— and not just on Facebook
Nobody is gathering more information more quickly than the providers of digital services. But do you trust them?
This is how the tech P.R. wars of the future will be waged: “Trust us, because we will take care of your precious information better than the other guy.”
On Aug. 21, Square, the mobile-payments start-up helmed by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, announced the release of a new package of analytical tools available for free to any merchant that uses Square.
Small businesses, argued the press release, tend not to have the same access to advanced data crunching as larger operations. Square Analytics “levels the playing field” and “delivers sellers actionable data to increase sales and better serve their customers.” Want to know exactly how much a bad snow storm affected your cupcake sales, or what kind of advanced coffee products your repeat customers crave the most on Tuesday mornings? Square Analytics has the answers!
A few hours after Square’s announcement, I received an email from a man who handles press relations for Shopkeep, a company that offers point-of-sale processing via the iPad, and has apparently been touting its own small business analytics support for years. Judging by the accusations made in the email, Shopkeep was none too pleased by the debut of Square’s new service.
“Square is more interested in collecting and selling data than it is in helping small businesses grow,” read the email. My correspondent further alleged that Square’s “terms and conditions” gave Square the right to do anything it wanted with the data it collected on retail transactions.
Picture this: I order coffee at a coffee shop that uses Square … Square, not the cafe, seizes the data on that transaction and emails me a receipt. The company can sell that data to the highest bidder — another coffee shop up the street or the closest Starbucks. Then I could get an email from that other coffee shop, not the one I’m a regular at, offering me a discount or some other incentive to come in.
Shopkeep, in contrast, would never do such a dastardly thing.
I contacted Square and asked spokesperson Aaron Zamost if the coffee shop scenario was realistic. Unsurprisingly, he dismissed it out of hand. “No, we do not intend to do this,” said Zamost. “We do not surface, nor do we have any plans to surface individualized transaction data to any sellers besides the one who made the sale. Our sellers trust us to be transparent with them and respectful of what they share with us. If we were to violate their trust, or behave as other companies have been known to, they would leave us.”
I have no evidence to prove or disprove the allegations made by Shopkeep or the defense offered by Square. The interesting point is that the nature of the accusation is an attempt to poke at what is clearly a sore spot in Silicon Valley in 2014. In these post-Snowden days, how tech companies handle data is a volatile issue. In fact, it might be the biggest issue of them all. Because Shopkeep and Square are hardly alone in their ability to amass valuable information. Every company that offers a service over your mobile device — whether processing a sale, hiring a car, locating a room to stay in — is in the data business. Everyone is a data broker. As Silicon Valley likes to say, in the 21st century data is the new oil. What rarely gets mentioned afterward, however, is the fact that the oil business, especially when it was just getting started, was very, very dirty.
* * *
Square has a cool product: A plastic card reader that plugs into the headphone jack of your phone and enables anyone with a bank account to start processing credit card transactions. Although Square has yet to turn a profit, and has weathered some bad press in recent months, the company does process $30 billion worth of transactions a year. That’s a lot of information available to crunch.
Of course, there are plenty of companies, starting with the credit card firms themselves, that are already slicing and dicing payment transaction info and offering analysis to whomever can pay for it. Square is just one more player in a very crowded field. But Square is nevertheless emblematic of an important trend — let’s call it the disruptive democratization of data brokering. Once upon a time, a handful of obscure, operating-behind-the-scenes firms dominated the data-brokering business. But now that everything’s digital, everyone with a digital business can be a data broker.
In an increasing number of cases it appears that the ostensible service offered by the latest free app isn’t actually what the app-maker plans to make money off; it’s just the lure that brings in the good stuff — the monetizable data. Square may be a payments processing company first, but it is rapidly amassing huge amounts of data, which is in itself a valuable commodity, a point confirmed by Square executive Gokul Rajaram to Fortune Magazine earlier this year.
Similarly, Uber is ostensibly a car hiring company but is also poised to know more about our transportation habits than just about any other single player. Almost every app on your phone — even the flashlight app — is simultaneously performing a service for you, and gathering data about you.
Increasingly, as the accusations about Square from a competitor demonstrate, we may end up deciding whom we choose for our services based on whether we trust them as responsible safekeepers of our data.
Until this year, most Americans have had only the sketchiest knowledge of how huge the marketplace is for our personal information. In May the FTC released a report that looked at the nine biggest data brokers — companies that specialize in amassing huge dossiers on every living person in the Western world. The numbers are startling.
Data brokers collect and store a vast amount of data on almost every U.S. household and commercial transaction. Of the nine data brokers, one data broker’s database has information on 1.4 billion consumer transactions and over 700 billion aggregated data elements; another data broker’s database covers one trillion dollars in consumer transactions; and yet another data broker adds three billion new records each month to its databases.
The big data brokers build their databases by snarfling up every single source of information they can find or buy. Databases operated by federal, state and local governments are an obvious source, but the big data brokers also routinely scrape social media sites and blogs, and also buy commercial databases from a vast variety of enterprises, as well as from other data brokers.
Today, nobody is gathering more information more quickly than the providers of digital services. Surveillance Valley, indeed! Analytics companies know the constellation of apps on your phone, including your every click and swipe, down to the most granular level.
The rules regarding what can be done with this information are in their infancy. For now, we depend largely on what the companies say in their own terms and conditions. But we would be unwise to regard those as permanently binding legally promises. They can change at any time — something that Facebook has demonstrated repeatedly. What Square says now, in other words, might not be what Square does in the future, especially if the company finds itself in dire need of cash.
When everyone is a data broker, having standardized rules governing what can be done with our information becomes a pressing social priority. Right now it’s just a big mess.
Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.
Silicon Valley has been in the media spotlight for its role in gentrifying and raising rents in San Francisco, helping the NSA spy on American citizens, and lack of racial and gender diversity. Despite that, Silicon Valley still has a reputation for benevolence, innocence and progressivism. Hence Google’s phrase, “Don’t be evil.” A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that, even after the Snowden leaks, 53% of those surveyed had high confidence in the tech industry. The tech industry is not seen as evil as, say, Wall Street or Big Oil.
