To capture what it’s like to live and work in Silicon Valley – for the affluent, those who are barely getting by and the many people in between – Stanford communication professor and Silicon Valley scholar Fred Turner teamed up with renowned photographer Mary Beth Meehan. Watch the video here.
By Melissa De Witte
When Stanford scholar Fred Turner moved to Silicon Valley in 2002, Google only had a few hundred employees and Facebook didn’t exist.
Over the succeeding two decades, Turner has witnessed profound changes to the region, both as a scholar of Silicon Valley culture and as a resident. Amidst the vast amounts of wealth and growth that surrounded him, Turner also saw another Silicon Valley: one filled with workers and their families barely making ends meet.
Turner hopes his new project, a collaboration with renowned photographer Mary Beth Meehan, can shine a spotlight on some of the complexities of the region known as the center of tech innovation.
“I knew that there were things that photographers could see that I couldn’t quite put into words,” said Turner, the Harry and Norman Chandler Professor of Communication in the School of Humanities and Sciences, “I thought that if I worked with a photographer like Mary Beth Meehan I would find a new way to express some of the kinds of things that I wanted to express in academic work but hadn’t really found an idiom for.”
The result of their academic-artistic collaboration is a new book, Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America, (University of Chicago Press, 2021), an intimate look into the everyday experiences of people who live and work in Silicon Valley, from some of its more wealthy residents to its poorest – and the many people in between. In a collection of over 30 portraits photographed in 2017 and 2019, readers see Silicon Valley workers inside their homes and at their workplaces – images that convey the realities of what life is like in one of America’s wealthiest regions.
Readers meet people like Cristobal, a United States Army veteran who works as a contract security officer at Facebook where he earns $21 per hour in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country.
Cristobal is shown inside the backyard shed in Mountain View, California, that he has turned into his home, where he is seen standing inside a tiny living space with bright pink walls and a lofted storage area cluttered with clothes and toiletries.
Readers also meet Teresa, shown perched inside the taco truck where she works. Teresa immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico and shares an apartment with her four daughters.
Readers also learn about people like Ariana, who discovered that her Sunnyvale condo was contaminated with trichloroethylene fumes due to toxic waste lingering from decades of manufacturing during the 1950s to 1980s. As Turner points out in the book’s introduction, Santa Clara County is home to some 23 Superfund sites – a label the EPA designated to areas so polluted that they are eligible for government funding to clean up the toxic waste that saturates the landscape.
Ariana and her boyfriend, Elijah, are pictured embracing in Ariana’s driveway, where they stand under a bright blue sky with a dense tract of trees in the foreground. “At first I was kind of freaked out,” Ariana is quoted as saying after she learned about the dangerous substances permeating her home.
Capturing people’s stories
Meehan, who lives in Providence, Rhode Island, had never spent much time in Silicon Valley. What she knew of the region came mostly from stories she read in newspapers and magazines that had for a long time portrayed the region as a place of the future, where tech geniuses were transforming society.
“Silicon Valley was a mythic idea for me,” Meehan said. “I had this idea of it as a place where everything sparkled, where everything was possible, where people were young and healthy – that it was a place in which all of the best of human ingenuity was put into play.”
What Meehan encountered was far different from what she imagined.
“Nothing could have prepared me for the uneasiness and human stress and suffering that went along with being a part of that economy,” Meehan said.
Over several extended trips, Meehan immersed herself in Silicon Valley culture. She approached strangers she encountered on neighborhood streets and had long conversations with the cashiers she met at the taquerias she frequented. She attended a United Auto Workers meeting and went to a party with tech entrepreneurs – and through these interactions, Meehan began to see themes emerge from the valley’s hustle and bustle.
Some of Meehan’s observations surprised Turner, particularly the feelings of economic insecurity workers reported experiencing on a daily basis.
“One of the things that really surprised me was how Mary Beth heard a persistent humming of anxiety in the workers that she was talking with – at every level: from folks at the taqueria up to the executive, C-suite,” he said. “Across the board, you find folks worried about whether they can make it, whether they can survive, whether they can get ahead.”
New civic imaginary
In sharing the experiences of people who helped build Silicon Valley into what it is today, Turner hopes that the project will inspire a new civic engagement.
“How can we use the wealth we’ve built up to improve the lives of everyone in our region? That’s the question, I think,” he said. “We can be very proud of the devices we’ve developed, but we need to reattach the ambition that we have for technology development and profit to an ambition for a better society. We need to have a new civic vision and I hope this book is a little drop in that pool.”
The project was supported by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the Stanford Arts Initiative and the Departments of Communication and Art & Art History. An earlier version of the book was published in 2018 by C&F Editions in Paris, France.