REVIEW: Journalist Alexandra Wolfe Explores the Odd Folkways of Silicon Valley

Valley of the Gods: A Silicon Valley Story by Alexandra Wolfe

Simon & Schuster, 261 pages

By Charlie Gofen

Laura Deming, a child prodigy homeschooled in New Zealand, decided at the age of 8 that she wanted to “cure” aging. By 14, she was a sophomore at MIT conducting advanced research on longevity. She has said she “wants to extend the human lifespan for a few centuries – at the very least.”

Jonathan Burnham, a precocious Massachusetts high school student, had little interest in his classes but dreamed of mining asteroids for gold, platinum, and other valuable minerals. His goal: “to make space profitable.”

Deming and Burnham’s improbable ideas might not be taken seriously in normal places, but in Silicon Valley, as Alexandra Wolfe writes, “announcing you would end aging or mine asteroids gave you entry.”

And so they entered.

The two young researchers were among the inaugural class of a fellowship created by Pay Pal co-founder Peter Thiel in 2011 to lure young stars to Silicon Valley. Thiel’s “20 Under 20 Fellowship” gave 20 zealous students under 20 years of age $100,000 each to “stop out” of college and spend two years pursuing their passions and networking with entrepreneurs and financiers.

Wolfe, a Wall Street Journal columnist and the daughter of author Tom Wolfe, uses the stories of Burnham, Deming, and their peers in Valley of the Gods to chronicle the peculiar and often comical mores of Silicon Valley, where social awkwardness may be viewed as chic, and “the richest person in the room is often wearing flip-flops and a hoodie.”

Valley poses some weighty questions about the value of a college education and the nobility of joining the modern gold rush in Silicon Valley, but the allure of the book is Wolfe’s shrewd observations about more mundane things like clothes. Her narrative style is less showy than her father’s, but she adopts some of his most effective literary techniques such as providing extensive descriptions of how her subjects dress, eat, exercise, and hook up. A sample:

[Deming] found that walking through Mountain View, Sunnyvale, or Palo Alto in a dress was akin to getting ready for the prom at noon – or it would label a woman as an East Coast visitor or maybe a costume party guest. Jeans were the uniform for both sexes . . . Women’s jeans could be loose or tight, but pants were essential to show transgression against the East Coast.

Wolfe goes on to note that Silicon Valley fashion dictated that brand logos be replaced by company logos.  And not just any logos:

The earlier the T-shirt was made in the company’s history, the better – 2005 was almost nascent, for example – since that would signify how much equity you might have and how wealthy you could indirectly say you were. Wearing a Facebook T-shirt made in     2007 was a stronger symbol than driving a Ferrari, since a Ferrari costs about $150,000, while an early-stage employee at Facebook in 2007 could have made tens of millions of dollars after the IPO.

Wolfe contrasts the modest homes of successful young entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley with the mansions of the ultra-rich in Greenwich, Connecticut, and Long Island.

Younger entrepreneurs, many of whom have already sold their companies for hundreds of millions, increasingly stay in their first apartment or that same sentimental start-up garage they moved to after Stanford,” she writes. “When someone as successful as [LinkedIn founder] Reid Hoffman decides to stay in the same one-bedroom apartment after making $3 billion in a single week, it sets an anti-ostentatious tone.

Meanwhile, scores of young programmers and would-be entrepreneurs opt for communal living – houses like the one depicted in the movie The Social Network (Wolfe describes them as “pseudodormitories – without adult supervision”). “Just as there was no shame over working in a garage if you’re building the next Google, there was no shame in sleeping on a shelf in a pool house if you have a wacky start-up vision to balance out your lack of bedroom.”

The theme of West Coast vs. East Coast runs through the entire book. The East Coast hierarchy requires talented young stars to graduate from college, take an entry-level job, and rise by impressing their bosses. In Silicon Valley, by contrast, paying your dues meant founding a company, serving as chief executive officer, and then failing. “That was step one: the glorification of starting at the top – not the bottom or the mailroom – as a founder, crashing dramatically, and then putting it on your resume as a bragging right.”

Wolfe also portrays Silicon Valley as a “laboratory of cultural experimentation” – eccentric individuals living in polyamorous communes and constantly testing strange diets. In a chapter titled, “The Gluten-Free Open Marriage,” she writes, “Those who maybe didn’t make it on the football field or the cheerleading squad were now in a place where it was encouraged to unwind and ‘get weird.’”