One aspect of Silicon Valley that would damage this reputation has not been scrutinized enough—its involvement in American militarism. Silicon Valley’s ties to the National Security State extend beyond the NSA’s PRISM program. Through numerous partnerships and contracts with the U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies, Silicon Valley is part of the American military-industrial complex. Google sells its technologies to the U.S. military, FBI, CIA, NSA, DEA, NGA, and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies, has managers with backgrounds in military and intelligence work, and partners with defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Amazon designed a cloud computing system that will be used by the CIA and every other intelligence agency. The CIA-funded tech company Palantir sells its data-mining and analysis software to the U.S. military, CIA, LAPD, NYPD, and other security agencies. These technologies have several war-zone and intelligence-gathering applications.
First, a little background to explain how the military has been involved with Silicon Valley since its conception as a technology center. Silicon Valley’s roots date back to World War II, according to a presentation by researcher and entrepreneur Steve Blank. During the war, the U.S. government funded a secret lab at Harvard University to research how to disrupt Germany’s radar-guided electronic air defense system. The solution — drop aluminum foil in front of German radars to jam them. This birthed modern electronic warfare and signals intelligence. The head of that lab was Stanford engineering professor Fred Terman who, after World War II, took 11 staffers from that lab to create Stanford’s Electronic Research Lab (ERL), which received funding from the military. Stanford also had an Applied Electronics Lab(AEL) that did classified research in jammers and electronic intelligence for the military.
In fact, much of AEL’s research aided the U.S. war in Vietnam. This made the lab a target for student antiwar protesters who nonviolently occupied the lab in April 1969 and demanded an end to classified research at Stanford. After nearly a year of teach-ins, protests, and violent clashes with the police, Stanford effectively eliminated war-related classified research at the university.
The ERL did research in and designed microwave tubes and electronic receivers and jammers. This helped the U.S. military and intelligence agencies spy on the Soviet Union and jam their air defense systems. Local tube companies and contractors developed the technologies based on that research. Some researchers from ERL also founded microwave companies in the area. This created a boon of microwave and electronic startups that ultimately formed the Silicon Valley known today.
Don’t be evil, Google
Last year, the first Snowden documents revealed that Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, and other major tech companies provided the NSA access to their users’ data through the PRISM program. All the major tech companies denied knowledge of PRISM and put up an adversarial public front to government surveillance. However, Al Jazeera America’s Jason Leopold obtained, via FOIA request, two sets of email communications between former NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander and Google executives Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt. The communications, according to Leopold, suggest “a far cozier working relationship between some tech firms and the U.S. government than was implied by Silicon Valley brass” and that “not all cooperation was under pressure.” In the emails, Alexander and the Google executives discussed information sharing related to national security purposes.
But PRISM is the tip of the iceberg. Several tech companies are deeply in bed with the U.S. military, intelligence agencies, and defense contractors. One very notable example is Google. Google markets and sells its technology to the U.S. military and several intelligence and law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, CIA, NSA, DEA, and NGA.
Google has a contract with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) that allows the agency to use Google Earth Builder. The NGA provides geospatial intelligence, such as satellite imagery and mapping, to the military and other intelligence agencies like the NSA. In fact, NGA geospatial intelligence helped the military and CIA locate and kill Osama bin Laden. This contract allows the NGA to utilize Google’s mapping technology for geospatial intelligence purposes. Google’s Official Enterprise Blog announced that “Google’s work with NGA marks one of the first major government geospatial cloud initiatives, which will enable NGA to use Google Earth Builder to host its geospatial data and information. This allows NGA to customize Google Earth & Maps to provide maps and globes to support U.S. government activities, including: U.S. national security; homeland security; environmental impact and monitoring; and humanitarian assistance, disaster response and preparedness efforts.”
Google Earth’s technology “got its start in the intelligence community, in a CIA-backed firm called Keyhole,” which Google purchased in 2004, according to the Washington Post. PandoDaily reporter Yasha Levine, who has extensively reported on Google’s ties to the military and intelligence community, points out that Keyhole’s “main product was an application called EarthViewer, which allowed users to fly and move around a virtual globe as if they were in a video game.”
In 2003, a year before Google bought Keyhole, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy, until it was saved by In-Q-Tel, a CIA-funded venture capital firm. The CIA worked with other intelligence agencies to fit Keyhole’s systems to its needs. According to the CIA Museum page, “The finished product transformed the way intelligence officers interacted with geographic information and earth imagery. Users could now easily combine complicated sets of data and imagery into clear, realistic visual representations. Users could ‘fly’ from space to street level seamlessly while interactively exploring layers of information including roads, schools, businesses, and demographics.”
How much In-Q-Tel invested into Keyhole is classified. However, Levine writes that “the bulk of the funds didn’t come from the CIA’s intelligence budget — as they normally do with In-Q-Tel — but from the NGA, which provided the money on behalf of the entire ‘Intelligence Community.’ As a result, equity in Keyhole was held by two major intelligence agencies.” Shortly after In-Q-Tel bought Keyhole, the NGA (then known as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency or NIMA) announced it immediately used Keyhole’s technology to support U.S. troops in Iraq at the 2003-2011 war. The next year, Google purchased Keyhole and used its technology to develop Google Earth.
Four years after Google purchased Keyhole, in 2008, Google and the NGA purchased GeoEye-1, the world’s highest-resolution satellite, from the company GeoEye. The NGA paid for half of the satellite’s $502 million development and committed to purchasing its imagery. Because of a government restriction, Google gets lower-resolution images but still retains exclusive access to the satellite’s photos. GeoEye later merged into DigitalGlobe in 2013.
Google’s relationship to the National Security State extends beyond contracts with the military and intelligence agencies. Many managers in Google’s public sector division come from the U.S. military and intelligence community, according to one of Levine’s reports.
Michele R. Weslander-Quaid is one example. She became Google’s Innovation Evangelist and Chief Technology Officer of the company’s public sector division in 2011. Before joining Google, since 9/11, Weslander-Quaid worked throughout the military and intelligence world in positions at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, National Reconnaissance Office, and later, the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Levine noted that Weslander-Quaid also “toured combat zones in both Iraq and Afghanistan in order to see the tech needs of the military first-hand.”
Throughout her years working in the intelligence community, Weslander-Quaid “shook things up by dropping archaic software and hardware and convincing teams to collaborate via web tools” and “treated each agency like a startup,” according to a 2014 Entrepreneur Magazine profile. She was a major advocate for web tools and cloud-based software and was responsible for implementing them at the agencies she worked at. At Google, Weslander-Quaid’s job is to meet “with agency directors to map technological paths they want to follow, and helps Google employees understand what’s needed to work with public-sector clients.” Weslander-Quaid told Entrepreneur, “A big part of my job is to translate between Silicon Valley speak and government dialect” and “act as a bridge between the two cultures.”
