Nadia Eghbal

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The New Materialism of Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley types are characterized as people who care about not caring.

They don’t demonstrate their wealth with fancy cars or spacious mansions. They look down upon lavish displays of materialism and wealth. They wear hoodies to work, flip-flops to meetings.

These stereotypes have led some to incorrectly assert that Silicon Valley culture is “anti-materialistic”. It’s not. It’s just a new kind of materialism.

You won’t see many people in Silicon Valley showing off their wealth with designer shoes and watches, because we don’t value those things as a display of power. What we do value is productivity and optimization. So a Silicon Valley display of wealth is about services, not things.

An excess of money is poured into Ubers, Lyfts, Sidecars, Homejoys, Washios, Prims, Lunas, TaskRabbits, Execs, Postmates, oDeskers, Kitchits, Gobbles, Sprigs, Zestys. Your wealth isn’t measured by what you own, but rather what you can hire other people to do for you.

Time is the most valuable thing in Silicon Valley. And the wealthiest can afford to capture as much of that time as possible.

There are plenty of people who refuse to take a public Muni bus or do their own laundry anymore, because now, there’s a service for that. And although many of these services have helped to build the “collaborative economy” and a means of generating income independent of a full-time job, they have a side effect of blurring the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Are you a Lyft driver, or are you someone who takes Lyfts? It used to be easier to tell who would drive a cab and who would take them, but now, a Lyft driver and a Lyft customer might look the same demographically: late 20s, good education, drinks at Dolores on the weekends.

Silicon Valley types aren’t anti-capitalistic. In fact, hiring people to do things for you is the very definition of capitalism. It’s just not as obvious when the person you’re hiring might be someone you meet at a party later that night. (Some have dubbed the denial of this “anti-capitalism capitalism”.)

People in Silicon Valley aren’t quite anti-materialistic, either, if the sentiment of anti-materialism is to free oneself from physical dependencies. Silicon Valley types are just as dependent on services to survive as the power exec of the 90s might have been dependent on his or her 6-car garage and Lamborghini. The few items we do purchase are grossly marked-up: the $5 coffee or the $4 toast, and we value them much more than a cup of coffee or a piece of toast deserves to be valued.

Even if we came here for the impact, we’re staying for the money - and benefiting from it no differently than a Wall Street banker.