Jobs, Bezos, Musk and the others

The hooded entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley are in reality workers subject to often fierce competition. In the world of innovation, there are many inequalities.

This work is the result of a sociological survey carried out in Silicon Valley between 2015 and 2022. It is based on observations and interviews which allowed the author to collect a large body of data on this region, which has long been in the spotlight of the media and analysts. of contemporary capitalism. The fact that the researcher is a foreigner or a temporary migrant (p. 32) may have encouraged a certain distance from the fascination which is never absent from the stories of all kinds that this small part of California has aroused. Because since the emergence of the first tycoons computer science, the media, of course, but also literature and the social sciences have taken up a subject that seems inexhaustible. Olivier Alexandre considers Silicon Valley as a universe whose protagonists are these entrepreneurs whom he describes as players. But players who do not conform to the values ​​traditionally associated with capitalism (business, commodification, property and profit), but celebrate networks, free () selfless exchange (p/88).

A permanent effervescence

The title of the volume, Techcould be that of one of those thrillers that keep us in suspense; it summarizes what is the heart of activity in this corner of California, but also a state of mind, a way of considering the future of the company. The presence of investors, these angels, which accompany the emergence of companies, the ability or not of the latter to attract capital in a wider radius, that of large companies and beyond the world of finance, makes it possible to ensure or not the rise in power of these start-ups whose success makes the new ideologues of progress salivate. In the first part of the book, Olivier Alexandre describes these processes and the world of venture capital with its pioneers, such as Georges Doriot, a Frenchman of origin who invested in DEC, the creator of the first mini-computer. A lot of flair and composure on the part of the investor, rewarded by high rates of return: this is how the great achievements of Silicon Valley are built. These relationships between venture capitalists and entrepreneurs constantly maintain the excitement, confronting players with incessant challenges. Before entering into partnerships, venture capitalists receive a number of requests on a daily basis. Suffice to say that tying deals is not a simple matter.

As has been emphasized by many observers, success is not only the result of individual initiative. Entrepreneurs must develop networks and these links allow them to build the social capital essential to these players. Hence the importance of communities (Universities, businesses, diasporas, socio-economic affiliations) essential references to find a place in this often ruthless universe. The type of business that flourished in Silicon Valley, collaborative, agile, learners, contrasts with the forms of organization that have long dominated the American economy. Innovation in the new technology sector has given rise to forms of work and management methods that make it possible to fuel creative dynamics.

Developers and Burning Man

Certainly we will not find in this book a comparison of this territory with other areas of the world dedicated to new technologies, which would allow us to better understand what the author designates as the riddle of Silicon Valley. But the great interest of the immersion carried out by Olivier Alexandre is to highlight the way in which we recruit and manage human capital which is the key to success in a situation where competition is intense. The difficulty of attracting highly demanded profiles explains that developing, preparing and carrying out recruitment procedures represents a work of innovation in its own right. (p. 250). We not only offer a high level of remuneration, but also working conditions, an environment, training and learning opportunities. Given the demand for high-level engineers, one of the problems for employers is retaining their teams: The ability to retain employees is closely linked to the financial capacity of the company (p. 259). Once recruited, developers must find themselves constantly stimulated in a work context where the material elements and ideals are in line with the demand for creativity. Hence the deployment of a corporate culture, backed by a visionof the values the very statement of which, and the stories to which they give substance, are often associated with personalization. The names of Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk alone embody the success and singularity of companies that have achieved fame.

This dive into the daily lives of developers reveals the complexity of their work, the difficulties they face, these constant trials and tribulations, the need to find reinforcement among colleagues by not hesitating to entrust missions to consultants. The part of the book devoted to developers is undoubtedly the most interesting of the work because it paints a nuanced picture of this essentially masculine, heterosexual category, which values ​​the collaborative spirit and favors t-shirts and hooded sweatshirts: be cool, smoke weed, look younger than you are, as one of the sociologist’s interlocutors explains. A lot of stress too, and work that is both meticulous and subject to the uncertainty of results. Many projects in fact lead to dead ends. The trajectories of developers reveal the role of certified training which helps to strengthen their position on the market where they are constantly competing. What emerges from the sociologist's interviews and observations is the image of a contrasting universe, where the little geniuses are only a minority, while the majority of their colleagues trace their path amidst obstacles and are more like tinkerers always ready to resist discouragement. who is lying in wait.

By following Burning Man, a large annual gathering where entrepreneurs and venture capitalists from Silicon Valley converge, Olivier Alexandre dives even deeper into the mysteries of this community. Nearly 80,000 people participated in this major event in 2022. Burning Man is experienced as a great moment of enchantment, something crazy of Magic, according to the participants. This takes place in the Nevada desert, in extreme conditions, both because of the climate and the physical ordeal that festival-goers endure in this temporary city which exists only for this event. This is an initiatory experience: we burn this city, because to burn is to get rid of the superfluous. We question habits and routines, we go beyond our own limits. At the same time there is no real break between the corporate logic of Silicon Valley and the euphoria of the festival. The interactions that occur there are used to enrich networks and to present technological projects. The camps where participants come together encourage the creation of new collectives. Burning Man is a way of reenchanting each year the more prosaic world of Tech dependent on an omnipresent rationalism, oriented toward digital technology and calculation.

The fantasy of success and its limits

In the past we talked about American dream, and Silicon Valley is a bit one of the products of this imagination which fuels the fantasy of success in the business world. Doesn't the idea that new technologies lead us towards a better life, the eschatological perspective, which guides many thinkers in biotech, from transhumanism to artificial intelligence, outline a religion of the future?? Olivier Alexandre refers here to the discourse of Tech personalities, to the multiple institutes and think tanks that have flourished at Harvard, Berkeley and Stanford. This ideology, particularly present in transhumanist projects, has fueled the controversy, and it would undoubtedly have been necessary to devote a more in-depth study to this question, which is not trivial. The quest for spirituality constitutes a dimension strongly present in Silicon Valley, an extension of the counterculture movements which have spread around Berkeley and Stanford. The rituals of Burning Man also resonate with forms of transcendence, and we can wonder to what extent all this imagination has not contributed in a paradoxical way to practices that nevertheless claim to be an uncompromising rationalism.

In conclusion of his book, the author observes that Silicon Valley was tremendously successful and terribly unsuccessful (p. 457). It has produced considerable transformations, but the local counterpart of innovation has been an increase in inequalities and new forms of alienation. Intensification and precariousness of work, accentuation of the ecological crisis and overexploitation of rare earths are among the most negative consequences of the triumph of Tech.

How to remedy this situation? The author calls in particular for regulation and supervision of risk capital. But it seems from reading this work that the reality described to us there will remain untouched by the state for a long time to come. On this point, the book leaves us a little unsatisfied, but this is undoubtedly due to the fact that this sociology of Silicon Valley, favoring the notion of player, remains essentially anchored in the mic categories of developers and local financiers. What makes the description effective locks it into a logic that is not enough to call into question the final questioning of the political and business leaders (p. 456) and the call for the politicization of Tech which deserves a little more demanding development.