The Chips Of Our Lives

article by melquiades

Submitted by ludd on February 4, 2010

The Chips Of Our Lives

As we walked along a ridge high above Death Valley, the desert heat rose and filled our pores. We were technical workers from Silicon Valley in search of quiet desolation. Suddenly, a boom filled the sky. A dark blue ("Navy"), unmarked ("experimental"), F-11-like craft ("Sure, the China Basin Naval Weapons Center is due west of here") flew directly overhead at about 1,000 feet. Gaining altitude above the Valley, the craft dipped and spun, performing center stage for us all the amazing things its computer-driven, aluminum-alloyed geometry could do.

We took turns fixing this blue angel in our sights, countering its supersonic roar with the tight pop and lingering echo of our .357. Our bullets fell short of their target, heaving and gliding several miles across the Valley. The craft returned and buzzed us, but our smiles glistened in the late autumn midday sun. Secretly, we toyed with a force far more powerful than ourselves.

What we found at Death Valley was a noisy reminder of the death we thought we left behind in Silicon Valley: the nuclear missiles, the command and control devices, the big brother office automation systems, and the simulated battlefields that technical workers create there. In the solitude above Death Valley that day, we had confronted one of their products on its own terms. How might we really confront the technological Leviathan in Silicon Valley -- on our terms?

Rush hour. A heavy metal San Jose radio station airs "career" slots for Valley corporations. An alluring voice describes the "unique ROLM culture" where "the future is now." ROLM workers design guidance systems for cruise missiles and office communication systems with surveillance features. Rush-hour-paced traffic signals inject more workers from San Jose's sprawling FMC Corp. into the queue of late model vehicles. FMC workers design and construct tanks, personnel carriers, and Pershing II launch vehicles.

At IBM, engineers joke uneasily about the next fatality on blood alley, an evil stretch of the U.S. 101 commute south of San Jose. They gripe about roving squads of security guards who randomly enter unoccupied offices to check for papers left on desktops. Too many "finds" get IBM engineers in trouble. IBM has recently contracted with the Air Force to streamline communications at the "Blue Cube," the U.S.A.F. Satellite Control Facility headquarters alongside Moffett Field near Mountain View. The Blue Cube commands and controls virtually every U.S. military intelligence and space navigation satellite as well as listening outposts from Greenland to Turkey.

Business is brisk at a Valley watering hole that discounts drinks to patrons sporting polo player logos on their shirts. Lockheed Space and Missile workers awkwardly avoid being overheard talking shop. They bitch about waves of security guards, elaborate screening devices, and fatal accidents in Lockheed's massive parking lots. Lockheed makes missiles to order. Most of the orders issue from the Lawrence Livermore Labs (LLLabs). The LLLabs house plutonium triggers and are nestled on a web of active earthquake faults a few miles inland from the Valley. Technical workers at the LLLabs, which is funded by the Dept. of Defense and managed by U.C. Berkeley Board of Regents, have designed virtually every U.S. nuclear weapons device since the Manhattan Project.

At the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in Pale Alto, researchers speak cryptically about new computers they will requisition to fulfill defense contracts. SRI workers do pure military R&D on VLSI (very large scale integration) computers for missile guidance applications; they also design tedious plans to load maximum firepower into C-130 transport planes for rapid U.S. troop deployment.

At 800 feet and lower over (unaware?) Valley residents, submarine-hunting, nuclear-depth-charge-equipped P-3 Orion aircraft cruise ominously, landing and taking off from Moffett Field every few minutes. At least twice in recent months, huge runway fires have gone unreported. Moffett Field is the Navy's western theater air operations headquarters and a NASA research center site.

The once fertile lands along U.S. 101 from Palo Alto south to San Jose absorb more R&D funding than any-where else in the world. Silicon Valley is also perhaps the most military-dependent economy in the country. Additional billions from banks, insurance conglomerates, and real estate speculators fuel the technology engine. The engine fans the practical fascination of technical workers who build today's office-accounting, intelligence-gathering , and war-making technology.

