Secrets of Silicon Valley
Directed by Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Wednesday, October 3 2001, 2:54 PM
Some prefer to believe that computers and Internet culture are disembodied phenomena. In truth, they are not disembodied so much as physical creations. Computers are not simply transcendental arrivals upon a desktop. Their physicality demands labor, and the electronics industry has not superceded the basic conflict between labor and capital. The Computer Age is still part of the Industrial Revolution.
Secrets of Silicon Valley by husband and wife team Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman is a documentary film addressing the human labor that goes into producing Silicon Valley's electronic economy. This is not the high-paid labor from geeks working on a good mushroom pallor from their cubicle mazes, but from a factory floor workforce composed largely of women of color. Design and marketing by well-educated businesspeople remain impotent without the essential physical labor of immigrants and American under-classes that have never had educational opportunity.
While Secrets of Silicon Valley's official culture emphasizes multiculturalism, the quintessential racism of its underlying labor hierarchy emerges blatantly in the film. 'Race' as an historical phenomenon has been built on an assignment of cerebral work and social authority to privileged racial elite classes, versus sweaty physical labor to people of color. Silicon Valley factories where management is white and the production floor workforce is Hispanic and Asian manifest this head-body racial paradigm. One of the ironically humorous segments of the film features a circle of temporary work applicants at Manpower telling what sort of work they want. Four young women of color say they are looking for production jobs; the fifth, a middle-aged white man, says he is looking for management or sales work. The racial and gender structure of Silicon Valley's labor force could not be any clearer, and repeated images in the film bring home this message.
The film follows a year in the lives of two characters at the edge of the Valley's industries, Magda Escobar and Raj Jayadev. Escobar heads Plugged In, a computer training center in East Palo Alto, a low-income community adjacent to some of the yuppiest centers of the computer industry. Jayadev is one of the masses of temporary workers whoconstitute the contingent labor force in the Valley, paid salaries too low to enable them to actually live there. Escobar works within the system; Jayadev is just trying to work. Each, in their own light, tires to harness their critique of the Valley's dominant corporatism to achieve some positive benefit for those who capitalism disempowers. Escobar needsto find her training center a new home and gets a boost from President Clinton and Hewlett-Packard. Jayadev finds himself fired and blacklisted for his labor organizing activities. Ameliorationism and confrontationalism, the film seems to suggest, each have their place in labor's armament.
The film underscores the vast disconnect between the rhetoric of capital and its invocation of radical change, and the daily lives of miserably-paid workers doing the same old industrial shit. Comfortable corporate millionaires and high-tech entrepreneur-capitalists in executive suites actually believe themselves to be revolutionists changing the world, bringing technological bounty for all to share.
Snitow and Kaufman edit the footage to accent how this social rhetoric camouflages greed. Tanned executives attending a charity event are actually networking and exchanging business cards; a liberal supporter of Plugged In endorses selfishness as a natural force; Hewlett-Packard provides the center with support as part of an image-shaping exercise, one that will likely be of very short duration. These top-enders can afford their generosity. In truth, it is the smaller firms with smaller profits who dispense with the philanthropic pretenses. One unpleasantly Teutonic executive of a small software packaging firm spits out a repugnant notion of industrial perfectionism, and it's an easy guess that workers at her firm suffer no false generosity.
Secrets of Silicon Valley brings home the message that high tech and globalization do not change the basics. Labor and capital remain locked in an antagonistic contradiction that invocations of a pseudo-radical reformulation of society will not alter. California has a lengthy and rich tradition of labor documentary films. Secrets of Silicon Valley continues that tradition and expands it into the Internet economy.
For more information, stop by the Secrets of Silicon Valley website