Reading Steve Jobs: labor, race, and growing up in the Bay Area

"Silicon Valley," by Revolweb

Not long ago I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Or I should say I listened to it, as an audiobook, on my iPhone. The experience was riveting, though not always pleasant.

Like Steve Jobs, I grew up in the Bay Area. In fact, I was growing up in the Bay Area while Jobs was building Apple. Like Jobs, I was accustomed to hearing old-timers describing how before the boom, there used to be apricot orchards, just down there, “far as the eye could see.”

What fascinated me, though, was how far away Apple’s Cupertino headquarters seems from East Side San Jose, where I grew up. Jobs might as well have been living in a different Bay Area.

It reminded me of what it was like to read the San Jose Mercury News when I was a kid. I understood that, on some level, these designers and venture capitalists were part of our lives, but this world seemed a planet away from the largely immigrant, working-class place where I was growing up. I wondered why we didn’t show up in the newspaper.

I had a similar experience not too long ago, when This American Life ran a piece on the erstwhile gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner, and in particular his (execrable) book Mt. Pleasant: What Happened When I Traded a Silicon Valley Board Room for an Inner CIty Classroom. In Mt. Pleasant, the millionaire tech entrepreneur details his experience (substitute-) teaching at a high school in East San Jose, right around the corner from Overfelt High School, where I went to school. Here’s an excerpt:

As the crow flies, Mt. Pleasant High is only about fifteen miles from my home. But in terms of economics, the gap is vast. Heading east to meet Purcell for the first time, I passed nearby my neighborhood French bakery and the local Ferrari dealership. Several miles and a couple of highways later, I took the Capitol Expressway exit and drove into what felt like another planet. Signs advertised janitorial supply stores and taquerias. Exhaust hung over ten lanes of inner-city traffic. Yellowing, weedy gardens fronted many of the homes, as did driveways marred by large oil spots or broken-down cars. These were the neighborhoods I could see, anyway. Giant walls obscured some of the blocks I passed. Were they keeping out the city’s grit and noise? Or hiding profoundly sad lives?

When I heard this, I nearly threw something at the radio. I certainly did yell, “That’s where we live, you asshole!” For one thing, the description isn’t even accurate; the East Side, as This American Life points out, is perfectly safe and perfectly pleasant, a good place for a kid to grow up.

But what makes an entire community apparently invisible? Particularly a community that performs much of the labor on which Silicon Valley depends?

I think a lot of the answer has to do with the sweeping, often utopian rhetoric of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, in which a complicated history of race, power, and labor is relegated to the distant past, courtesy of a new device or business model. It’s why I’m so skeptical of people who promise that technology can usher in a new era of economic justice and enlightenment. We saw it, on the East Side, again and again, and we’re still here, messy as we are, and the world’s a better place for that.

As I listened to Steve Jobs, I began mentally assembling a list of works that might serve as a corrective to his history of the digital age, one composed mainly of entrepreneurs, designers, and venture capitalists. I’m far from alone (and far from the first) to note that much of the rhetoric of the digital age seems custom-designed to elide the material relations of race and labor that undergird it: “the cloud,” “wireless,” even the airy, soft-focus graphic design that’s characterized Web 2.0. In fact, a lot of this work is emerging right now; I’m eagerly awaiting Lisa Nakamura‘s book on race and labor in the digital age. And Jason Farman at the University of Maryland has a great syllabus for a related class called Materiality in Networked Society.

I started thinking about what a syllabus on this topic might look like, one I’m provisionally titling Labor and Materiality in the Digital Age. I’d love to hear what I might add.

Addelman, Ben, and Samir Mallal. Bombay Calling. National Film Board of Canada, 2006.

Alexander R. Galloway. “The Unworkable Interface.” New Literary History 39, no. 4 (2008): 931-955.

Aneesh, A. Virtual Migration: The Programming of Globalization. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Ascher, Kate. The Works: Anatomy of a City. New York: Penguin Press, 2005.

Baichwal, Jennifer. Manufactured Landscapes. Zeitgeist Films, 2006.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Blanchette, Jean‐François. “A Material History of Bits.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 62, no. 6 (June 1, 2011): 1042-1057.

Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (October 1, 2001): 1-22.

Center for Land Use Interpretation. “The Center for Land Use Interpretation Land Use Database”, n.d.

Center for Land Use Interpretation and Matthew Coolidge. Overlook: Exploring the Internal Fringes of America with the Center for Land Use Interpretation. New York: Metropolis Books, 2006.

Ceruzzi, Paul. Internet Alley: High Technology in Tysons Corner, 1945-2005. Cambridge  Mass.; London: MIT Press, 2011.

Frank, Thomas. Boob Jubilee: The Cultural Politics of the New Economy. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 2003.

Funari, Vicki, and Sergio De La Torre. Maquilapolis: City of Factories. Independent Television Service, 2006.

Graham, Stephen. Disrupted Cities: When Infrastructure Fails. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Gulati, Sonali. Nalini by Day, Nancy by Night. Women Make Movies, 2008.

Hayles, N. My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Historypin. “Dreams of a City: Creating East Palo Alto”, n.d.

Hustwit, Gary. Objectified, n.d.

Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge  Mass.: MIT Press, 2008.

Light, Jennifer S. “When Computers Were Women.” Technology and Culture 40, no. 3 (1999): 455-483.

McPherson, Tara. “U.S. Operating Systems at MidCentury: The Intertwining of Race and UNIX.” In The Visual Culture Reader. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Mendehlson, Ben. Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors, 2011.

Montfort, Nick and Ian Bogost. Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System. Cambridge  Mass.: MIT Press, 2009.

Nakamura, Lisa. “Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 26, no. 2 (June 2009): 128-144.

———. Race after the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Pitti, Stephen. The Devil in Silicon Valley: Northern California, Race, and Mexican Americans. Princeton  N.J. ; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Ross, Andrew. “Technology and Below-the-Line Labor in the Copyfight over Intellectual Property.” American Quarterly 58, no. 3 (2006): 743-766.

Smith, James Allen. Floored. DVD, Documentary. Typecast Releasing, 2009.

Smith, Ted. Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006.

Starosielski, Nicole, and Craig Dietrich. “Surfacing,” n.d.

Terranova, Tiziana. “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy.” Electronic Book Review (June 20, 2003).

Ullman, Ellen. Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents: A Memoir. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997.

Virno, Paolo. “Grammar of the Multitude.” Text, 2004.

Weber, Steve. The Success of Open Source. Cambridge  MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

13 Replies to “Reading Steve Jobs: labor, race, and growing up in the Bay Area”

  1. I love it! This is a really crucial issue that needs to be dealt with more often. Even the best work available so far, IMHO, doesn’t do enough to build a detailed understanding of the real, material history of how labor and race articulate with the internet and the digital economy. I love this bibliography, though, and I’ll need to catch up on some of this. Might I suggest a couple of possible additions?

    Ross, Andrew. “Technology and Below-the-Line Labor in the Copyfight over Intellectual Property.” American Quarterly – Volume 58, Number 3, September 2006, pp. 743-766 (A really good discussion of the way the “copyfight” may only understand labor from the narrow perspective of an imagined petit-bourgeois coder craftsman (gendering intentional).)

    Weber, S. (2004). The success of open source. Harvard University Press. (This book actually embraces the petit-bourgeois coder craftsman ideal that Ross critiques, which is a big problem, but it also does a great job of explaining how labor actually works in “Open Source” software projects. This is a great read for anyone trying to get a sense of what the actual possibilities of Open Source might be, as an alternative method of organizing productive labor, and what it’s limitations are, though you’ll want to keep your critic hat firmly on your head for some sections)

    Ullman, E. (1997). Close to the machine : technophilia and its discontents /. San Francisco :: City Lights Books,. (A fun, well written, interesting memoir of Ellen Ullman’s experiences in the tech world of the late 1990s. Gender, power, workplace speedups, a boyfriend plotting something that sounds suspiciously like bitcoin… it’s got it all!)