Another is Shannon Sullivan, head of defense and intelligence at Google. Before working at Google, Sullivan served in the U.S. Air Force working at various intelligence positions. First as senior military advisor and then in the Air Force’s C4ISR Acquisition and Test; Space Operations, Foreign Military Sales unit. C4ISR stands for “Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.” Sullivan left his Air Force positions to work as Defense Director for BAE Systems, a British-based arms and defense company, and then Army and Air Force COCOMs Director at Oracle. His last project at Google was “setting up a Google Apps ‘transformational’ test program to supply 50,000 soldiers in the US Army and DoD with a customized Google App Universe”, according to Levine.
Google not only has a revolving door with the Pentagon and intelligence community, it also partners with defense and intelligence contractors. Levine writes that “in recent years, Google has increasingly taken the role of subcontractor: selling its wares to military and intelligence agencies by partnering with established military contractors.”
The company’s partners include two of the biggest American defense contractors — Lockheed Martin, an aerospace, defense, and information security company, and Northrop Grumman, an aerospace and defense technology company. Both Lockheed and Northrop produce aircraft, missiles and defense systems, naval and radar systems, unmanned systems, satellites, information technology, and other defense-related technologies. In 2011, Lockheed Martin made $36.3 billion in arms sales, while Northrop Grumman made $21.4 billion. Lockheed has a major office in Sunnyvale, California, right in the middle of Silicon Valley. Moreover, Lockheed was also involved in interrogating prisoners in Iraq and Guantanamo, through its purchase of Sytex Corporation and the information technology unit of Affiliated Computer Services (ACS), both of whom directly interrogated detainees.
Google worked with Lockheed to design geospatial technologies. In 2007, describing the company as “Google’s partner,” the Washington Post reported that Lockheed “demonstrated a Google Earth product that it helped design for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s work in Iraq. These included displays of key regions of the country and outlined Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad, as well as U.S. and Iraqi military bases in the city. Neither Lockheed nor Google would say how the geospatial agency uses the data.” Meanwhile, Google has a $1-million contract with Northrop to install a Google Earth plug-in.
Both Lockheed and Northrop manufacture and sell unmanned systems, also known as drones. Lockheed’s drones include the Stalker, which can stay airborne for 48 hours; Desert Hawk III, a small reconnaissance drone used by British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; and the RQ-170 Sentinel, a high-altitude stealth reconnaissance drone used by the U.S. Air Force and CIA. RQ-170s have been used in Afghanistan and for the raidthat killed Osama bin Laden. One American RQ-170 infamously crashed in Iran while on a surveillance mission over the country in late 2011.
Northrop Grumman built the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a high-altitude surveillance drone used by the Air Force and Navy. Northrop is also building a new stealth drone for the Air Force called the RQ-180, which may be operational by 2015. In 2012, Northrop sold $1.2 billion worth of drones to South Korea.
Google is also cashing in on the drone market. It recently purchased drone manufacturer Titan Aerospace, which makes high-altitude, solar-powered drones that can “stay in the air for years without needing to land,” reported the Wire. Facebook entered into talks to buy the company a month before Google made the purchase.
Last December, Google purchased Boston Dynamics, a major engineering and robotics company that receives funding from the military for its projects. According to the Guardian, “Funding for the majority of the most advanced Boston Dynamics robots comes from military sources, including the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the US army, navy and marine corps.” Some of these DARPA-funded projects include BigDog, Legged Squad Support System (LS3), Cheetah, WildCat, and Atlas, all of which are autonomous, walking robots. Altas is humanoid, while BigDog, LS3, Cheetah, WildCat are animal-like quadrupeds. In addition to Boston Dynamics, Google purchased eight robotics companies in 2013—Industrial Perception, Redwood Robotics, Meka, Schaft, Holomni, Bot & Dolly, and Autofuss. Google has been tight-lipped about the specifics of its plans for the robotics companies. But some sources told the New York Times that Google’s robotics efforts are not aimed at consumers but rather manufacturing, such as automating supply chains.
Google’s “Enterprise Government” page also lists military/intelligence contractors Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) and Blackbird Technologies among the companies it partners with. In particularly, Blackbird is a military contractor that supplies locators for “the covert ‘tagging, tracking and locating’ of suspected enemies,” according to Wired. Its customers include the U.S. Navy and U.S. Special Operations Command. SOCOM oversees the U.S. military’s special operations forces units, such as the Navy SEALs, Delta Force, Army Rangers, and Green Berets. Blackbird even sent some employees as armed operatives on secret missions with special operations forces. The company’s vice president is Cofer Black, a former CIA operative who ran the agency’s Counterterrorist Center before 9/11.
Palantir and the military
Many others tech companies are working with military and intelligence agencies. Amazon recently developed a $600 million cloud computing system for the CIA that will also service all 17 intelligence agencies. Both Amazon and the CIA have said little to nothing about the system’s capabilities.
Palantir, which is based in Palo Alto, California produces and sells data-mining and analysis software. Its customers include the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Special Operations Command, CIA, NSA, FBI, Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Homeland Security, National Counterterrorism Center, LAPD, and NYPD. In California, the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), one of 72 federally run fusion centers built across the nation since 9/11, uses Palantir software to collect and analyze license plate photos.
While Google sells its wares to whomever in order to make a profit, Palantir, as a company, isn’t solely dedicated to profit-maximizing. Counterterrorism has been part of the company’s mission since it began. The company was founded in 2004 by investor Alex Karp, who is the company’s chief executive, and billionaire PayPal founder Peter Thiel. In 2003, Thiel came up with the idea to develop software to fight terrorism based on PayPal’s fraud recognition software. The CIA’s In-Q-Tel helped jumpstart the company by investing $2 million. The rest of the company’s $30 million start-up costs were funded by Thiel and his venture capital fund.