Deming decides at one point to become a “fruitarian” – no meat, bread, or dairy products – and she reports that the dietary restrictions increased her ability to focus on her work.

The young techies in Silicon Valley, Wolfe writes, “acted like their bodies were nuanced machines in need of a special treatment, which included an enlightened diet, fitness regimen, or mating system to make it run better and code faster. Being a fruitarian helped (Deming) fit into a place where baseline nerdiness wasn’t nearly enough. You had to be weird in some specifically difficult way that made you more productive at the same time.”

Ultimately, Wolfe can’t decide whether to celebrate or mock the “new social order.” She seems impressed by the “aspirational culture of optimistic young graduates who want to change the world, not just make money,” but she continually jabs them, albeit gently and with humor, for hypocrisy and false modesty.

She quotes a former tech executive, Katrina Garnett, as saying, “Do we all own Ferraris? Yes. But would we drive it into a start-up’s parking lot? No. We’d drive the Prius and keep the Ferrari in the garage.”

Along the same lines, Wolfe describes a culture in which pedigree doesn’t matter but then quotes TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington as saying, “The best thing in the world is to go to Harvard for a year and drop out. Everyone knows you were smart enough to get in.”

At the heart of the incongruity is the controversial Thiel himself, who has undergraduate and law degrees from Stanford and yet preaches to the next generation of students that they needn’t bother to finish college. “While Thiel’s education credentials came from Stanford, he taught there, and he funded its students, he was also spearheading a program that questioned everything for which it stood.”

Thiel contends that college is a costly distraction from determining what you actually want to do with your life. Not surprisingly, professors from around the country bash him for encouraging students to forego their studies. The dean of Duke’s school of engineering, Tom Katsouleas, argues that “the value of education is intrinsic and an end in itself rather than something to be measured by its career financial return.” And the odds that any particular kid will create the next Facebook and become a billionaire are, of course, ridiculously low. But many students determine nevertheless that leaving college for Silicon Valley offers huge potential upside and little risk. If they don’t strike gold, they can always return to school.

Indeed, after failing and “pivoting” a few times (Silicon Valley-speak for changing your original business plan), Burnham eventually decides to move back East to resume his studies, delving into literature and philosophy with renewed determination. (Deming is still in Silicon Valley at the venture capital firm she founded to fund companies working on longevity.)

Back at school, Burnham finally starts asking the questions he felt went unexamined in Silicon Valley: “Were the tech companies actually making the world a better place? … Is this going to be a net gain for the human experience or a net harm?”

Wolfe also describes how the tech boom has changed the media landscape (in favor of bloggers, social media networks, and Twitter), and given rise to powerful business incubators and also to individuals with particular expertise in tech-related p.r. and lobbying.

In the most substantive chapter on policy issues, she describes how a new group of disruptive tech companies has challenged entrenched interests and required the use of lobbyists who can battle powerful opponents, often at the local level. Uber, Airbnb, Tesla, and fantasy gaming companies DraftKings and FanDuel are among those companies that have faced a hostile regulatory environment – a considerable challenge, as Wolfe notes, because tech founders are rarely political. “Engineering geeks barely knew how to make friends or navigate a cocktail party, let alone be politically manipulative,” she writes. “There was also an ingrained idea that the tech industry could solve everything and that the government wasn’t necessary.”

Wolfe uses Silicon Valley super-lobbyist Bradley Tusk as her tour guide for this section of the book, and it’s interesting to reflect on the extraordinary amount of political work Uber has had to do to build out its business city by city, and even more fascinating to contemplate the regulatory issues that are likely to arise in a world with drones and self-driving cars.

One weakness of Wolfe’s book is that she glosses over issues of sexism in Silicon Valley. She does mention a couple of the biggest news stories of recent years, including the gender discrimination lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, which revealed a troubling picture of gender equality even though it was ultimately unsuccessful. But she seems to be having too much fun capturing eccentricities to take a harsh position on anyone’s behavior.

And as Wolfe shows, the one certainty of Silicon Valley is that regardless of what’s happening there today, change is inevitable and unpredictable.

Burnham’s mentor for the Thiel Fellowship at the outset of the book is a witty, married but polyamorous five-foot-two libertarian who seems to embody the “anti-society aesthetic” that Wolfe describes. He and his wife eventually split up, though, and in Wolfe’s wrap-up at the end, she notes that the mentor “decided to pivot to monogamy,” got engaged, and went back to work as an engineer at Google.

Charlie Gofen is an investment counselor in Chicago who has taught high school and been a newspaper reporter.