In Every Dream Home, a Heartache

The Seductions of Work in a Lonely Era
By Dennis Hayes
Black Rose Books, 215 pp.

First, a little something to boot the brain and jog the read-only memory on a lazy Saturday.

Cast your mind back to a more innocent, pre-binary era, when Macs were Big and edible, when Tandy was a Broadway actress named Jessica, and when pocket calculators the size of shoeboxes were the latest rage in electronic widgetry. Say, the late 1970s, the dawn of the Computer Revolution.

Now that every office on the continent has been transformed into a cloth-partitioned cubicle equipped with its own gently humming, faintly radioactive Etch-a-Sketch, it’s difficult to remember what life was like before the invasion of the IBM clones. Certainly, though, it’s easy to recall the fanfare with which the Computer Revolution made its debut.

At its heart was the transformation of the computer from a tool of big government and big industry to a home and office appliance. The machine that was born to plot ballistic missile trajectories would become a laptop fixture, a piece of thinking furniture as commonplace as the television or the stereo.

In the process, the techno-optimists told us, it would remake the Western world. Like television before it, the computer would found a wholly new industry, triggering an explosion in profit and employment. Even more, this would be an industry unlike any other – a post-industrial industry – based on the creation and manipulation of information. Environmentally wholesome (no strip-mining or belching factories here), the computer was hailed as a liberating technology, the agent of new, intellectually engaging forms of work and play.

In short, the Computer Revolution promised precisely what the faltering Western economies were longing for: a jumpstart into a future that was sleek and clean and prosperous and fun.

Now the bad news. More than a decade after the Computer Revolution arrived in all its technological jingoism, Dennis Hayes is here to put paid to the myth. Part investigative journalism, part penetrating sociology, Behind the Silicon Curtain demolishes the self-congratulatory rhetoric that cloaks the computer. Hayes exposes the realities of the machine’s production: in Silicon Valley, the northern California crucible of the microchip, work is as ugly and as dangerous as anything encountered in a 19th-century Satanic mill, and the society it’s wrought is almost as bad.

Take the so-called “clean rooms” where the chips are manufactured. Contrary to their sterile, space-age image, the rooms are cauldrons of noxious chemicals – chlorine, gaseous arsenic, hydrofluoric and hydrochloric acids – where immigrant workers (mainly women, often illegal aliens who are frightened to report safety violations) labor in ill-paid drudgery.

The masks, “bunny suits” and the whining laminar air-flow designed to protect the fragile chips from human skin particles make communication between the workers impossible, except via hand gestures. Toxic effluent from the “clean rooms” spills into the local water table, and nobody drinks what comes out of Silicon Valley’s taps.

The result is a profoundly sick workplace – a community with twice the national average of miscarriages, and an alarming incidence of crippled immune systems. The toil in the clean rooms is producing what looks suspiciously like chemically induced AIDS.

Even at that, the work itself is increasingly difficult to come by. As the computer business becomes more fiercely competitive, companies are moving their production facilities to Taiwan and South Korea, where the labor is cheap and safety regulations lax, leaving behind vast tracts of empty suburbs and ghost malls.

The situation isn’t much better for the “brains” of the enterprise, the people who design the circuitry and write the software. Up to 50 per cent of Silicon Valley’s business is conducted for the U.S. military, and therefore shrouded in secrecy. Most of the programmers and engineers do not know what they’re working on, and don’t want to know. They keep a gruelling pace, often as much as 14 hours a day, simultaneously addicted to their work and alienated from it.

Under such conditions, marriages crumble and the ability simply to cope is ever more strained (by 1988, at least 65 per cent of Apple employees were in some sort of psychotherapy). The response is tawdry, transitory compensation of pathetic proportions.

In 1987, the citizens of San Jose alone spent an estimated $500 million on illegal narcotics. The other two forms of “recreation” are compulsive shopping and an equally obsessive, destructive fanaticism for “fitness,” especially through running and aerobics. But no amount of manic diversion, Hayes makes clear, is going to dispel the horrible loneliness that lies at the heart of the Computer Revolution.

There’s no doubt that Hayes knows what he’s talking about. Trained in graduate sociology at Carleton University, he covers Silicon Valley for the San Francisco magazine Processed World and has held many of the jobs he describes. Behind the Silicon Curtain is a superbly written indictment of failed dreams and hollow promises that inspires, not so much a deep disappointment in our times, as a profane rage at what we’ve let ourselves become hostage to.

Read it and (bleep).eg

  • Montreal Gazette September 8, 1990