Discover more from Slow Build by Nancy Scola
The geography of technology, with Margaret O’Mara
“The secret of Silicon Valley since the very beginning has been stay-at-home wives." (Plus, productivity tools!)
Silicon Valley’s remaking of the United States’ cultural and economic map is one of the biggest stories of modern America, with seemingly boundless opportunity in places like San Francisco and New York, and dwindling possibilities elsewhere. But there’s potentially change afoot. The pandemic came out of nowhere to upend how tech companies work; they’re still figuring out what they’ll do next. And some lawmakers in Washington are pushing for billions in federal funding to spread science and tech R&D out to all corners of the country.
That’s why I was so eager to talk right now with Margaret O’Mara (@margaretomara). She’s a historian at the University of Washington whose most recent book is "The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America” – the inside story of how “one verdant little valley in California” came to shape the world. Over the years, she’s become a go-to source for understanding the geography of tech.
O’Mara once worked in the Clinton-era White House as a domestic policy analyst, where she developed an interest in power and politics. She went to grad school thinking about poverty policy, but a postdoc on Stanford’s lush campus got her intrigued by Silicon Valley’s origin stories. “I ended up writing about rich people, but of course it’s all capitalism,” says O’Mara. Why the focus on place? “At the core, American history is always a story of real estate.”
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Scola: Let’s start with the pandemic. Some of the earliest companies to close their offices were tech ones, like Facebook. Now we’re seeing companies like Twitter and Reddit tell employees they don’t need to ever come back. What’s that going to do to Silicon Valley as a place?
O’Mara: It’s a big culture shift. Despite the fact that these companies have been building the technologies to enable remote work for several decades, tech has really been latched on to in-person face-to-face work as a core component of the culture. And the largest of them have — Facebook included — created these elaborate campuses that are consciously designed to put everyone together, where they're face-to-face as much as possible. It’s the open office, the conference room, the fabled-water cooler encounter which never happens, good Lord.
They’re really very discouraging of remote work, which has been a factor among many in the real gender imbalance in the industry. People who have caring responsibilities are often female — mothers — and have had a very hard time. There’s been so much resistance to people who want hybrid schedules, which now these companies are embracing.
It’s just fascinating to me that COVID became this massive, real-time global experiment that never would have happened naturally but that all of the sudden shows — particularly for tech companies that probably in the last year had the most bonanza year of their entire existence — that they can still be successful and do what they do without having people in the office. And that this sort of quote-unquote culture is not necessarily contingent on being in the campus with the free snacks and the in-person work.
“Abandoning the office, abandoning in-person work, that's a huge culture shift. We’re talking, like, 140 years of white-collar culture. It's gonna be a hard thing to unwind.”
I think we don't quite know yet where this is going to settle long-term. For the Valley, COVID clearly became a release valve for people who had been suffocating under high rents and unable to buy a home. And all of a sudden, there's a significant number of people who are like, ‘Ah, I can go to Boise now.’ Or Bozeman.
What’s really interesting in the early days is that you didn’t have people doing, ‘I’m leaving San Francisco and going home to Columbus.’ They’re people going from Menlo Park to, you know, Santa Cruz. It released people to move out of reasonable commuting distance, because they realize they didn’t have to do it five days a week.
So the big question mark is, okay, what does this mean for the tech clustering of the Valley? The people for whom living in San Francisco is feasible and comfortable are gonna stay there. Those are often unfortunately now people who are extraordinarily wealthy. And the [startup] founders and rank-and-file are going to move.
With the caveat that historians don’t like to predict anything, my prediction is the future of work is hybrid. It’s so much harder for a firm to say ‘It’s essential to our business, you have to be in the office five days a week.’ And I think workers now are going to be a little more choosy. There's a very interesting real-time experiment that's still ongoing in the tech sector that has really challenged presumptions about place, and particularly what it means to be in an office.
You mention that people for whom an always-on schedule didn’t work were often female, and maybe a little older with more responsibilities. So could that shift end up making tech less male, less young?
I would like to think that. I think it would need to be done with care. What I mean by that is creating a workplace where those who choose to be more at home, or more remote than others, are not at a disadvantage. One of the problems that could arise is you continue to have a C-suite that's without caregiving responsibilities — for example, that are still, ‘I’m all in, I'm coming into the office every day, all day, this is where I work, this is how I do my thing’ — and so people realize, if you want access to the people at the top, you want face time, you need to be in the office.
This is a moment where thoughtful management is going to be really important, and where perhaps the most challenging setup is going to be the hybrid, half-in half-out or ‘you choose your own schedule depending on what works best for you.’ That may be really great for recruitment. It may be challenging from an organizational standpoint. In a way, there's more parity in having everyone remote.
Those companies might be the ones that really are the ones to watch in terms of, are they able to capture and retain a more diverse workforce, to unleash from geography, where where you live determines what kind of opportunities you can get.
But abandoning the office, abandoning in-person work, that's a huge culture shift. We’re talking, like, 140 years of white-collar culture. It's gonna be a hard thing to unwind.
“The secret of Silicon Valley since the very beginning has been stay-at-home wives.”
Going back to what you said earlier, what’s so wrong about the serendipity-by-the water-cooler idea?
