Stanford scholar’s new collaboration reveals the complexities of life in Silicon Valley
To capture what it’s like to live and work in Silicon Valley – for the affluent, those who are barely getting by and the many people in between – Stanford communication professor and Silicon Valley scholar Fred Turner teamed up with renowned photographer Mary Beth Meehan.
Turner hopes his new project, a collaboration with renowned photographer Mary Beth Meehan, can shine a spotlight on some of the complexities of the region known as the center of tech innovation.
“I knew that there were things that photographers could see that I couldn’t quite put into words,” said Turner, the Harry and Norman Chandler Professor of Communication in the School of Humanities and Sciences, “I thought that if I worked with a photographer like Mary Beth Meehan I would find a new way to express some of the kinds of things that I wanted to express in academic work but hadn’t really found an idiom for.”
The result of their academic-artistic collaboration is a new book, Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America, (University of Chicago Press, 2021), an intimate look into the everyday experiences of people who live and work in Silicon Valley, from some of its more wealthy residents to its poorest – and the many people in between. In a collection of over 30 portraits photographed in 2017 and 2019, readers see Silicon Valley workers inside their homes and at their workplaces – images that convey the realities of what life is like in one of America’s wealthiest regions.
Meehan, who lives in Providence, Rhode Island, had never spent much time in Silicon Valley. What she knew of the region came mostly from stories she read in newspapers and magazines that had for a long time portrayed the region as a place of the future, where tech geniuses were transforming society.
“Silicon Valley was a mythic idea for me,” Meehan said. “I had this idea of it as a place where everything sparkled, where everything was possible, where people were young and healthy – that it was a place in which all of the best of human ingenuity was put into play.”
What Meehan encountered was far different from what she imagined.
“Nothing could have prepared me for the uneasiness and human stress and suffering that went along with being a part of that economy,” Meehan said.
Over several extended trips, Meehan immersed herself in Silicon Valley culture. She approached strangers she encountered on neighborhood streets and had long conversations with the cashiers she met at the taquerias she frequented. She attended a United Auto Workers meeting and went to a party with tech entrepreneurs – and through these interactions, Meehan began to see themes emerge from the valley’s hustle and bustle.
Some of Meehan’s observations surprised Turner, particularly the feelings of economic insecurity workers reported experiencing on a daily basis.
“One of the things that really surprised me was how Mary Beth heard a persistent humming of anxiety in the workers that she was talking with – at every level: from folks at the taqueria up to the executive, C-suite,” he said. “Across the board, you find folks worried about whether they can make it, whether they can survive, whether they can get ahead.”
The project was supported by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the Stanford Arts Initiative and the Departments of Communication and Art & Art History. An earlier version of the book was published in 2018 by C&F Editions in Paris, France.