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I have been programming professionally since 1984. Like many of my colleagues, when I first started working with computers I was messianic in my descriptions of the effect they were going to have on society. Pollution? Computers would let us telecommute, and monitor resource usage to help us conserve. Alienation? Computers don't de-humanize, they make us all Renaissance men.
Times have changed, and dreams with them. In Behind the Silicon Curtain: The Seductions of Work in a Lonely Era, Dennis Hayes surveys the heartland of the Second Industrial Revolution and finds that pollution and alienation are as much as part of Silicon Valley as the digital watches and smart missiles designed there.
Hayes started out as a sociologist, moving into writing and support jobs in the Valley in the early 1980's. While his social criticism is very American --- I picture him watching a Jane Fonda inteview and saying "right on" every few minutes --- he has accumulated a wealth of evidence on the hollowing out (or 'kudoka', to borrow his Japanese term) of the American electronics industry and the people who work for it.
The scariest chapter in the book is the third, where he discusses pollution by and at chip manufacturers' facilities, and the way the industry has consistently ignored or glossed over the problems. Etching and fabricating silicon chips requires a witches' brew of chemicals. Almost all of these are toxic or carcinogenic in isolation, and potentially even more so in combination. The result? In 1980, occupational illnesses were three times more common in the electronics industry than in manufacturing as a whole. The industry's response was to change the way it collected statistics in order to reduce illness rates by two-thirds.
Hi-tech pollution hit the headlines in 1986, when a preliminary study of employees at a Digital Equipment Corporation site in Massachusetts found, among other things, a twice-normal miscarriage rate. Later that same year, IBM and Fairchild settled out of court in a class action brought by a neighbourhood where the incidence of birth defects had climbed after leaks from tanks containing the solvent TCA. Hayes highlights the contrast between the poison produced by these companies and their clean-room image with a quote from a maker of clean room garments: "Packaging People to Protect Products."
The other six chapters discuss the social and personal fallout from Silicon Valleys' recycled American Dreams. By 1987, US chip manufacturers had only one third of their fabrication facilities in the Valley; the rest had followed lower rents and wages into the Third World. Having made these moves for profit's sake, the industry's giants then began a scare campaign, claiming that the US had lost its commanding position in electronics and that national security was at stake. Supported by the Pentagon (which buys over 25% of American electronic components directly, and even more in the form of assembled hardware), hi-tech entrepreneurs demanded the same protectionist measures that were failing to protect the American automobile industry. Today, Silicon Valley is primarily a design and marketing centre, where an MBA often counts for more than technical genius.
Hayes is particularly scathing about the way organized labour had not even really tried to gain a foothold among electronics workers. (The fact that many are illegal immigrants, and unwilling to make trouble, may be one reason.) Many big players in the electronics industry could still claim, until recently, that they had never laid anyone off. This was true, but only because much of their work force was "temporary" staff, mostly semi-skilled women, who could be terminated at the week's end without compensation. One working mother Hayes interviewed had been laid off twice, fired once, and collected unemployment three times. Even when employed, she earned so little that she qualified for welfare.
But the most personal part of this book was its description of the social costs of progress. There can be no community spirit in an industry whose products have an average life of 1.5 years, and where engineers and programmers can change jobs five times in ten years. The old farming towns south of San Francisco have become crowded warrens full of lonely people with the highest divorce rate in the country, a half-billion dollar annual drug bill, and an unhealthy fascination with exercise, shopping (one survey found that only 25% of people in malls were looking for anything specific), New Age religions, and anything else that will give structure to their lives.
Hayes spends only part of one chapter talking about hackers and the invasion of privacy made possible by computers. He is far more concerned with how the people who build the computers can divorce themselves from what those computers are being used for, and with how the Second Industrial Revolution is reproducing many of the worst features of the First, without countervailing social movements emerging. While I found that I knew many of the facts in this book, and didn't care about some of the others, there was much that I as a programmer found true, pointed, and profoundly depressing.
— Dr. Dobb's Electronic Review of Computer Books