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The Boston Phoenix A Worker's Life

Po Bronson tells some naked truths about Silicon Valley, but doesn't quite get under its skin

By Michael Joseph Gross

SEPTEMBER 13, 1999: 

The Nudist on the Late Shift (and Other True Tales of Silicon Valley) by Po Bronson. (Random House), 248 pages, $25.

Po Bronson's articles for Wired and Forbes ASAP, among other publications, have made him one of the country's most influential high-tech journalists. The funny, smart, informative essays collected in Nudist explain why. Their experimental style exploits the uncertainty and volatility of Internet culture; yet the stories remain structurally disciplined by mirroring the ways that people in the Internet industry order their lives to attain success.

Bronson has a great talent for translating the technicalities of Internet culture, and for naming the peculiar processes of its professions with catchy tropes such as "the Bubble-gum Bubble Complex." ("You know how when you blow a bubble-gum bubble, it takes a heck of a lot of chewing and manipulating and tongue work to get the bubble started, but once it gets to be an inch in diameter it takes only the slightest effort, the merest discharge of air, for the bubble suddenly to be as big as your face? That's where the entrepreneur lives; he's always thinking his little bubble is on the verge of a sudden expansion.") He also has a low boredom threshold, which means that the characters in Nudist are all relentlessly interesting. "Some journalists have what they call a 'bullshit detector,' " Bronson writes in the book's introduction: "I have what I call a 'Goose Bump Meter.' If I don't get goose bumps hearing someone's story or experiencing it with him, I throw my notes in the trash. I [am] interested in one thing: people in pursuit of unusual lives."

The most striking thing about Nudist, however, is Bronson's fondness for the American Dream. In Bronson's view, the professional ethos of Silicon Valley gives every new arrival a real shot at Having It All -- a seamless integration of personal and professional success. The thesis of Nudist is that Silicon Valley has achieved a perfect fusion of Apollonian and Dionysian energy:

If I could say just one thing about Silicon Valley, this is it: every generation that came before us had to make a choice in life between pursuing a steady career and pursuing wild adventures.

In Silicon Valley, that trade-off has been recircuited.

By injecting mind-boggling amounts of risk into the once stodgy domain of gray-suited business, young people no longer have to choose. It's a two-for-one deal: the career path has become an adventure into the unknown.

The characters and companies described in Nudist's eight essays bear out Bronson's thesis about the Valley reasonably well. Everyone works hard, all the time, and seems to be having a lot of fun. The eponymous nudist, for instance, is a programmer who likes to take off all his clothes at work after 10 p.m. The nudist tells Bronson, "You've got to inject fun into the workplace, or else the force of order will win over creativity. . . . Work today has to be half work, half play. We spend our whole lives at the workplace. You understand that, don't you?"

Bronson's empathy for his subjects is strongest in the book's first essay, called "The Newcomers" -- the story of six young pilgrims from far-flung places seeking success in Silicon Valley. Bronson hears the "Bostonian vowel sounds remixed and digitally remastered by an early '80s Valley girl" in the voice of a young woman so ambitious she can't stick with a job for more than three months. He reads the diary of a Frenchman whose "eye notices earthquake ruts and derelict gas stations." Clearly, these people have opened their whole lives to Bronson, and he has paid very close attention.

Yet Bronson's understanding for his subjects is ultimately overpowered by his need to fit them into his optimistic thesis about entrepreneurship and the American Dream. When he began reporting the story, Bronson writes, he expected his task would be "to record the cold truth of fate." To his surprise, however, he was "swept along, needing good news, wanting to believe that it was possible to come here and make good." Bronson's need for good news makes his vision go blurry when he looks at the rougher edges of his subjects' lives. Nudist gives a clear and lively sense of what goes into an Initial Public Offering; it gives detailed descriptions of the ways that programmers and salespeople and CEOs and futurist gurus work. The book does not, however, tell you how it feels to sell your company for $50 million and then literally have no friends with whom to celebrate (as happens to Ben Chiu in "The Newcomers"). And it does not tell you how it feels to sleep in a sleeping bag under your desk (as Yahoo CEO David Filo did before he became a billionaire).

To his credit, Bronson writes in the book's introduction that the sleeping-bag question was the one thing he wanted to ask Filo. Bronson says Filo didn't give a good answer. (He looked at the trash heap that had taken over his cubicle and said, "Not much anymore. No room.") Bronson also makes it clear that he didn't push the question; he settled, instead, for a cute, meaningless characterization that says more about the limits of his own vision than about the quality of Filo's presence: "[Filo] is not aloof, not somber, not antisocial, not particularly evasive. But he's something like all those things combined. He's blurry."

Bronson notes the social sacrifices that successful people in Silicon Valley are making in order to make it big. But he doesn't really examine what those sacrifices are doing to the people who make them. "I believe that to create and risk failing is the essence of feeling alive -- that in the moment of creation [Silicon Valley entrepreneurs] shake off their anonymity and feel relevant to the sweep of the world," Bronson writes. I'm happy to join him in saluting folks in Silicon Valley who create companies and make money, and have fun doing it. But I'd want to ask another question that Bronson doesn't follow as fiercely as he could: what happens when work swallows life? Does it make you happy?

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