Palantir’s software has “a user-friendly search tool that can scan multiple data sources at once, something previous search tools couldn’t do,” according to a 2009 Wall Street Journal profile. The software fills gaps in intelligence “by using a ‘tagging’ technique similar to that used by the search functions on most Web sites. Palantir tags, or categorizes, every bit of data separately, whether it be a first name, a last name or a phone number.” Analysts can quickly categorize information as it comes in. The software’s ability to scan and categorize multiple sources of incoming data helps analysts connect the dots among large and different pools of information — signals intelligence, human intelligence, geospatial intelligence, and much more. All this data is collected and analyzed in Palantir’s system. This makes it useful for war-related, intelligence, and law enforcement purposes. That is why so many military, police, and intelligence agencies want Palantir’s software.
U.S. troops in Afghanistan who used Palantir’s software, particularly the Marines and SOCOM, found it very helpful for their missions. Commanders liked Palantir’s ability to direct them at insurgents who “build and bury homemade bombs, the biggest killer of U.S. troops in Afghanistan,” the Washington Times reported. A Government Accountability Office report said Palantir’s software “gained a reputation for being intuitive and easy to use, while also providing effective tools to link and visualize data.” Special operations forces found Palantir to be “a highly effective system for conducting intelligence information analysis and supporting operations” and “provided flexibility to support mobile, disconnected users out on patrols or conducting missions.” Many within the military establishment are pushing to have other branches, such as the Army, adopt Palantir’s software in order to improve intelligence-sharing.
Palantir’s friends include people from the highest echelons of the National Security State. Former CIA Director George Tenet and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are advisers to Palantir, while former CIA director Gen. David Petraeus “considers himself a friend of Palantir CEO Alex Karp”, according to Forbes. Tenet told Forbes, “I wish I had Palantir when I was director. I wish we had the tool of its power because it not only slice and dices today, but it gives you an enormous knowledge management tool to make connections for analysts that go back five, six, six, eight, 10 years. It gives you a shot at your data that I don’t think any product that we had at the time did.”
Silicon Valley’s technology has numerous battlefield applications, which is something the U.S. military notices. Since the global war on terror began, the military has had a growing need for high-tech intelligence-gathering and other equipment. “A key challenge facing the military services is providing users with the capabilities to analyze the huge amount of intelligence data being collected,” the GAO report said. The proliferation of drones, counter-insurgency operations, sophisticated intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) systems, and new technologies and sensors changed how intelligence is used in counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and other countries.
According to the report, “The need to integrate the large amount of available intelligence data, including the ability to synthesize information from different types of intelligence sources (e.g., HUMINT, SIGINT, GEOINT, and open source), has become increasingly important in addressing, for example, improvised explosive device threats and tracking the activities of certain components of the local population.” This is where Palantir’s software comes in handy. It does what the military needs — data-mining and intelligence analysis. That is why it is used by SOCOM and other arms of the National Security State.
Irregular wars against insurgents and terrorist groups present two problems— finding the enemy and killing them. This is because such groups know how to mix in with, and are usually part of, the local population. Robotic weapons, such as drones, present “an asymmetric solution to an asymmetric problem,” according to a Foster-Miller executive quoted in P.W. Singer’s book Wired for War. Drones can hover over a territory for long periods of time and launch a missile at a target on command without putting American troops in harm’s way, making them very attractive weapons.
Additionally, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies are increasingly relying on signals intelligence to solve this problem. Signals intelligence monitors electronic signals, such as phone calls and conversations, emails, radio or radar signals, and electronic communications. Intelligence analysts or troops on the ground will collect and analyze the electronic communications, along with geospatial intelligence, of adversaries to track their location, map human behavior, and carry out lethal operations.
Robert Steele, a former Marine, CIA case officer, and current open source intelligence advocate, explained the utility of signals intelligence. “Signals intelligence has always relied primarily on seeing the dots and connecting the dots, not on knowing what the dots are saying. When combined with a history of the dots, and particularly the dots coming together in meetings, or a black (anonymous) cell phone residing next to a white (known) cellphone, such that the black acquires the white identity by extension, it becomes possible to ‘map’ human activity in relation to weapons caches, mosques, meetings, etcetera,” he said in an email interview. Steele added the “only advantage” to signals intelligence “is that it is very very expensive and leaves a lot of money on the table for pork and overhead.”
In Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) commandos combined images from surveillance drones with the tracking of mobile phone numbers to analyze insurgent networks. Commandos then used this analysis to locate and capture or kill their intended targets during raids. Oftentimes, however, this led to getting the wrong person. Steele added that human and open source intelligence are “vastly superior to signals intelligence 95% of the time” but “are underfunded precisely because they are not expensive and require face to face contact with foreigners, something the US Government is incompetent at, and Silicon Valley could care less.”
Capt. Michael Kearns, a retired U.S. and Australian Air Force intelligence officer and former SERE instructor with experience working in Silicon Valley, explained how digital information makes it easier for intelligence agencies to collect data. In an email, he told AlterNet, “Back in the day when the world was analog, every signal was one signal. Some signals contained a broad band of information contained within, however, there were no ‘data packets’ embedded within the electromagnetic spectrum. Therefore, collecting a signal, or a phone conversation, was largely the task of capturing / decoding / processing some specifically targeted, singular source. Today, welcome to the digital era. Data ‘packets’ flow as if like water, with pieces and parts of all things ‘upstream’ contained within. Therefore, the task today for a digital society is largely one of collecting everything, so as to fully unwrap and exploit the totality of the captured data in an almost exploratory manner. And therein lies the apparent inherently unconstitutional-ness of wholesale collection of digital data…it’s almost like ‘pre-crime.'”
One modern use of signals intelligence is in the United States’ extrajudicial killing program, a major component of the global war on terror. The extrajudicial killing program began during the Bush administration as a means to kill suspected terrorists around the world without any due process. However, as Bush focused on the large-occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the extrajudicial killing program was less emphasized.
The Obama administration continued the war on terror but largely shifted away from large-scale occupations to emphasizing CIA/JSOC drone strikes, airstrikes, cruise missile attacks,proxies, and raids by special operations forces against suspected terrorists and other groups. Obama continued and expanded Bush’s assassination program, relying on drones and special operations forces to do the job. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, U.S. drone strikes and other covert operations have killed nearly 3,000 to over 4,800 people, including 500 to over 1,000 civilians, in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. During Obama’s five years in office, over 2,400 people were killed by U.S. drone strikes. Most of those killed by drone strikes are civilians or low-level fighters and, in Pakistan, only 2 percent were high-level militants. Communities living under drone strikes are regularly terrorized and traumatized by them.