The worklife revolves around an exchange, In exchange for relatively fat paychecks, skilled people design and develop new (or revolutionize old) technology that less skilled and less well-paid people manufacture and ship. For the corporate keepers of the exchange, the profits are immense, the competition often overwhelming, and the less said about poisoned water, clogged freeways, and military applications, the better. The technology produced by the exchange is some of the most sophisticated and hostile imaginable.

The exchange generates horrible consequences: a mutant culture, a toxic physical environment, and a contradiction: workers produce technologies that threaten their loved ones, and the rest of us, with imminent danger. Management is responsible for creating the contradiction, for making the "decisions." But the responsibility is shared by technical workers who, after all, design and produce the technology and often collaborate intimately with management in the process.

Technical workers here create useful adaptable technologies, too, but as a rule, only if corporate executives see a clear and sizable profit. Individuals who can afford these technologies -- like home computers -- may take amusement or benefit from them. But in design and application, most Silicon Valley technologies reflect corporate and military "needs." And why not? Corporations and the Pentagon are by far the largest consumers of local technology. Its board-room-and-war-room conception intimately influences how all of us can use and are used by it.

The logic of this arrangement depends upon the loyalty of the technical workers who make corporate and military pipedreams into practical technologies. The engineers, scientists, and specialists (i.e., technical workers) are the key to understanding the ferment in Silicon Valley. Their labor is in most demand and least expendable to employers. Technical workers are the weak link. Rarely have so few held such enormous potential subversive power.

There are three categories of workers in Silicon Valley: "offshore" production workers, local production and office workers, and at the high end, the technical workers who design and support Valley technology. Locally, nearly 200,000 people work for high technology firms. The largest employers are the military electronics firms, like Lockheed Space and Missile in Sunnyvale, and semiconductor corporations, like giant chipmaker Intel in Santa Clara. Lockheed alone employs about 21,000 people at its Sunnyvale complex.

Holding It All Together By Keeping Everyone Divided

The working conditions for most local production workers are among the most dangerous anywhere; it is appallingly worse for offshore workers, and generally safer for the engineers, scientists, and specialists like me (I'm a technical writer).

Worst off among Valley workers are the unseen offshore workers -- the single women who assemble and package chips for Silicon Valley semiconductor firms in Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysia, South Korea, and Taiwan. Most semiconductor firms employ roughly half of their workforce offshore. In exchange for 7-8 years of labor, these women receive as little as 30 cents an hour and a lifetime supply of occupational diseases.

Tragically, most local Valley workers are simply ignorant of their unseen offshore fellow workers. Off-shore Valley employers, abetted by a virtual local media blackout on the topic, are tight-lipped on the details of their foreign operations: "loose lips, sink chips." (For background information on the untold story of Silicon Valley's offshore production workers see "Delicate Bonds: The Global Semiconductor Industry," Pacific Research, 867 West Dana St., Mountain View, CA 94041).

The division of labor among local workers reflects the Valley's status quo sexism and racism as well as the ferment peculiar to high technology companies. Production workers tend to be female, Chicano, Filipino, and Indochinese; entry-level pay varies from minimum wage to $6-7 an hour. Office workers, until recently, were overwhelmingly female and white; now somewhat less white.

Engineers, scientists, and specialists tend to be male and white (including anti-Soviet eastern bloc refugees) with a sprinkling of Japanese, Indian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern graduates of U.S. technical schools. Entry-level salaries vary from $22,000 to over $30,000.

Perhaps the most conscious division between Valley workers is how they are paid; production and office workers are hourly wage workers -- engineers, scientists, and specialists are salaried workers (many of whom sign their own time cards). The basic division is known in Valleyspeak as "non-exempt" and "exempt" status. Salaried workers are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act provisions regulating the amount of overtime people can be forced to work. Their salaries theoretically reflect unpaid overtime. Wage workers are "non-exempt" from the overtime statutes. Their wage rates, generally half or less of salaries, climb to time and one-half for overtime.

The tendency is to lump high-salaried, exempt-status "professionals" together with sales and management types. But there is a trade-off. Management exploits technical workers' exempt status, often ruthlessly. At a medium-sized company that I worked at for a year, management suddenly announced one day that it was now expecting exempt workers to put in ten hour days for the next six months. Many of us simply ignored the dictum, but others unquestioningly obeyed -- initially.

