Culture is a thing of surfaces and secrets. The anthropologist is obliged to record the first and penetrate the second. Once we’ve figured out what people believe to be true about themselves, we can begin to figure out what’s really going on in this culture.
I love the ‘technology just is, like air’ concept. Brings to mind the notion that fish don’t see the water they swim in. We have reached a turning point where tech is so deeply embedded in our culture, like language, clothing, and buildings before it, that its role is as central as those, and now perhaps more so.
Toxic lies about culture are afoot in Silicon Valley. They spread too fast as we take our bubble money and designer Powerpoints to drinkups, conferences and meetups all over the world, flying premium economy, ad nauseam. Well-intentioned darlings south of Market wax poetic on distributed teams, office perks, work/life balance, passion, “shipping”, “iteration,” “freedom”. A world of startup privilege hides blithely unexamined underneath an insipid, self-reinforcing banner of meritocracy and funding. An economic and class-based revolt of programmers against traditional power structures within organizations manifests itself as an (ostensively) radical re-imagining of work life. But really, you should meet the new boss. Hint: he’s the same as the old boss.
The monied, celebrated, nuevo-social, 1% poster children of startup life spread the mythology of their cushy jobs, 20% time, and self-empowerment as a thinly-veiled recruiting tactic in the war for talent against internet giants. The materialistic, viral nature of these campaigns have redefined how we think about culture, replacing meaningful critique with symbols of privilege. The word “culture” has become a signifier of superficial company assets rather than an ongoing practice of examination and self-reflection.
Culture is not about the furniture in your office. It is not about how much time you have to spend on feel-good projects. It is not about catered food, expensive social outings, internal chat tools, your ability to travel all over the world, or your never-ending self-congratulation.
Culture is about power dynamics, unspoken priorities and beliefs, mythologies, conflicts, enforcement of social norms, creation of in/out groups and distribution of wealth and control inside companies. Culture is usually ugly. It is as much about the inevitable brokenness and dysfunction of teams as it is about their accomplishments. Culture is exceedingly difficult to talk about honestly.
Kane presents a really angry tear down of Silicon Valley’s ‘tacit assumptions’, using the deepest darkest layer of Edgar Schein’s organizational culture model. I would tweak what she says with the proviso that the visible artifacts and openly expressed values of an organization are also part of its culture, along with the tacit assumptions: the taboos that cannot be named. And Shanley gets in there and points fingers.
Management decisions are siloed at the very top layers of management, kept so close to the chest they appear not to exist at all. The lack of visibility into investor demands, financial affairs, HR issues, etc. provides an abstraction layer between employees and real management, which we pretend doesn’t exist. We don’t have an explicit power structure, which makes it easier for the unspoken power dynamics in the company to play out without investigation or criticism.
It is by now an old idea in futurology, originating with Alvin Toffler, that modern man exists in a state of constant shock at the changing landscape of the technological world — akin to “culture shock,” but as ceaseless as the progress of technology. But we quickly become accustomed to, and adjust ourselves to, the technologies that increasingly form the fabric of our interaction with the world — and so their novelty rapidly fades. And then we find our experience of moving through the world is not one of perpetual awe and wonderment, but of boredom and restlessness.