Targeting for drone strikes is based on metadata analysis and geolocating the cell phone SIM card of a suspected terrorist, according to a report by the Intercept. This intelligence is provided by the NSA and given to the CIA or JSOC which will then carry out the drone strike. However, it is very common for people in countries like Yemen or Pakistan to hold multiple SIM cards, hand their cell phones to family and friends, and groups like the Taliban to randomly hand out SIM cards among their fighters to confuse trackers.
Since this methodology targets a SIM card linked to a suspect rather than an actual person, innocent civilians are regularly killed unintentionally. To ensure the assassination program will continue, the National Counterterrorism Center developed the “disposition matrix,” a database that continuously adds the names, locations, and associates of suspected terrorists to kill-or-capture lists.
The Defense Department’s 2015 budget proposal requests $495.6 billion, down $0.4 billion from last year, and decreases the Army to around 440,000 to 450,000 troops from the post-9/11 peak of 570,000. But it protects money — $5.1 billion — for cyberwarfare and special operations forces, giving SOCOM $7.7 billion, a 10 percent increase from last year, and 69,700 personnel. Thus, these sorts of operations will likely continue.
As the United States emphasizes cyberwarfare, special operations, drone strikes, electronic-based forms of intelligence, and other tactics of irregular warfare to wage perpetual war, sophisticated technology will be needed. Silicon Valley is the National Security State’s go-to industry for this purpose.
This will come as news only to people who have not attended Burning Man in the last couple of years, but the New York Times has just caught on to the fact that Silicon Valley millionaires (and billionaires) have been attending the desert festival in greater numbers and quickly ruining it with their displays of wealth. While we used to call Coachella “Burning Man Lite for Angelenos,” Burning Man itself is quickly becoming Coachella on Crack for rich tech folk who want to get naked and do bong hits with Larry Page in Elon Musk’s decked-out RV.
Burners won’t just be sharing the playa with Larry and Sergey, Zuck, Grover Norquist, and at least one Winklevoss twin this year. There will also be a legion of new millionaires, most of them probably Burning Man virgins, who will be living in the lap of luxury and occasionally dropping in on your parties to ask for molly.
Per the Times piece:
“We used to have R.V.s and precooked meals,” said a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. (He asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize those relationships.) “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning.” He added with a sense of amazement, “Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert!”His camp includes about 100 people from the Valley and Hollywood start-ups, as well as several venture capital firms. And while dues for most non-tech camps run about $300 a person, he said his camp’s fees this year were $25,000 a person. A few people, mostly female models flown in from New York, get to go free, but when all is told, the weekend accommodations will collectively cost the partygoers over $2 million.
“Anyone who has been going to Burning Man for the last five years is now seeing things on a level of expense or flash that didn’t exist before,” said Brian Doherty, author of the book “This Is Burning Man.” “It does have this feeling that, ‘Oh, look, the rich people have moved into my neighborhood.’ It’s gentrifying.”
The blockaded camps of the tech gentrifiers have tended to be in the outer rings of Black Rock City, as was previously reported in 2011 when a guest of Elon Musk’s spoke to the Wall Street Journal. “We’re out of the thick of it,” he said, “so we’re not offending the more elaborate or involved set ups.”
But as Silicon Valley assumes more and more of a presence on the playa, what’s to stop them from claiming better and better real estate, closer to where the action is?
You won’t see any evidence of this on Facebook, though. All of this happens without the tech world’s usual passion for documentation, since they do abide by at least that one tenet of Burning Man culture that frowns on photography. And at least, as of 2014, they seem to understand that their displays of wealth aren’t all that welcome, and should probably be kept on the down-low.
But seriously? Models flown in from New York? Gross.
When you spend a day with something that knows you in ways you don’t know yourself, you learn that maybe you aren’t quite as interested in the things you think you are.
Here’s what I learned about myself: It seems I don’t much care about my hometown or the people in it, I’m far more interested in feminist blogs than I am in technology or sports, I’m still hung up on New York after moving away last spring, and I’m apparently very interested in the goings on of someone I worked with at Pizza Hut when I was 16.
What was the source of these revelatory, self-image-shifting facts? The same place you probably went when you got to work this morning: Facebook, which we can’t stop feeding, and obsessively tracks our every online movement.
Over the course of five or six hours on July 17, I pored over my News Feed, endlessly scrolling and refreshing until every piece of content that appeared was a repeat. I cataloged each post, totaling 1,417 status updates, photos, links, Likes, event RSVP’s and more, creating an assortment of everything Facebook thinks I care about.
But for all those link shares and wall posts, I still wasn’t sure exactly why I was seeing what I was seeing, or if I was even seeing what I wanted to see. (A Pizza Hut co-worker? Really?) So I went through my whole Facebook network – all of my 403 friends and the 157 Pages I Like – and recorded every single thing they posted on July 17.
Spoiler: My News Feed showed me only a fraction of my network’s total activity, most of what it showed me was old, and what I was shown was often jarringly unexpected.
Facebook says roughly one in seven people on the planet log in at least once a month. And yet, how News Feed works remains bafflingly opaque, like a secret box of technology, algorithms and magic that remains one of tech’s bigger mysteries. An entire consulting industry is built around trying to game it (think SEO for Google), and publishers invest enormous amounts of energy into succeeding on it, but as soon as people start to figure it out Facebook tweaks its secret recipe and everything goes out the window.
What we know is this: The more popular a piece of content posted in your network becomes, the more likely it is to spill into your News Feed; and the friends and Pages you interact most with are the ones you’ll see most frequently, according to Justin Lafferty, editor of InsideFacebook.com.
“Mark Zuckerberg wants News Feed to be like a newspaper,” he said. “The top stories are curated based on relevancy and the user’s connection to that page or friend,” he said, adding that like a printed newspaper or magazine, older stories can still be germane.
But beyond that, not much is known, and the further you dig into what Facebook thinks about you, the more odd things can get.
For example: I lived in Denver until I was 20 and still consider it home. Throughout my day on Facebook, I didn’t see a single story from The Denver Post, despite that Page posting 17 pieces of unique content. The same was true for Westword, a Denver alt-weekly I used to read religiously; a handful of local TV news stations I Like; and high school friends, acquaintances and even people I still consider close friends who live there. Do I not care about my home as much as I thought? Despite letting Facebook track me basically wherever and whenever it wants to, it still doesn’t think I’m interested in Denver or what goes on there?
