Impact and success in Silicon Valley

The scene goes like this: I am on the phone with an employee or recruiter, in an early-stage interview for a tech company.  I am walking them through my CV, talking about the projects I have been involved in.  Helping laboratory researchers find more effective ways to communicate statistical findings in clinical environments, where surgeons do not have the time to ponder the meaning of complex graphs.  Or, designing a survey to better understand the users for a piece of life science software, to figure out if the needs of researchers who use software is aligned with the goals of the researchers developing the software.  After I describe these projects in more detail, there is a pause, and then a question. “So what was the impact?  What did you actually do?”   And then I bang my head on the desk in frustration.

In the transition from academia to industry, I have been thinking a lot about the meaning of the word “impact,” in both a practical and philosophical sense.  How I deal with this question, how I think through the impact of my work, has a direct bearing on my success on the job market.  Considering how the academic projects I’ve worked on are “impactful,” in the tech-industry sense of the word, has been annoying, but also incredibly helpful.  It’s pushed me to think about my work in new ways: not only as a stand-alone piece of social science research or an exercise in “knowledge production,” but also as something that can have positive effects on practicing scientists and the healthcare system.

And yet, there is still some part of me that shakes my head in skepticism when I’m asked how I “owned something from end to end.”  The tech industry has quite a narrow definition of “impact,” as something that can be quantified (“I improved the user base for this app by X percent.”) or as a discrete piece of code or software (“I designed the interface for X piece of software, which led to a more seamless user experience.”)  And this definition makes sense in the context of product development, where the goal is to maximize revenue, or to get more people to use a product.  But should I have to answer questions about the impact of academic work through the lens of the technology industry? Shouldn’t I be turning the question on its head and asking my interviewers: “What do you mean by ‘impact’?  And shouldn’t we be discussing the impact I’ve had relative to my own line of work?”

This got me thinking, what do these metrics of impact actually tell you about what’s going on the world?  Checking in code to GitHub says nothing about how that code was used, about how it went out and had a life in the world.  Getting a statistic that a certain number of people have downloaded your app says nothing about how often they use it or how much joy they derive from interacting with it.  Why is an academic book, which has the capacity to change the way people think about and interact with the world, any less valuable than an app or piece of software that will be rendered obsolete in several months?

All of this came full circle for me last night when I went to a discussion about Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One, in which he criticizes higher education for being complacent, comparing, “University administrators to sub-prime mortgage brokers and tenured professors to sixteenth-century Catholic priests selling indulgences in the form of diplomas.”  Much of this criticism is fair.  Academia is broken: PhD graduates are increasing while tenure-track opportunities are decreasing, leaving huge gaps between skills development and employment opportunities.  New PhDs are expected to forgo income and job security in the name of increasingly elusive full-time jobs, while the system relies on the contract work of underpaid adjuncts to fill in the gaps.

But at the same time, Silicon Valley and Thiel’s views on impact and academia are rooted in an overly enthusiastic embrace of technology (epitomized by Singularity University), and a rejection of all things non-technology–especially the arts and humanities.  They are rooted in a constant devaluing of alternative modes of thinking about and interacting with the world, which presupposes that Silicon Valley’s model of disruptive innovation is the best–and sometimes only–way to achieve worldwide prosperity.  (And, somewhat ironically, Thiel has been called a “closet humanist” because his views about success are predicated on the critical thinking skills that the arts and humanities instill.)  Such criticisms of academia, as they over-generalize the motivations, risks, and benefits to pursuing an academia career, are themselves hypocritical. (As a newly minted PhD said during our discussion of Thiel’s book, “Who is Thiel to call my decision to stay in academia, to go for a postdoc, the easy option? It is hugely risky: I will have no job or financial security for the forseable future.”)

When I first started hunting for jobs, I had an almost visceral, gut reaction to Silicon Valley’s job-searching rhetoric.  Questions about impact made me feel vulnerable, almost apologetic about my choice to carry out ethnographic research and write a book.  At first, I ascribed my insecurities to the challenge of breaking out of the academic mindset.  It’s a gradual process, often little talked about, to reorient your conception of success–cemented over 5+years of graduate and 3+ years of postgraduate work–so that it goes beyond getting a tenure-track job or churning out publications and grants.

But then I started to connect my discomfort to research I did (at the University of Exeter in 2014) on the value of the arts and the humanities.  These disciplines, in our modern economic climate, are often perceived as bad investments or wasted higher education opportunities.   The US government has steadily decreased funding for the arts and humanities (in 2011 it was less than half of one percent of the amount dedicated to science and technology), while a growing number of elected officials have encouraged universities to point students towards more job-friendly disciplines like computer science and engineering.  (Or, on the other hand, to model the humanities on the science and technology model, by promoting the digital humanities.)  For example, President Obama remarked in a speech in January 2014:

“[A] lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career. But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.  Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.” (You can read Obama’s apology letter for these remarks here.)

Critics of the arts and humanities say: It’s difficult for students of classics or women’s studies to get jobs.  The “return on investment”–the money that students are able to make post-graduation–is low.  This way of viewing the  arts and humanities focuses solely only on economic value, on prospective career earnings.  Some of this has to do with the changing role and structure of academia following the 2008 financial crisis, where students are coping with rising tuition costs and student debt, and so must pragmatically consider careers that will give them higher incomes and ready employment.  Those who devalue the arts and humanities do not see education as medium for personal growth and exploration, but rather as a chance to equip students with skills to make them productive members of the American economy.  And this view of education goes hand-in-hand with the rhetoric of impact being promoted throughout Silicon Valley.

In my work with researchers and members of the creative economy–who were working on projects like a video game to teach people about the Jack the Ripper murders, or a Victorian sound box to teach people about the history of a museum–I learned about the plethora of non-economic forms of value embedded in the arts and humanities.  Researchers articulated the value of their work not only in terms of the money it would make, or the intellectual property protections they could apply, but also in terms of the reputation it would give them, and the cultural benefits it would bring to society.

As someone who made a (semi)conscious decision to move from the scientific discipline of biology to the humanistic discipline of anthropology, I find Silicon Valley’s notions of impact and value troubling.  Without Van Gogh’s paintings, or Shakespeare’s plays, or Ansel Adams’ photography, the world would be a terrible place.  These types of outputs do not fit neatly into the categories of impact that float through Silicon Valley.  The impact of the arts and humanities is long-term, often outliving the artist or thinker, transcending the contemporary generation’s views on what is valuable or important. Their impact lies in their ability to instill creativity and change.  Their impact, ultimately, is terrifically difficult to quantify.  How, for example, can you measure the impact of a book that will, when it is assigned to a class and digested by students, change the way that they think about and interact with the world around them?

As a final note, I’ll leave you with this short video, based on a recording by philosopher Alan Watts.  It paints a bleak but thought-provoking analogy between music and life, showing how the modern education and work system creates a narrow, constraining vision of success, which leaves us feeling like we may have missed the point…


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