At Intel, exempt salaried workers are informally coerced by management into working over 8 hours daily and on weekends. IBM and Hewlett-Packard boast about job security, and a formal no-layoff policy. But IBM and HP demand regular intervals of overtime from their employees.

Self-Destructive Production: Why?

Why do technical workers often eagerly consent to design and produce the hostile and dangerous technology conceived by their corporate and government employers?

Part of the answer lies in the isolation that corporations build in to the exempt technical workers' environment. Pay, benefits, expandability, and exposure to physical danger divide hardware and software engineers, technicians, and technical writers from production and office workers. Many medium to large Valley firms maintain one set of buildings, lunchrooms, washrooms and recreation facilities for exempt technical workers and another, less desirable, set for production workers. ROLM maintains its "MILSPEC" division at one site, and its office automation division and headquarters at another site .

The hierarchy created by the division of labor adds to the isolation. Salaried workers have access to scarce technical knowledge; they design the commodities that make production workers' jobs an empty, alien process -- deciphering blueprints, fitting mysterious chips onto mysterious green boards. This contributes to a subconscious relationship between production and design workers that takes familiar forms: out on the line, women's jobs depend upon higher-paid men who deliver the work.

The separation of a product's application from the workers who design the product imposes another crucial isolation. More and more, electronic and mechanical engineers and computer programmers are genuinely ignorant of the precise application of the products that they design.

It is now standard practice to divide design work on a task by task basis; hardware designers work on one board, or often one chip, at a time, unmindful of the application. A new, "structured" approach to programming formalizes a similar practice in computer software. Programmers write "slave" modules of code that perform relatively simple tasks, like counting transactions and storing the total in a certain file. Project leaders Can assign an entire computer program design without explicitly mentioning that, for example, the Pentagon will use the software to refine an experimental missile. A project team can thus fully derive satisfaction from the intellectual challenge of successfully designing a product, yet not know what it will be used for. This way, all applications appear equal; there is no need -- or desire on the part of management - for more than a handful of project leaders and marketing types to know about a final application.

Management benefits directly from this separation. Many people may not enjoy creating office automation technology and weapons systems that enslave and destroy life. But if the work appears as harmless as a game of chess and offers high pay, stock options, etc., well, so much the better for management. With clever deception, all of us are held hostage to the intimate division .and manipulation of scarce skills.

Salaried technical workers are also often deeply divided amongst themselves. Everywhere I have worked, they have been unaware, for example, of each other's salary, since salaries are negotiated individually. At some firms, I have heard that discussing salaries is grounds for dismissal. This makes it easier for management to hide pay differentials for women, minorities, dissidents, and those who are generally unaware of how high a salary they can plausibly negotiate. The mystery is celebrated in the myth of corporate "professionalism" that likens technical workers to lawyers and doctors -- competing professional entrepreneurs with secrets to keep.

As a pre-Thanksgiving surprise in 1982, the illusion of "professionalism" was revealed when many of my fellow workers were greeted at their cubicles by grim security guards one morning. In a scene played over and over again in the Valley, the guards announced the employee's "termination," scrutinized the removal of personal property from desks and benches, and escorted astounded workers directly to the door, where final paychecks were waiting. This way, laid-off workers are informally held incommunicado until safely outside the workplace. That corporations relieve their highly paid technical workers in such a manner suggests that power such workers have to inflict immediate disruption and destruction. Before it was all over, 10% of the workforce had been "disappeared."

Strange Fruit

Many production workers are the daughters of migrant farm laborers who once planted, harvested and canned Valley fruit and vegetables. Today most of the fields are paved and the canneries torn down or auctioned off, reminders of the sweeping, destructive power of the new technology. A new generation of production laborers works inside fluorescent hothouses amid gases and with chemicals that poison themselves and the water supply that once nourished the fruit and vegetables.

