Silicon Valley and the Protestant Ethos

Techcrunch is the Valley rag – it’s always enthusiastic, talking about “disruption”, and bursting with heartwarming tales of success, entrepreneurship, and SoLoMo greatness.  It is…tiring sometimes.  But like any good rag, it’s essential – it’s the best source for news on product releases, rounds of funding, and the occasional high-profile scandal.  And it can put out some pretty good writing from its writers and contributors.  I really enjoyed a piece today by Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin, on the deleterious effect that success is having on the young tech community in the Bay.  It’s a great example of what can be sometimes inspiring about the Valley.

The complaint is that a life of perk-laden engineering spots and eight-figure exits without a dollar of revenue has made the youth soft.  Who knows if this is true – frankly, I don’t care.  He’s talking about my generation, and most of the ones I know are ambitious enough for ten.  Kelman seems self-aware enough; he may realize that this is always the complaint that the older generation makes about those who come after.  But the value system that he speaks of is kind of touching.

One reason I love it here, and a reason that history-averse Californians never understand, is how the mindset here often seems like an oddly-askew version of Weber’s “Protestant Work Ethic“.  Not in the theological aspect of it, of course.  Or in the libertine attitude towards behavior.  But in the elevation of personal industry and personal austerity as the ideal.  For all of Facebook’s long rise, profiles of Zuckerberg inevitably and adoringly noted the disjoint between his vast fortune and his modest living circumstances.  The same attitude towards personal austerity also commonly noted amongst many of the most successful founders here, and Larry Ellison’s incredibly conspicuous consumption is discussed with vague and slightly confused distaste.

It’s just a very notable difference in attitude between San Francisco and New York, America’s other great capital of capitalism.  Here, the idealized capitalist is a vicious and hungry entrepreneur, building with his hands and a terminal window, clad in jeans and a flannel shirt and with vast but dematerialized riches.  There, the idealized capitalist is a vicious and hungry financier, directing flows of money and profiting off his cleverness, and living the high life afforded by his vast and very material riches.  Many of the older generation like Larry Page and Sergey Brin will eventually begin living the high life, but it’s never celebrated the way that conspicuous consumption is in New York City.

Of course, Californians don’t know or care for history and so most don’t see the resemblance.  But for me, it’s time to go re-read some Weber.

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