On the other hand, women-oriented blogs such as Jezebel, Refinery29 and The Cut at times dominated my News Feed, with a whopping 40 posts between them appearing. The Verge, which I thought was among my favorite blogs, barely showed up.
And even as I was doing my experiment, I could see subtle shifts in what appeared, which, in turn, perhaps changes who Facebook thinks I am. Status updates from those same high school friends I hadn’t interacted with in years suddenly started popping up toward the end of the day. The same went for Pages I liked long ago and forgot about, and parties in New York I wasn’t invited to but saw close friends RSVP to.
The day had become an oddly pointed reminder of a past I don’t seem to care about, and a distressing collection of everything I’m missing out on today.
By midnight, after almost six hours of scrolling, refreshing and note-taking throughout the day, I had consumed 1,417 unique events. Posts from July 17 became rare as older posts crept in, and eventually everything I was seeing in my News Feed I had seen before. I had exhausted my well of Facebook content, I thought – a triumph! I had conquered Facebook!
Well, no: I wasn’t even close. After going back to record every single event that happened in my entire network on July 17, I saw that 2,593 pieces of new content had been produced. I saw 738 of them, or about 29%. The other 679 posts that appeared in my News Feed were old news by the time I saw them, sometimes by more than two days.
So that means that after doing everything possible to see all of the activity in my network, I saw less than third of it. Considering the average U.S. user spends around 40 minutes on Facebook per day – or about one-tenth of the time I spent in my News Feed – it’s easy to imagine that percentage dipping far, far below my 29%.
But that might be the point.
Greg Marra, a product manager on News Feed at Facebook, told me that it is fundamentally a reflection of the user and his or her interests.
“News Feed is made by you,” Marra said. “It tries to show the most interesting things possible for you, it’s a very personalized system,” he said, adding, “We try to let users take control.”
Marra said there are countless signals that tell Facebook what to pump into a person’s News Feed, including relationships with other users, the topic of content in a given link, how long a user spends reading a story he or she found though Facebook, if and how many times X user visits Y user’s profile, friends’ activity on a certain post, all of our previous activity and more.
“We learn based on what you’ve done in the past,” Marra said. “And we try to quickly learn about the things that you’re interested in.”
(Remember that Facebook’s learning can sometimes result in disastrous PR.)
So after a full day spent on Facebook, what was I left with? In the end, not much. A heap of work for myself to complete this story; a still-muddled understanding of how News Feed works; and a slightly different view of what I think I care about.
Fittingly enough: The final post I saw on my Endless Day of Facebook was a status update about a flash flood warning that was more than 40 hours old.
It was for Denver.
I used to be able to read for hours without digital interruption. Now? That’s just funny. I want my focus back!
I’m enough of a distraction addict that a low-level ambient guilt about not getting my real work done hovers around me for most of the day. And this distractible quality in me pervades every part of my life. The distractions—What am I making for dinner?, Who was that woman in “Fargo”?, or, quite commonly, What else should I be reading?—are invariably things that can wait. What, I wonder, would I be capable of doing if I weren’t constantly worrying about what I ought to be doing?
And who is this frumpy thirty-something man who has tried to read “War and Peace” five times, never making it past the garden gate? I took the tome down from the shelf this morning and frowned again at those sad little dog-ears near the fifty-page mark.
Are the luxuries of time on which deep reading is reliant available to us anymore? Even the attention we deign to give to our distractions, those frissons, is narrowing.
It’s important to note this slippage. As a child, I would read for hours in bed without the possibility of a single digital interruption. Even the phone (which was anchored by wires to the kitchen wall downstairs) was generally mute after dinner. Our two hours of permitted television would come to an end, and I would seek out the solitary refuge of a novel. And deep reading (as opposed to reading a Tumblr feed) was a true refuge. What I liked best about that absorbing act was the fact books became a world unto themselves, one that I (an otherwise powerless kid) had some control over. There was a childish pleasure in holding the mysterious object in my hands; in preparing for the story’s finale by monitoring what Austen called a “tell-tale compression of the pages”; in proceeding through some perfect sequence of plot points that bested by far the awkward happenstance of real life.
The physical book, held, knowable, became a small mental apartment I could have dominion over, something that was alive because of my attention and then lived in me.
But now . . . that thankful retreat, where my child-self could become so lost, seems unavailable to me. Today there is no room in my house, no block in my city, where I am unreachable.
Eventually, if we start giving them a chance, moments of absence reappear, and we can pick them up if we like. One appeared this morning, when my partner flew to Paris. He’ll be gone for two weeks. I’ll miss him, but this is also my big break.
I’ve taken “War and Peace” back down off the shelf. It’s sitting beside my computer as I write these lines—accusatory as some attention-starved pet.
You and me, old friend. You, me, and two weeks. I open the book, I shut the book, and I open the book again. The ink swirls up at me. This is hard. Why is this so hard?
* * *
Dr. Douglas Gentile, a friendly professor at Iowa State University, recently commiserated with me about my pathetic attention span. “It’s me, too, of course,” he said. “When I try to write a paper, I can’t keep from checking my e-mail every five minutes. Even though I know it’s actually making me less productive.” This failing is especially worrying for Gentile because he happens to be one of the world’s leading authorities on the effects of media on the brains of the young. “I know, I know! I know all the research on multitasking. I can tell you absolutely that everyone who thinks they’re good at multitasking is wrong. We know that in fact it’s those who think they’re good at multitasking who are the least productive when they multitask.”
The brain itself is not, whatever we may like to believe, a multitasking device. And that is where our problem begins. Your brain does a certain amount of parallel processing in order to synthesize auditory and visual information into a single understanding of the world around you, but the brain’s attention is itself only a spotlight, capable of shining on one thing at a time. So the very word multitask is a misnomer. There is rapid-shifting minitasking, there is lame-spasms-of-effort-tasking, but there is, alas, no such thing as multitasking. “When we think we’re multitasking,” says Gentile, “we’re actually multiswitching.”