The chemicals deployed by the semiconductor industry are dangerous and persistent. Hydrofluoric and hydrochloric acids are used to etch chips; arsine and phosphine gases are used to give chips electrical properties; trichloroethylene (TCE) and 1,1,1 trichloroethane solvents are used to clean the chips. Other workplace chemicals here include benzene, chloroform and vinyl chloride. These have made the occupational illness rate for semiconductor workers three times that of manufacturing workers in general; all electronics workers experience a job-related illness rate twice that of the general manufacturing rate. Valley corporations and private clinics notoriously understate the extent of human and environmental poisoning. In June, the California Department of Industrial Relations refused to accept occupational illness data submitted by several Valley firms. The state plausibly suggested that National Semiconductor, Signetics, Siliconix, and Fairchild were disguising the effects of toxic chemical exposure on their workers, explaining absentee rates as flu, colds, and non-work-related ailments. This summer, angry workers demonstrated at a local private clinic, claiming the clinic's doctors routinely ordered workers back to work the same day they checked in with on-the-job illnesses or accidents. The clinic collects its fees from local industry. It is standard for many Valley employers to "process" injured or ill employees at such clinics first, before sending workers to the hospitals covered by their fringe benefits.

The very substances that bring the processed sand called silicon to electrical life are destroying a delicate Valley environment and threatening workers at their workplace and in their homes with cancer and genetic mutation. The toll on the once rich Valley soil and environment is probably irreversible.

The Valley floor consists of intricate layers of gravel, sand, and clay that hold a precious water supply in underground aquifer. Before the post-WWII electronics binge, the aquifer and rich soil deposits combined to make the "Fruit Bowl of America," where half the world's prunes and a bounty of apricots, cherries and walnuts were produced. Today, underneath the suburbs, Shopping centers, freeways, and industrial "parks," waste chemicals percolate through the porous upper layers like water through coffee grounds. Dangerous chemicals have been discovered at no less than 56 sites in Santa Clara Valley. By its own admission, the state lacks the resources and obviously the will to make more discoveries.

Valley water is now an ongoing source of gallows humor. Many people no longer drink untreated Valley tap water, at home or at work. Others have learned the hard way. Miscarriages -- and only time will tell what else -- appeared in the vicinity of a major ground water contamination by Fairchild in San Jose last year. Recently, a private water supply company announced that it would no longer bother to drill new wells in a heavily populated San Jose area, so bad were the results of ongoing tests at existing and proposed well sites. Santa Clara county's outrageous ban on public disclosure of industrial chemical information reinforces the deadly habits of industries here.

Like L.A., many future and existing population centers in the Valley will have their water piped in. Local media and government units react to the news of poisonings by wringing their hands -- and by approving vast new parcels of wilderness and agricultural areas south of San Jose for industrial development. (For confidential information on chemicals at your workplace, call the SCCOSH -- Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health -- hotline number: 408-998-4050.)

Corporate Culture

Paradoxes are plentiful in Silicon Valley. In the heart of technological affluence, the largest engineering school in the Valley (San Jose State) has announced it will probably close its doors indefinitely. The school's comparatively low teaching salaries are not attractive to Valley engineers. In 1983, the Valley's unified county school district was able to successfully claim bankruptcy (a first in post-WWII California) and deny a raise won by district employees.

In recent months, shakeouts in the home computer industry (shortly after IBM and Japanese firms entered the market) caused huge and ongoing layoffs at Atari (1,700), Victor (1,650), Osborne (almost everyone) and elsewhere; in general, the slump in most non-military electronics companies caused nearly Valley-wide cuts in pay and benefits and layoffs. So tenuous are the good times here that a recent Association of Bay Area Governments study, citing crumbling roads, clogged sewers, contaminated water supplies and growing competition from Japan and Europe -- warned of a collapse of Silicon Valley by the year 2000. Strange developments in a Valley that is showcased as proof that free enterprise and high technology promise future prosperity.

Today, the stage is set for many semiconductor workers' jobs to go the way of agricultural Valley jobs. State of the art wafer fabrication and assembly technology is rapidly approaching a point where entirely new automated labor processes are now financially and technologically feasible. Many production workers already experience the eerie feeling of wondering if the chip they package, the board they stuff, or the parcel they ship will be used in a missile, or a nuclear-powered submarine. Now semiconductor workers can legitimately wonder if the silicon they process will transform their job into a lower paycheck, an even more boring routine, or a job search.

