Book Review: “Valley of the Gods” by Alexandra Wolfe

Valley of the Gods by Alexandra Wolfe

Alexandra Wolfe’s new book joins the growing collection of “silicon valley stories”, including Chaos Monkeys, Hatching Twitter, Dogfight, and Year Without Pants. Wolfe documents the supercharged environment of Silicon Valley, a place where the kids are definitely in charge, and someone gave them billions of dollars to play with.

Throughout the book, Wolfe covers the progress of several of the youngsters who won Thiel Foundation Fellowships, following them through their year. The idea of the Thiel Fellowship is to pay a few kids to eschew conventional college, with the aim of launching a new business. The candidates are selected to have a burning passion on some topic, and a desire to turn that passion into a business. Instead of structured college, awardees get money and encouragement to do their own thing.

Wolfe’s coverage of the Thiel kids is extremely interesting, not at all matching up the romantic vision of this program.

Wolfe also gives us first hand fly-on-the-wall insight into a variety of goings on in SV, hanging out in group residences, attending to parties, workshops, and various peculiar and indescribable hybrid events. She also interviewed many notables and not-so-notables of the Valley, and offers more observations than I really need about food and fashion.


Incubators

In recent years there has been big noise about incubators, which have now spread to every city and campus in the US and around the world. Wolfe isn’t as rapt as some reporters, and we get a distinct impression of a lot of social networking, and a bit of mentoring/brain washing/talent hunting.

There are some serious questions about incubators, a la The Y Combinator and its growing legion of apers.

Wolfe’s reports show that, astonishingly enough, it seems that a month or two at an incubator cannot make a bad idea into a good idea, nor does it give twenty somethings much understanding of the wider world. A few incubatees have hit it big, most don’t. The Emperor may not be naked, but he’s not that well dressed, either.

I am also struck by the highly conflicted relationship between “mentoring” and “investing” in many of these programs. The general model is for experienced mentors to take the team under his (rarely her) wing, to guide them to a successful new business. These mentors are usually investors, who are gaining inside knowledge and special access to the new companies, and who directly or indirectly fund the work they like. This seems like a definite conflict of interest: is the advice in the interest of the student or the interest of the mentor?

This, by the way, is one of the differences between incubators and conventional schooling. College teachers are supposed to have the interest of the student at the fore, not their own financial or ideological interest. (Current trends in higher education blur this picture, as institutions desperately pursue funding through “entrepreneurship” programs.)

There have been a lot of spin offs and variations on the boot camp style incubator. Many of them are selling the good old American brand of salesmanship a la Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, and Harold HIll. These “incubators” espouse a gospel of failure, which is an extreme form of the classic “positive thinking” taught to generations of hucksters. Be bold, don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t be afraid to break things, either. Be a “hero”.

These for profit colleges don’t cover the usual material, they teach kids to be a “diverger” (as Draper University puts it), and tell them that they are “heroes” or even “superheroes”. The idea is, “when you are seventeen you think of yourself as a child who has to tried along through a system. “What if you though of yourself as an adult, and you just have to go on with life?” (quoting Liron Shapira) (p. 116)

Yoiks!

Seventeen-year-olds are not adults. They do, however, often think of themselves as “heroes”, though they may have little understanding of what that might mean. (It is no coincidence that this is the same demographic recruited by military forces, for a different sort of heroism.)

At its worst, this stuff strikes me is a form of organized child exploitation, and cynically teaches them what “heroism” means: relentless focus on money, self, and “disruption”.


Bay Area Weirdness

The Bay Area has always been weird, and SV is a weird offshoot of the Bay. This is where much of the Internet comes from, and that explains a lot.

Wolfe gives some interesting background, suggesting how contemporary SV living reflects the echoes of fifty years and more of counterculture and new age lifestyles. We begin to understand where some of the oddness of the Internet comes from.

Wolfe also makes the apt observation that the kids act weird, partly because they have a confused and desperate desire to emulate of the tiny elite of SV, the lucky few who became billionaires. “Instead of copying the genius of some of these people…young people were coming in droves to copy their peculiarities, their wierdnesses, their odd behavior, in hopes that some of it would rub off, and they’d become billionaires by association or by exercise.” (p. 255)

Given the very peculiar cultural milieu and twisted status hierarchy that seems to dominate life in SV, is it a wonder that so many apps seem so disconnected with everyday life and ordinary people?

For people who are obsessed with health and diet, how could there not come dozens of apps focused on food and personal tracking? From hundreds of rootless, lonely college drop outs, how could dating apps not be a priority? From twenty year old “CEOs” who bunk in a dormitory, should we not expect apps to support nomadic life? For people who consider socializing a game theoretic problem to be optimized, we’ll see bone headed matchmaking apps.

