“For more than seven decades, business leaders, politicians, and would-be entrepreneurs have tried to unravel the secrets of Silicon Valley. In just over one hundred powerful, haunting pages, Meehan and Turner have captured a side of the valley rarely seen: the deeply inequitable landscape of contingent and disproportionately foreign-born labor that makes its high-tech magic possible. Humane, insightful, and deeply compelling, this book tells the story of Silicon Valley in a completely new and utterly magnetic way.” – Margaret O’Mara, author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America
Photographer Mary Beth Meehan has a legacy of considering the complexity of communities and reminding us of our humanity through her portraits and interviews. For her newest project and book published by the University of Chicago Press, Seeing Silicon Valley, she joined forces with Silicon Valley culture expert Fred Turner to give us an unseen view of the heart of the tech world.
When considering the population central to this American mythology, we might consider the characters of the television show Silicon Valley–rag tag techies that carry dark under eye circles from long days in front of a screen without sunshine and a small cluster of visionaries who have gotten very rich from technology. But the reality of place is very different. Behind this image lies another Silicon Valley, one segregated by race, class, and nationality in complex and contradictory ways. Its beautiful landscape lies atop underground streams of pollutants left behind by decades of technological innovation, and while its billionaires live in compounds, surrounded by redwood trees and security fences, its service workers live in their cars.
With arresting photography and intimate stories, Seeing Silicon Valley makes this hidden world visible. Instead of young entrepreneurs striving for efficiency in minimalist corporate campuses, we see portraits of struggle—families displaced by an impossible real estate market, workers striving for a living wage, and communities harmed by environmental degradation. If the fate of Silicon Valley is the fate of America—as so many of its boosters claim—then this book gives us an unvarnished look into the future.
Mary Beth Meehan uses photography to transform public spaces, works collaboratively to reflect communities back to themselves, and aims to jolt people into considering one another anew. Combining image, text, and large-scale public installation, Meehan’s work challenges notions of representation, visibility, and equity, and prompts people to talk with one another about what they see.
Meehan’s first book, Seeing Silicon Valley: Life inside a Fraying America, with Fred Turner, is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press in Spring of 2021.
“Seeing Newnan,” Meehan’s most recent public installation, was featured on the Sunday front page of The New York Times on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, in January of 2020, and has shifted the dialogue about representation, identity, and race in that small Georgia city.
Meehan has held residencies at Stanford University, the University of Missouri School of Journalism, and at Brown University upcoming in 2021. She has lectured and led workshops at the School of Visual Arts, New York, the Rhode Island School of Design, and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
A native of Brockton, Massachusetts, Mary Beth holds degrees from Amherst College and the University of Missouri, Columbia. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
Book spread 2
Spread from “Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America” University of Chicago Press, 2021
Seeing Silicon Valley
Seeing Silicon Valley is a collaboration between myself and Silicon Valley culture scholar Fred Turner. During the Fall of 2017 I was invited by Turner to hold an artist’s residency at Stanford University, in order to try to see, through my own eyes, what life was like for the thousands of workers in that mythic place. Since then Turner and I have worked together to present what we found – a place, within one of the richest economies in the world, where life is tenuous and where people struggle to find stability, connection, and community. These portraits and narratives are meant to draw viewers in to considering Silicon Valley on an intimate, human scale, and reflecting on what it means for our future.
From “Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America” University of Chicago Press, 2021
©Mary Beth Meehan, RAVI and GOUTHAMI Between them, Ravi and Gouthami have multiple degrees — in biotechnology, computer science, chemistry, and statistics. After studying in India and working in Wisconsin and Texas, they have landed here, in the international center of technology, where they work in the pharmaceutical-technology industry. They rent an apartment in Foster City and attend a Hindu temple in Sunnyvale, where immigrants from India have been building a community since the early 1990s. Although the couple have worked hard to get here, and they make good money, they feel that a future in Silicon Valley eludes them — their one-bed-room apartment, for example, costs almost $3,000 a month. They could move somewhere less expensive, but, with the traffic, they’d spend hours each day commuting. They would like to stay, but they don’t feel confident that they can save, invest, start a family. They’re not sure what to do next. From “Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America” University of Chicago Press, 2021
From “Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America”
©Mary Beth Meehan, RICHARD Richard has spent his entire adult life in the auto industry, loving his work and making good money. In 2010, the year that GM went bankrupt and the plant he worked at in Fremont closed, he was earning $120,000 a year. After Tesla took over the plant, Richard got a job on the manufacturing floor. He was paid $18 an hour, or less than $40,000 a year. Richard started noticing things that didn’t seem right. As a line worker assembling car doors, he was required to work twelve-hour shifts, five or six days a week. Richard had a home, but he noticed young guys “who came in broke, with a bag of clothes” being hired, working the long shifts, sleeping in their cars, showering in the break room, and doing it again the next day. When a friend invited Richard to meet with the United Automobile Workers union, he agreed. Soon after that, when people complained to him about the low pay or long hours, he’d tell them that with the union, they could stand up for themselves. He handed out buttons and T-shirts, told people they had a choice. “We don’t want to break ’em,” he said of the company. “We just want a little larger piece of the pie — so we can have a cooler of beer every now and then, go camping once in a while.” Though he’d never received a negative review, Richard was fired last October, along with more than four hundred other workers. The UAW has filed a complaint, alleging that Tesla fired workers who were trying to unionize. The worst part for Richard, he says, is that he hears the employees are now too scared to talk about the union. He believes that all his hard work has been in vain. From “Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America” University of Chicago Press, 2021
From “Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America” University of Chicago Press, 2021
©Mary Beth Meehan,WARREN In junior high, in Illinois, before he knew anyone else who had a personal computer, Warren got to play Lemonade Stand on his uncle Bob’s Commodore PET. At thirteen, he attended a computer trade show in Chicago: “I didn’t even know what I was looking at,” he says. “But it was cool. It piqued my curiosity profoundly.” In high school, Warren sought out a friend who could teach him all the workings of computers. After he graduated as his school’s valedictorian, Warren went to Stanford to study engineering and business. Then he became a venture capitalist, backing such fledgling firms as Skype, Hotmail, and Tesla (and turning down the founders of Theranos, one of Silicon Valley’s legendary frauds). Ten years ago, he says, “I did a very Silicon Valley thing”: he called a few of his industry pals to launch Thuuz, a service that creates highlights of sporting events in real time. He runs the company out of a bungalow in Palo Alto, adjacent to his house—just a block away from the garage where Hewlett-Packard began. Warren’s company is small, and while he wants it to be successful, he doesn’t strive to make it one of Silicon Valley’s giants. “Many of those companies are huge because they are willing to cross some lines,” he says—ethical, moral lines. “Steve Jobs was irascible,” he says, “Jobs was tough, Jobs was rude.” But, says Warren, thanks to the iPhone, billions of people in India and China now have access to information. “I put Steve Jobs above that line and say, ‘Yeah, he could have been a jerk, but he’s above that line.’” Warren feels differently about Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. “He has broken some massive, massive rules,” he says. “He is completely abusing his users.” Facebook has “corrupted our election. They corrupted Brexit, over in Europe. They’ve destroyed minorities in Asia. . . . They are below the line, below the line. Absolutely, below the line.” From “Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America” University of Chicago Press, 2021