The housing situation is literally impossible for tens of thousands of Valley commuters who dangerously clog local highways from mutant bedroom plots that sprout up in outlying lowlands or foothills. You must either inherit wealth or pool together two salaries to seriously entertain the idea of purchasing a home. Homes average over $100,000 in most Valley "communities." Many two-income couples who buy homes instantly become poor homeowners.

Rental "units" in Santa Clara Valley range from $450-$575 for bachelor and 1-bedroom apartments and even these are scarce. What you get is a relatively new, uninsulated set of paper walls tucked unimaginatively into a multi-unit slab. The units are as a rule cold, damp and mildew-infested during the winter, and unpleasant to come home to. Amid the presumed Valley affluence, people crowd into apartments and hand others down to friends and relatives to avoid the leaps in rent that accompany new leases. Landlord associations successfully defeated two recent rent control measures that made the ballot in Mountain View and Sunnyvale. As it is, rents increase 15-24% annually at my complex.

Thanks to the housing situation, Valley commutes are growing longer and slower at all times of the day. Forty minutes to navigate 6 miles of traffic is common. It is an hour or more for residents of bedroom communities, one way! One of the reasons employers offer flex-time to salaried technical workers is simply to ensure that they will arrive at work. The Valley does have mass transit facilities -- a thinly spread bus system and a workhorse train line between San Francisco and San Jose that has been in receivership for the last decade. Generally, a bike is dangerously out of the question. A car is a necessity.

The high fixed costs of housing and transportation in the Valley reinforce the attachment to paycheck. The result is tiers of wage and salary slavery; high-salaried workers, for example, who can afford their own home but little else. Valley residents pay dearly for pieces of the prosperity denied many others these days, but which were once within reach of most smokestack industry workers.

Well-to-do Valley youth cruise the streets in 4-Wheel drive vehicles; Chicano youth bounce alongside in low-riders. Shopping malls, apartment units, duplex and single family ranch style homes... there is not much variety to relieve the senses in the Valley. There is little or no sense of community where one lives or shops. Even if you have money, there simply are not very many interesting things to do with it.

Quite naturally, drugs tend to fill the vacuum. Drugs for work, home, and play. During a recent holiday evening, authorities expected approximately 1,300 dangerously drunk drivers on the road in the Valley. In $300,000-home foothill communities like Saratoga, cocaine and Quaaludes are discreetly sold in steak and ale houses. In plant parking lots, "crank" of every variety circulates among production workers. In the Santa Cruz Mountains that abut the Valley, approximately $100 million in marijuana is harvested twice yearly.

Against a drab cultural and social life, "perks" like corporate-sponsored Friday-night "beer busts" and pastries and coffee every morning create a semblance of warmth and friendliness. More than a few corporations are building country club facilities on premises. At ROLM, you can play racquetball, tennis, basketball, volleyball, Swim laps, lift weights, enjoy a steam bath, sauna, and shower, without ever having to leave work. For recent émigrés, and there are many, a corporation can become something of an oasis from a hostile and racist Valley culture. The desired effect here is a company lifestyle that sinks a hook into technical workers whose scarce skills are indispensable to meet the competition. ROLM's is a calculated investment, and its executives are probably onto something: Valley job turnover rates are a notoriously high 29% to 35% annually.

It's Friday night. Four exempt technical workers have gathered in (I motel-style apartment with computer terminal, a modem, and the acquired instincts and phone numbers we could muster. On similar occasions, we have "owned" computers at universities in California and New York. My friends recently had their way with a small computer at a giant Valley chipmaker, finally trashing it just the other evening. Some of us also have lines to the computers at our own workplaces.

Tonight is special. We have just successfully connected to a huge computer belonging to a software lab of the world's largest corporation. I watch while professionals acquire privileged status, probe, and write several backdoors for future access. No trashing tonight.

Like most people, Valley technical workers grew up with little, if any, immediate exposure to collective rebellion against established authority. They are accustomed to taking risks -- like drinking the water at their workplace -- and to occasional individual rebellion - like quitting a job because of an unreasonable workload or boss. But they are largely unaware of the far more effective tactics of collective rebellion -- tactics which generally reduce individual risks.

