This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of ELLE.
Among the important issues that Alexandra Wolfe explores in her voyeuristic cultural history, Valley of the Gods: A Silicon Valley Story (Simon & Schuster), is the paradox of America’s premier tech hub being both a hotbed of visionary progress—leading 21st-century humankind to a new plateau of enlightenment—and a seemingly predatory totalitarian fiefdom with a penchant for sky’s-the-limit avarice. Writes Wolfe, a Wall Street Journal reporter, “In Silicon Valley, gone are the straitjacketed paths of the East Coast elite; in their place are a series of open-ended questions about what industries will be disrupted next, and which cultural configurations will supplant Old Society. Even more than a testing ground for start-ups, the Valley…is a larger laboratory of cultural experimentation, where the only thing that’s impossible is to predict.”
Racy and fun, Wolfe’s dossier exposes the Valley as a high-tech playground, populated by workaholic millennials coding for driven, primarily male moguls, and by wunderkinds lured there by the call of like-minded brainiacs and the promise of big bucks—and of maybe participating in a polyamorous bang-fest or two in a mattress-strewn converted warehouse.
Wolfe got hooked on all things Silicon Valley after meeting and befriending billionaire PayPal cofounder and staunch Trump supporter Peter Thiel in 2006 at a New York salon. She tracks the first class of “20 Under 20” Thiel Fellows (if they agree to skip or delay college for two years to pursue their big ideas, Thiel will fund them at $100,000 each), and in the process she exposes the Valley’s newfangled ethos. Wolfe finds libertarian sexual mores that include after-hours orgiastic dances and Sancerre-fueled cougars prowling for young dudes at the Rosewood Sand Hill lounge; CrossFit and yoga practices adhered to with religious fervor; and the rejection of old-school materialism in favor of zip-line getaways.
With the Thiel Fellow ratio of men to women at 10 to 1, Laura Deming stands out. The “striking 17-year-old half Asian, [half Caucasian]…looked like a schoolgirl gone bad” with her “waves of unkempt, long, black hair…porcelain face…black miniskirt…combat boots,” and was an object of intense male attention as she diligently pursued a cure for aging. Another fellow, John Burnham, was fixated on figuring out a way to mine asteroids and “reap trillions of dollars from the valuable minerals.” Deming’s “rapid speech and frantic gesticulations” and Burnham’s dislike of small talk qualified them for the Valley-speak Wolfe refers to as Asperger’s Chic. Thiel would probably take umbrage at this; Wolfe notes that he dismisses the disorder and its traits as “the only ways smooth-talking socially adept types could describe people they couldn’t understand.”
Über alles, Thiel and other famous tech titans—Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Google cofounder Sergey Brin, and Tesla co-founder Elon Musk—serve as mentors and models for these brilliant underage wannabes, ruling “like the robber barons of the industrial revolution…But instead of massive factories and mills, they’re doing it with…a tip of a finger.” They enjoy their own brand of celebrity, thanks in large part to the new media they helped create. What has resulted, Wolfe contends, is “a new social order, one with an anti-‘society’ aesthetic” with its own signature values: extreme health, extreme comfort, and, of course, extreme wealth.
Wolfe’s entertaining and intensive look inside this aspirational, transformational, and transgressive lifestyle is both celebration and cautionary tale. Burned out by Silicon Valley start-ups and hackathons, Burnham eventually returned to his East Coast roots and enrolled in a small Catholic liberal arts college, where he aced his humanities courses in Aristophanes, Plato, and Homer.
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