We can hardly blame ourselves for being enraptured by the promise of multitasking, though. Computers—like televisions before them—tap into a very basic brain function called an “orienting response.” Orienting responses served us well in the wilderness of our species’ early years. When the light changes in your peripheral vision, you must look at it because that could be the shadow of something that’s about to eat you. If a twig snaps behind you, ditto. Having evolved in an environment rife with danger and uncertainty, we are hardwired to always default to fast-paced shifts in focus. Orienting responses are the brain’s ever-armed alarm system and cannot be ignored.
Gentile believes it’s time for a renaissance in our understanding of mental health. To begin with, just as we can’t accept our body’s cravings for chocolate cake at face value, neither can we any longer afford to indulge the automatic desires our brains harbor for distraction.
* * *
It’s not merely difficult at first. It’s torture. I slump into the book, reread sentences, entire paragraphs. I get through two pages and then stop to check my e-mail—and down the rabbit hole I go. After all, one does not read “War and Peace” so much as suffer through it. It doesn’t help that the world at large, being so divorced from such pursuits, is often aggressive toward those who drop away into single-subject attention wells. People don’t like it when you read “War and Peace.” It’s too long, too boring, not worth the effort. And you’re elitist for trying.
In order to finish the thing in the two weeks I have allotted myself, I must read one hundred pages each day without fail. If something distracts me from my day’s reading—a friend in the hospital, a magazine assignment, sunshine—I must read two hundred pages on the following day. I’ve read at this pace before, in my university days, but that was years ago and I’ve been steadily down-training my brain ever since.
* * *
Another week has passed—my “War and Peace” struggle continues. I’ve realized now that the subject of my distraction is far more likely to be something I need to look at than something I need to do. There have always been activities—dishes, gardening, sex, shopping—that derail whatever purpose we’ve assigned to ourselves on a given day. What’s different now is the addition of so much content that we passively consume.
Only this morning I watched a boy break down crying on “X Factor,” then regain his courage and belt out a half-decent rendition of Beyoncé’s “Listen”; next I looked up the original Beyoncé video and played it twice while reading the first few paragraphs of a story about the humanity of child soldiers; then I switched to a Nina Simone playlist prepared for me by Songza, which played while I flipped through a slide show of American soldiers seeing their dogs for the first time in years; and so on, ad nauseam. Until I shook I out of this funk and tried to remember what I’d sat down to work on in the first place.
* * *
If I’m to break from our culture of distraction, I’m going to need practical advice, not just depressing statistics. To that end, I switch gears and decide to stop talking to scientists for a while; I need to talk to someone who deals with attention and productivity in the so-called real world. Someone with a big smile and tailored suits such as organizational guru Peter Bregman. He runs a global consulting firm that gets CEOs to unleash the potential of their workers, and he’s also the author of the acclaimed business book 18 Minutes, which counsels readers to take a minute out of every work hour (plus five minutes at the start and end of the day) to do nothing but set an intention.
Bregman told me he sets his watch to beep every hour as a reminder that it’s time to right his course again. Aside from the intention setting, Bregman counsels no more than three e-mail check-ins a day. This notion of batch processing was anathema to someone like me, used to checking my in-box so constantly, particularly when my work feels stuck. “It’s incredibly inefficient to switch back and forth,” said Bregman, echoing every scientist I’d spoken to on multitasking. “Besides, e-mail is, actually, just about the least efficient mode of conversation you can have. And what we know about multitasking is that, frankly, you can’t. You just derail.”
“I just always feel I’m missing something important,” I said. “And that’s precisely why we lose hours every day, that fear.” Bregman argues that it’s people who can get ahead of that fear who end up excelling in the business world that he spends his own days in. “I think everyone is more distractible today than we used to be. It’s a very hard thing to fix. And as people become more distracted, we know they’re actually doing less, getting less done. Your efforts just leak out. And those who aren’t—aren’t leaking—are going to be the most successful.”
I hate that I leak. But there’s a religious certainty required in order to devote yourself to one thing while cutting off the rest of the world. We don’t know that the inbox is emergency-free, we don’t know that the work we’re doing is the work we ought to be doing. But we can’t move forward in a sane way without having some faith in the moment we’ve committed to. “You need to decide that things don’t matter as much as you might think they matter,” Bregman suggested as I told him about my flitting ways. And that made me think there might be a connection between the responsibility-free days of my youth and that earlier self’s ability to concentrate. My young self had nowhere else to be, no permanent anxiety nagging at his conscience. Could I return to that sense of ease? Could I simply be where I was and not seek out a shifting plurality to fill up my time?
* * *
It happened softly and without my really noticing.
As I wore a deeper groove into the cushions of my sofa, so the book I was holding wore a groove into my (equally soft) mind. Moments of total absence began to take hold more often; I remembered what it was like to be lost entirely in a well-spun narrative. There was the scene where Anna Mikhailovna begs so pitifully for a little money, hoping to send her son to war properly dressed. And there were, increasingly, more like it. More moments where the world around me dropped away and I was properly absorbed. A “causeless springtime feeling of joy” overtakes Prince Andrei; a tearful Pierre sees in a comet his last shimmering hope; Emperor Napoleon takes his troops into the heart of Russia, oblivious to the coming winter that will destroy them all…
It takes a week or so for withdrawal symptoms to work through a heroin addict’s body. While I wouldn’t pretend to compare severity here, doubtless we need patience, too, when we deprive ourselves of the manic digital distractions we’ve grown addicted to.
That’s how it was with my Tolstoy and me. The periods without distraction grew longer, I settled into the sofa and couldn’t hear the phone, couldn’t hear the ghost-buzz of something else to do. I’m teaching myself to slip away from the world again.
* * *
Yesterday I fell asleep on the sofa with a few dozen pages of “War and Peace” to go. I could hear my cell phone buzzing from its perch on top of the piano. I saw the glowing green eye of my Cyclops modem as it broadcast potential distraction all around. But on I went past the turgid military campaigns and past the fretting of Russian princesses, until sleep finally claimed me and my head, exhausted, dreamed of nothing at all. This morning I finished the thing at last. The clean edges of its thirteen hundred pages have been ruffled down into a paper cabbage, the cover is pilled from the time I dropped it in the bath. Holding the thing aloft, trophy style, I notice the book is slightly larger than it was before I read it.
It’s only after the book is laid down, and I’ve quietly showered and shaved, that I realize I haven’t checked my e-mail today. The thought of that duty comes down on me like an anvil.