It almost makes you pity them.


Immortality

One of the most eyebrow raising fads in SV is the mad pursuit of “immortality”,

not just life extension, but “hacking death”. Billionaires seeking to bug immortality—and chasing any sorcerers who think they have it to sell.

Can you say “hubris”?

Wolfe gives an understated but rather withering view of this craze. She vies it through the experience of one precocious Thiel scholar, and also through interviews with researchers and enthusiasts. She does a good job of portraying the hype and the reality, as well as the dubious motives and judgement of people who are clearly too rich for their own good.


Artificial Intelligence

One of the least satisfying parts of the book is Wolfe’s discussion of what she sees as “two flavors” of AI. This is a pretty meaningless classification, and unfortunately, she seems to have a shallow and ahistorical understanding of each.

The biggest problem is that Wolfe chooses to two unique and peculiar individuals, baggage and all, (Kurtzwell and Gelertner) to represent these supposed schools. Through these two wierdos, she paints a confused and confusing picture of AI technology and of people who are interested in it.

Then there is the capitalism/socialism thing. Perhaps Wolfe is seeking to be ironic when she labels the “humanistic” AI school to be “capitalist”, contrasting to the evolutionary man-is-just-a-machine, machine supremicists as “socialistic”. But mostly this labeling is just plain misleading and wrong.


West Coast versus East Coast

Wolfe is a New Yorker reporting on California. You know the drill.

She seems to be trying to help the “normal people” back in NYC grok “those weirdos” out in SV. In places, she degenerates into literally contrasting “east coast” versus “west coast”, which is a vastly simplistic and stereotypical analysis.

For example, she tells us of one young Thiel fellow who “soon realized that being female in Silicon Valley was different than it was on the East Coast”. (p. 139) This supposed difference is apparent to Wolfe even in the visible signs such as the observation that, “In Palo Alto, few girls wore heels or dresses or skirts. And walking down University Avenue, you’d be hard pressed to find a single lingerie shop.

These are the important things about “being female”?

As one of the 99% who do not live in either NYC/Boston or SV/LA/Seattle, I was far from amused by her obsession with showing that the “East Coast” culture is “better” than all that degenerate “West Coast” stuff. The ignorance and neglect of the flyover states really stands out here.  Stand here in the center, you both look nuts to me.

More important, the technology that fuels SV came from elsewhere (the Midwest), as do most of the thousands of kids she meets in SV. Yet she has little clue about what is happening in those elsewheres. (How many lingerie shops will she find on the main streets of states that begin with the letter “I”, or “M”?)

If you want to know what drives the kids to go to SV (or NYC, for that matter), you need to come see where they came from.  And most of them didn’t come from NYC.


The Thiel Scholars

This book has a running theme based on interviews that followed the experience of a class of Thiel fellows. She gives us quite a bit of detail about their life before, during, and after the fellowship.

These kids—and they are all under 21—are given little direction. Most end up out in SV, away from home, under pressure, and adrift. The $100,000 inevitably turns out to be not that much money, especially in SV. The picture isn’t a pretty one, and certainly not unambiguously better than conventional college.

The scholars Wolfe follows experience the gamut of outcomes. One founds a company, another becomes famous but has little success gaining funding for her idea, and another discovers that his “passion” was never a feasible idea, and eventually ends up in a highly structured Catholic college—the paradigm of “the old way”.

This material is troubling to read. It is clear that, like any other gap year, the kids benefited from living their own life. But few of them achieved the theoretical goal (founding a company), and we do not really know if the experience will have long term benefits.

It is hard not to worry about these kids, twenty year olds, dropped into the high pressure, big money, maelstrom of SV, with little support or structure. Such mentoring they do receive was based on the premise that “you are exceptional, and you can make your own rules.” The kids may like this idea, but it’s not clear how many will thrive in this situation. As I said earlier, this is borderline malpractice and close to child abuse.

The good news is that most of the Thiel scholars seem to have come out alright, though mostly not in the ways they hoped.

Kids can survive all kinds of misguided schooling, including Thiel fellowships!

I would like to say that I have met one Thiel fellow in person, and she is fine. Better than fine, she is freaking awesome. I’m honored to have spent even a little time with her.

But she  didn’t need a Thiel fellowship to become awesome, and I’m pretty sure that the year did little for her that she couldn’t have accomplished in other ways, including a good college.

The kids are, and will be, all right.

But almost none of them will found successful companies in their twenties. And that is good, because we don’t really need any more companies that solve the problems of lonely twenty year olds.

I say, let them live a little, work a lot, love unwisely, and learn some stuff. Then give them a pile of money and the freedom to run with it.


  1. Alexandra Wolfe, Valley of the Gods: A Silicon Valley Story, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2017.

 

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