There is much truth to the stereotyping of engineers as conservative nerds with little or no social consciousness or overt human feeling. During the anti-Vietnam war movement, many of today's Valley engineers were cloistered in technical institutes or mathematics and engineering departments of universities. Others willingly accepted draft deferments in exchange for a classified job at Lockheed or Boeing. Today, many of these people are electrical mechanical engineers who design anti-social technology and honestly believe in a strong American defense against a heartless communist evil. After all, engineering grads have been conditioned to accept government technology requirements as their bread and butter since their school days.

There are also workers here who actively rebelled culturally and politically during the ferment of the late 60's/early 70's. Many were student radicals in high school or in university liberal arts curriculums who have since found a living in computer jobs through retraining or self-training. Today these people tend to cluster in occupations such as computer operators and programmers, graphic artists and technical writers, and are generally open to subversive ideas. Then there is a whole new generation of youth, once again subject to draft registration, who are suspect of any kind of authority. It is from these latter groups that sparks of rebellion have begun to fly.

Hacking and raiding -- illegal probing and sabotage by computer hobbyists -- is a revealing phenomenon. Computer managers cringe at the thought of raiders breaking in. But there is generally no defense against it. The people who write computer software -- including security protocols -- are a deviant lot. Most programmers that I know either learn a system they've worked on well enough to break in at will, or install backdoors -- private entrances -- to systems. And the comraderies that develop naturally among programmers at work spill over into play. It is commonplace for programmers to exchange the telephone numbers, passwords, and if necessary, backdoors to one or more of their corporation's computers. Often such gifts are in exchange for an illegally gotten source code to an operating system or some new program under development. Thus, on and off the job, many programmers have secret access to each other's systems -- a kind of underground network.

The thought of high-tech sabotage repels some people because it can take anti-social directions that are terrifying. But the responsibility for hacking lies firmly within the system. Corporations who condemn the social irresponsibility of hacking but manufacture nuclear missile guidance systems richly deserve what hackers often give them: trashed disks, tapeworms, nightmares, and migraine headaches. Hostile technology is breeding strange rebellion, of which hacking is one obvious form. It is not the open, constructive activity that social rebellion can be, but it is an accessible form of rebellion around which a kind of counter-culture may emerge. That counter-culture can create a needed independence from the sterile and dangerous corporate culture that dominates the Valley.

It would be wrong to characterize all Valley technical workers as a complacent lot. The large and growing corporations that employ them tend to impose an increasingly irrational and rigid division of labor that makes even intellectually challenging work boring. The long, military-like corporate chains of command are natural breeding grounds for discontent.

Technical workers, especially exempt technical workers, have been spoiled by the many benefits and high salaries that they can individually negotiate due to the current high demand for their scarce skills. Technical workers may not give up these spoils easily when a greater supply of engineers and programmers makes today's favorable labor market less so. They may even begin to discover their collective power. As it is, small, collective rebellions are already an unpleasant fact of life for Valley management. Increasing technical worker militance could clear the blurred line that currently divides and overlaps many technical workers and management here. But the prospects for battles between employed and employer cannot be confined to such one-dimensional workplace issues as salaries and benefits.

Another dimension is how conscious technical workers can become of the real social impact of their technology -- not the glossy fairy tales depicted in trade and business magazines. For it is the technology here that makes the social power of dissident Valley technical workers potentially explosive.

If technical workers' loyalties continue as they are, there may be little hope for much of the rest of the world, so concentrated has the control of technical knowledge become in so few brains. The technology itself has become so powerful that control over technical knowledge is crucial to the outcome of any sweeping social change. After all, who is better qualified to safely dismantle a missile silo, a breeder reactor, a chemical waste dump, or a Pentagon supercomputer than the people who design, build and maintain such technology?

Society has endowed technical workers with concentrated power to liberate technology from the logic that currently dominates it. There are cities to rebuild and lives to remake. We have the power and practical imaginations to make lasting contributions to a new society of less work and more play for all; or we can play a tremendously destructive role in stacking the deck against these opportunities. This is not Death Valley -- or doesn't have to be. Not if we begin to take responsibility for it -- not if we begin to challenge the logic.

-- Melquiades