September 28, 2006

The Silence of Failure in Silicon Valley

Category: Academic,Anthropology,Politics,Tech — Biella @ 2:11 pm

After about 6 months of initial research in the Bay Area, I had to make a choice over the future direction of my more directed fieldwork. Would my project be on Silicon Valley, its religious fervor for the exuberant technology start-up, with the geek entrepreneur (probably with some affiliation with Standford) at its center stage, or would it be more broadly about free software and the culture of geekdom? I chose the later, for various reasons, but I think I wanted to write a dissertation that did not bleed with cynicism but instead flowed and flowered with a lot more joy than could have been possible if I had stayed within the grasp of the start-up and the venture capitalist.

That said, I learned a lot about SV, took a lot of notes, and read most anything I could get my hands on whether the work of San Jose Anthropologist,Jan English-Lueck or published in magazines like Mother Jones, Harpers, and even the National Geographic. One of the luminaries that writes about SV from a cultural perspective is Paulina Borsook. And she is fine writer who admittedly has ticked me of on occasion (to be precise because she collapsed too much of geek culture into that of the specific SV world in Cyberselfish, which at the time I found almost personally offensive, probably more than it should have).

Today I just came across a short, older but very illuminating piece of hers “The Disappeared of Silicon Valley (or why I couldn’t write that piece)” which is as much about the limits of historical representation in general as it specifically about the failings of start-ups in SV at the end of the recent boom and bust cycle.

So her goal was simple enough: To find people involved in starting new high-tech whose companies had died.. and to find them to get a more visceral and cultural window into this experience. But it was a near to impossible task. Despite her impeccable record with confidentiality and a far flung social network, she could not get anyone talk about these ostensible “failures.”

There has been a good amount of writing on the limits of historical representation because the archive or what comes to be the archive is a function of power and it is usually the powerless who are left out, as the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot has so eloquently shown. But while it is true that some CEO of a dethroned corporation may be “powerless” in some sense of the word, it is not what we associate with the word.

But in fact, the power of stigma of failure in a region that magnifies an already well-develiped cultural fetish of success (especially, I imagine, among male graduates, of places like Stanford Buisiness School), is enormous, so much so, that it seems one can only write about the experience, as Barsook has done so well, through the reality of a lack, through silence.


  1. I think that Paulina Boorsock couldn’t write that piece because she picked the absolutely worst time: 1999. It was what appeared to be the peak of the dot-com boom, but it was already beginning to fall apart, and people were beginning to be scared. Investors were suddenly starting to double-check whether any money was really going to be made, and it was a really, really bad time to let it be known just how you failed.

    I think she could easily write a piece like that today. For example, at this year’s Design Automation Conference Joe Costello, former CEO of Cadence, went into detail into some of the failures in his own career, and also gave a detailed analysis of the failure of Motorola’s multi-billion dollar Iridium project. The difference today is that almost everybody failed sometime around 2000, so it is expected.

    Comment by Joe Buck — September 28, 2006 @ 7:55 pm

  2. If you haven’t seen this, look up the Dot Com Archive (, as well as David Kirsch, the historian of technology who runs it…really great primary sourcework and personal stories on this very subject…

    Comment by Josh Greenberg — September 28, 2006 @ 11:02 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. | TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML ( You can use these tags):
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> .