You know, Steve Jobs, you had many good ideas, but…
It’s closely linked to the mythos of post-1996 Steve Jobs, of the guy who comes back and resuscitates Apple. At the same time, he’s also taking over Pixar. He sees that Pixar has this Emeryville building with this huge open space that everyone’s shuffling through — all these places where teams that didn’t normally work together could mix and mix and mingle. He’s so enamored of this idea that he suggests that Pixar have only one set of bathrooms. That’s overruled.
It’s linked to this idea that you’ll have a lot of autonomy to come up with new ideas. But it isn't true. I have yet to find anyone who can tell me, ‘Here is a transformative invention that came from it.’
What it does is, this just ‘shooting the shit by the water cooler because we’re talking about last night’s game,’ usually it’s people who have other things in common. Maybe it’s people high up in the hierarchy that they have time to kick at at the snack bar. In a way, it’s a privilege to have the time to spend a lot of time at work.
The secret of Silicon Valley since the very beginning has been stay-at-home wives. In the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, these guys worked all the time. It was a single-minded focus where they never did anything but work. And the reason they could do that is because they had a partner at home making sure everything else in their life worked. So that’s gotten baked in without recognizing the gender dynamics and social dynamics.
In describing your work, your publisher talked about Silicon Valley as a community “whose belief in its own mythology has deepened into a collective hubris,” for better or worse. “Collective hubris” is pretty good shorthand for how people here in Washington see the tech industry right now. But if people are moving to Boise or Bozeman, does that bubble burst?
I think so. First of all, it's all cyclical. Manchester, England was not the industrial capital of the world forever. Detroit was not the most innovative city in the world forever. One day all of these companies will be dinosaurs. I think this is a real challenge for the Bay Area, as a larger metro area that’s now so driven by tech. You don’t want to end up with a Detroit problem on your hands. It’s worth having a certain amount of humility about it.
But look, it’s wonderful there. The sun’s always shining. There’s a certain magic about it. If you’ve been fortunate enough to do well, it’s very easy to believe that you did well because you’re just smarter than everyone else. It’s hard to say, ‘Well, I was just lucky.’ The industry is full of wonderful, well-meaning, earnest people. I’m not saying they’re all sweet people. There are plenty of people who are pretty ruthless.
But when you’ve been extremely fortunate and you’re living in a sun-dappled place, eating yummy ice cream and riding your bike around Palo Alto, when you have this beautiful house that costs so much money but it doesn’t matter because you have so much money, and you’re also like, ‘I’m a good person. Everyone around, we’re good people trying to do the right thing, and the New York Times has been mean to us,’ your collective hubris is hard to really see.
“Don’t let too much home-state politics get in the way. If you aren’t going to put enough resources in each place, it becomes kind of small potatoes.”
The big debate in D.C. right now is about antitrust, about what counts as a monopoly. If Amazon ends up broken up, does, like, Amazon Web Service move to Cleveland and its third-party marketplace move to Nashville?
I would be surprised by that. People are less mobile than we think. The great mass migration of the post-war period, when you have all these people moving to the west and to the Sun Belt, that's happening at a time of extraordinary economic and technological change. There are all these jobs in California that people are moving to.
All these electrical engineers end up in the Valley because there are suddenly all these jobs that weren't there before. And that’s because of government spending. It isn't just because Sylvania is deciding to move west.
For tech companies, their biggest asset is people. It's talent. So recruitment and retention is really critical. It's a combination of where the talent is and then where the talent wants to be. So the coastal clustering of college-educated people who like having, you know, nice artisanal cheese and good restaurants and walkable neighborhoods, you know, all those kinds of stereotypical things — it's really, really hard.
Where economic geography really has changed American history is connected to massive public infrastructure investments and economic investments and economic policy, broadly defined. It’s hard to have something voluntary happening at scale.
So on that kind of public investment, Congress is working on a package of bills that would, among other things, push billions of dollars to 18 regional tech hubs, with advocates saying it’s a corrective to the centralization of scientific R&D at the National Science Foundation in the ‘50s. That’s government being interventionist, like you talked about. Does it have any prospect of actually spreading opportunity to other parts of the country?
I think it does, as long as it doesn't try to spread it to too many places. The number 18 worries me. Understandably, home-state senators are like, ‘I’d like some for my district,’ so we’re going to Mississippi. Not that Mississippi doesn’t have potential, but where you get bang for the buck is where you spend big. And you’ve got to concentrate that spending. I do think that public spending is the answer – or not the only answer, but a huge, huge incentive.
It’s great that lawmakers are tackling this and I applaud them. But don’t let too much home-state politics get in the way. If you aren’t going to put enough resources in each place, it becomes kind of small potatoes.
BONUS: The art of productivity
Professor O’Mara was kind enough to shared her thoughts on a Slow Build-Scola obsession: the tools people use to do their work.
“I think everyone’s ambivalent about their note-taking tools. But I use one that I’ve used for a very long time, and so I don’t think I’m getting off it: Zotero, which is a Firefox add-on. It was created by historians at George Mason University’s digital history lab. It’s a really great way to keep track of notes.
But I’ve gone through all sorts of iterations of things to capture stray ideas, and I just end up taking notes on my iPhone notes app. It’s actually proved to be very useful. Like, I’m out for a run and suddenly I have a thought — I’m the person on the side of the road, sweating, typing into my phone.
And my backyard hammock is my summer productivity tool. I'm a big believer in the L.L. Bean hammock.”