Instead, I lie back on the sofa and think some more about my favorite reader Milton – about his own anxieties around reading. By the mid-1650s, he had suffered that larger removal from the crowds, he had lost his vision entirely and could not read at all—at least not with his own eyes. From within this new solitude, he worried that he could no longer meet his potential. One sonnet, written shortly after the loss of his vision, begins:
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, and that one Talent
which is death to hide Lodged with me useless . . .
Yet from that position, in the greatest of caves, he began producing his greatest work. The epic “Paradise Lost,” a totemic feat of concentration, was dictated to aides, including his three daughters.
Milton already knew, after all, the great value in removing himself from the rush of the world, so perhaps those anxieties around his blindness never had a hope of dominating his mind. I, on the other hand, and all my peers, must make a constant study of concentration itself. I slot my ragged “War and Peace” back on the shelf. It left its marks on me the same way I left my marks on it (I feel awake as a man dragged across barnacles on the bottom of some ocean). I think: This is where I was most alive, most happy. How did I go from loving that absence to being tortured by it? How can I learn to love that absence again?
This essay is adapted from “The End of Absence” by Michael Harris, published by Current / Penguin Random House.
The students of Timothy Draper’s University of Heroes shuffle into a conference room, khaki shorts swishing against their knees, flip-flops clacking against the carpeted floor. One by one they take their seats and crack open their laptops, training their eyes on Facebook home pages or psychedelic screen savers. An air conditioner whirs somewhere in the rafters. A man in chinos stands before them.
The man is Steve Westly, former state controller, prominent venture capitalist, 57-year-old baron of Silicon Valley. He smiles at the group with all the sheepishness of a student preparing for show-and-tell. He promises to be brief.
“People your age are changing the world,” Westly tells the students, providing his own list of great historical innovators: Napoleon, Jesus, Zuckerberg, Larry, Sergey. “It’s almost never people my age,” he adds.
Students at Draper University — a private, residential tech boot camp launched by venture capitalist Timothy Draper, in what was formerly San Mateo’s Benjamin Franklin Hotel — have already embraced Westly’s words as a credo. They inhabit a world where success and greatness seem to hover within arm’s reach. A small handful of those who complete the six-week, $9,500 residential program might get a chance to join Draper’s business incubator; an even smaller handful might eventually get desks at an accelerator run by Draper’s son, Adam. It’s a different kind of meritocracy than Westly braved, pursuing an MBA at Stanford in the early ’80s. At Draper University, heroism is merchandised, rather than earned. A 20-year-old with bright eyes and deep pockets (or a parent who can front the tuition) has no reason to think he won’t be the next big thing.
This is the dogma that glues Silicon Valley together. Young employees are plucked out of high school, college-aged interns trade their frat houses and dorm rooms for luxurious corporate housing. Twenty-seven-year-old CEOs inspire their workers with snappy jingles about moving fast and breaking things. Entrepreneurs pitch their business plans in slangy, tech-oriented patois.
Gone are the days of the “company man” who spends 30 years ascending the ranks in a single corporation. Having an Ivy League pedigree and a Brooks Brothers suit is no longer as important.
“Let’s face it: The days of the ‘gold watch’ are over,” 25-year-old writer David Burstein says. “The average millennial is expected to have several jobs by the time he turns 38.”
Yet if constant change is the new normal, then older workers have a much harder time keeping up. The Steve Westlys of the world are fading into management positions. Older engineers are staying on the back-end, working on system administration or architecture, rather than serving as the driving force of a company.
“If you lost your job, it might be hard to find something similar,” a former Google contractor says, noting that an older engineer might have to settle for something with a lower salary, or even switch fields. The contractor says he knows a man who graduated from Western New England University in the 1970s with a degree in the somewhat archaic field of time-motion engineering. That engineer wound up working at Walmart.
Those who do worm their way into the Valley workforce often have a rough adjustment. The former contractor, who is in his 40s, says he was often the oldest person commuting from San Francisco to Mountain View on a Google bus. And he adhered to a different schedule: Wake up at 4:50 a.m., get out the door by 6:20, catch the first coach home at 4:30 p.m. to be home for a family supper. He was one of the few people who didn’t take advantage of the free campus gyms or gourmet cafeteria dinners or on-site showers. He couldn’t hew to a live-at-work lifestyle.
And compared to other middle-aged workers, he had it easy.
In a lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court in July, former Twitter employee Peter H. Taylor claims he was canned because of his age, despite performing his duties in “an exemplary manner.” Taylor, who was 57 at the time of his termination in September of last year, says his supervisor made at least one derogatory remark about his age, and that the company refused to accommodate his disabilities following a bout with kidney stones. He says he was ultimately replaced by several employees in their 20s and 30s. A Twitter spokesman says the lawsuit is without merit and that the company will “vigorously” defend itself.
The case is not without precedent. Computer scientist Brian Reid lobbed a similar complaint against Google in 2004, claiming co-workers called him an “old man” and an “old fuddy-duddy,” and routinely told him he was not a “cultural fit” for the company. Reid was 54 at the time he filed the complaint; he settled for an undisclosed amount of money.
What is surprising, perhaps, is that a 57-year-old man was employed at Twitter at all. “Look, Twitter has no 50-year-old employees,” the former Google contractor says, smirking. “By the time these [Silicon Valley] engineers are in their 40s, they’re old — they have houses, boats, stock options, mistresses. They drive to work in Chevy Volts.”
There’s definitely a swath of Valley nouveau riche who reap millions in their 20s and 30s, and who are able to cash out and retire by age 40. But that’s a minority of the population. The reality, for most people, is that most startups fail, most corporations downsize, and most workforces churn. Switching jobs every two or three years might be the norm, but it’s a lot easier to do when you’re 25 than when you’re 39. At that point, you’re essentially a senior citizen, San Francisco botox surgeon Seth Matarasso says.
“I have a friend who lived in Chicago and came back to Silicon Valley at age 38,” Matarasso recalls. “And he said, ‘I feel like a grandfather — in Chicago I just feel my age.”
Retirement isn’t an option for the average middle-aged worker, and even the elites — people like Westly, who were once themselves wunderkinds — find themselves in an awkward position when they hit their 50s, pandering to audiences that may have no sense of what came before. The diehards still work well past their Valley expiration date, but then survival becomes a job unto itself. Sometimes it means taking lower-pay contract work, or answering to a much younger supervisor, or seeking workplace protection in court.