m the world-weary veteran now,” she said ruefully. “Now I know I’m the frog in the pot.” When asked if she thought those trends were reversible or adjustable: “I have hope but it’s an irrational hope,” she said with palpable fatigue. “There will always be small things, but… the system, the system, the system. The system does not motivate towards that goal.”

Hope Springs the New

Let me spare the dead horse any more kicking and go to the quick of it: hope. Hope that things can be different. The desire to see that happen. The motivation to instigate the change. Innovation thrives on it, but it does not seem to replenish it. To quote Lily Irani in Chasing Innovation, it subsumes hope. Speaking of “entrepreneurial citizenship,” her term for exploited grassroots innovation, Irani says, “It subsumes hope. It subsumes critique, mutual aid, and desires for better, more just worlds. It disciplines hopes for the future into forms that fit existing institutional agendas through the language of ‘viability’ and ‘sustainability.’” It is notable that in all the nearly one hundred interviews this research project has occasioned, not a single person has told Bennett and me, explicitly or implicitly, that they are more hopeful than when they started. For many, it seems Silicon Valley’s brand of innovation only depletes. It never restores.

Hope is a crucial resource even for those that do not harbor dreams of sweeping societal change or social justice or income equality. Even those whose desires are more personal or immediate hope that their advice will be heeded, that their bets will pay off, that their bosses or their clients will recognize their worth. That said, it should be evident where my own sentiments lean. I believe that the world needs more idealists in Valley tech. The culture’s reach is too long, its impact too severe to be left to pragmatists inured to the slow, incremental rhythm of institutions and convinced of the immaturity of revolutionaries. In the last handful of years, it has become abundantly clear how disruptive Valley tech’s products can be to life in the political and economic arenas, and we already knew how harmful they can be to the social individual. Spaces and opportunities for changing that reality, of shifting tech toward a more salubrious role, narrow at the same rate that innovation depletes the hope of innovators. Rather than see these folks swallowed up or ground down, to steal a line from an interviewee already quoted: survival is better. I’d sleep better knowing these innovators were persevering and doing the hard work to nudge the Valley in a more healthful direction. It seems to me that the best chance for that to happen is to be less individualistic when it comes to one’s own resilience. If innovators form communities, instead of networks, they might help each other persevere long enough to have the impact they hope for.


[1] The collaborative research from which these observations emerge is a joint endeavor between Arizona State University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem headed up by PIs Dr. Gaymon Bennett and Dr. Limor Samimian-Darash, respectively, and funded by the US-Israel Binational Science Foundation under the title “Modalities of Future Imagination: Technologies and Practices of Future Imagination in the Israeli and US High-Tech Sectors.” The author is a Ph.D. student researcher enrolled in the project. The goal of this research is to understand how the practice of envisioning imagined futures mediates institutional and self-governance and regimes of self-care of practitioners in the present.

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