  2. Jen, I read that same article and thought about including it! Thiel’s arrogance is just breathtaking. It reminded me of this passage in Steve Jobs when Jobs and a colleague are wistfully telling each other that if they hadn’t been billionaire entrepreneurs, they would’ve been artists in Paris. The arrogance! As though if they could make a lot of money, they could do anything, including art. We saw something similar when I was in high school. Because of our proximity to Silicon Valley, tech entrepreneurs regularly made appearances at the school district with grand plans to reform education, with us as guinea pigs. As though their business success qualified them to do everything!

  3. Hi Miriam,

    This is a great post and a fabulous reading list! If you don’t plan to already, you might want to take a look at what, if anything, on this topic emerges out of the Marxism and New Media Conference ( at Duke, January 20-21, 2012. Like Andy, I am troubled by how the narrative of intellectual property “enclosure” sometimes obscures or elides the continuing role of exploited or alienated labor in producing digital culture, as well as the fact that one of the promises of alternative models, like Open Source, is their potential for creating (to paraphrase Andy) “alternative methods of organizing productive labor.” The focus on “intellectual” v. “material” labor, which is itself a very problematic binary, in histories of new media and digital culture can prevent us from seeing how, even at the level of copyright and patent law, the creation of intellectual property is inextricably bound up with the production of material objects. In “The Copyright Thing Doesn’t Work Here,” Boatema Boateng considers some of the problems associated with treating the Anglo-American paradigm as normative in debates about intellectual property. Although it may not be the best fit for this reading list, its combination of ethnography and historiography in approaching the legal issues may pique your historian’s interest. Thank you for provoking this discussion! I’m definitely up for a reading group organized around this topic and these texts.

  4. Fascinating and insightful post, Miriam! Thanks also for the reading list. Let me know if you do offer the course for undergrads. Our Labor Studies students would likely be very interested. One film you might find interesting is “Sleep Dealer.” It’s a border/migration story in which the maquilladora workers remotely operate robot construction workers and nannies in the U.S.

  5. Thank you, Toby! This is a terrific suggestion — adding it! And I will definitely keep you posted if I end up teaching the class.

  6. This is such important work, Miriam. Had the privilege of taking that class of Jason’s the first time it was offered and a few of us here basically took it as a mission statement for our future work, whether we were in DH, sexuality studies, political economy, whatever. My summer course next year will likely be something like “Digital Values: Work, Money, and Bodies in the Information Age”, so my head is here right now too. And of course the whole dissertation thing.

    Here’s some docs that might be helpful:

    – 60 Minutes’ “Electronic Wasteland”
    – Jack Qiu’s “Deconstructing Foxconn” and the related report
    – Blood Coltan
    – I’ve used a great one called “Hidden History of Your Cellphone” before, but can’t seem to track it down.

    And some texts:

    – Virginia Eubanks’ Digital Dead End (full of great class or community exercises)
    – Jenna Burrell’s Invisible Users
    – Carla Freeman’s High Tech and High Heels in the Global Economy
    – Giles Slade’s Made to Break
    – Brian Larkin’s “Degraded Images, Distorted Sounds: Nigerian Video and the Infrastructure of Piracy” (the whole book is fantastic but the majority of it is pre-digital)
    – MoJo’s “Scary Truth About Your iPhone”
    – Jenny Chan, “A Suicide Survivor: The Life of a Migrant Worker at Foxconn”
    – Trebor Scholz’s whole Digital Labor collection
    – Xiang Biao’s Global Body Shopping: An Indian Labor System in the Information Technology Industry
    – and Kate Losse’s The Boy Kings is a great critical account of a booming start-up (Facebook) from the inside

    Good luck!

  7. This is excellent, Miriam! Some quick hits:

    Barbrook & Cameron: “The Californian Ideology”
    Golumbia: The Cultural Logic of Computation
    Turner: From Counterculture to Cyberculture
    Chun: Programmed Visions
    Gillespie: “The Relevance of Algorithms”
    Schradie: “The digital production gap: The digital divide and Web 2.0 collide”
    Fernandez: “Postcolonial Media Theory”
    Wilson’s “Workers LEaving the Googleplex”

    And lots more here:

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