Dr. Chris Benner is the Dorothy E. Everett Chair in Global Information and Social Entrepreneurship and a Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
In the midst of the growing public animosity towards Silicon Valley–based technology firms—the so-called techlash—it is easy to forget that Silicon Valley was once seen as the harbinger of a new information economy, built on dynamism, innovation, and a meritocratic labour market that would help spread prosperity around the globe. During the 1990s internet boom for example, Seattle-based Microsoft or older technology firms like IBM and Digital Equipment Corporation (remember them?) were seen as hierarchical and market-dominating, while Silicon Valley–based firms were seen as nimble, progressive, and world-changing. World-changing in a good way, such as organizing all the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful—Google’s mission statement at its founding in 1998.
The reality of course, even in the 1990s, was not quite as rosy as the popular image. Many tech firms paid their service workers (janitors, cafeteria workers, and security guards) poverty wages,while providing free food, on-site gyms, and foosball tables to their prized employees. The number of contract employees in the industry exploded—presaging many of the challenges of gig workers today. The arrogance of tech leaders at the time, and their sense that they somehow operate outside the rules, is well-captured in a comment that Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems (remember them?), made in 1999: “You have zero privacy anyway, get over it.”