RYAN GRIFFIS

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California Dreaming: a book review of The Silicon Valley of Dreams
David Naguib Pellow and Lisa Sun-Hee Park
New York University Press, 2002

"Assembly line hysteria." Most of us can only conjure up situations of boredom, fatigue and repetitive motion similar to typing all day in a cubicle, maybe. If we’re well read in feminist literature, we’d be aware of the historically gendered etymology of the second part of the term. But the phrase has a specific meaning for factory workers, especially those working in the high tech manufacturing sector. This little figure of speech has been used by companies and governments to dismiss claims of work-related health problems by, mostly female, workers for decades. A large semiconductor producer named Signetics used it in 1978 to dismiss, literally and figuratively, three women workers who became known as the "Signetics Three" - workers who had informed company management about strange symptoms they had experienced that seemed to be related to chemical fumes they were regularly exposed to on the job.

We do not ask for the influence or effect of technology on the human individuals. For they are themselves an integral part and factor of technology, not only as the men who invent or attend to machinery but also as the social groups which direct its application and utilization.
Herbert Marcuse [2]

The critique of economic rationality and technological instrumentality is nothing new - the Frankfurt School covered that pretty well. But assertions like Marcuse’s can be seen as indicative of a position that can afford to “not ask for the influence or effect of technology on the human individuals.” The Signetics Three could not. Nor can the numbers of contemporary workers manufacturing microelectronics. This does not make such critiques useless, of course, only partial. A more rigorous case would have to involve those not part of the “social groups which direct its application and utilization,” though are certainly part of its production.
This involvement is what The Silicon Valley of Dreams, a book by Lisa Sun-Hee Park and David Naguib Pellow, sets out to accomplish. The book functions on a few different levels. On one hand, it represents a scholarly account of both the microchip industry and its relationship with labor and issues of environmental justice. But it is also a practical application of what the authors call “participatory research,” through their direct involvement with advocacy organizations like the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and Santa Clara Center for Occupational Health and Safety. Another, and important, facet of the book is its attempts at making leaps of logic and theory to generate a story that means more than the sum of its parts. Not unlike Mike Davis, another polemical documentarian of California’s dystopia, Park and Pellow weave a story that combines relatively disparate historical narratives. Starting with the subjugation of the Ohlone native peoples and the California landscape by the Spanish, we’re led through the social history of the region, including the gold rush and agricultural boom, into the present. In this narrative, the working conditions experienced by the current Silicon Valley workforce, 70 to 80 percent of which is made up of Asian and Latino/a immigrants, are part of a trajectory that was set in motion with the arrival of the Spanish in “Alta California” during the mid 18th Century.
There is a virtual encyclopedic body of work, including theory and art production, on the emerging uses, effects and possibilities of the networked technologies made possible for users by the ever-shrinking microchip. This makes perfect sense, given the drastic changes that have occurred in almost every sector of daily life because of computers. There has also been an elevated amount of discussion regarding “embodied computing” and physical interfaces recently. And certainly, open source, copyleft, and other challenges to the neo-liberal software order have generated sensitivity to the modes of access for information technologies. But, as Silicon Valley of Dreams makes clear, the costs and benefits of connectivity are not shared equally.
Interestingly, the book steers clear, for the most part, from the “digital divide” dilemma. The divide the authors are interested in is not one that separates the technocracy from the digitally marginal, but rather the one creating social and environmental barriers that place immigrants and women in unnecessarily toxic conditions. The digital can only be separated from its ecological and bio-chemical effects if “we fail to look behind the ‘Silicon Curtain,’” seeing only the “sheen, the sleek outer shell – an image created for mass consumption by public relations firms and the mainstream media.” As they document, the costs of producing our digital lifestyles extends beyond the monetary to include chronic and fatal illness from contaminated working and living environments, disproportionately experienced by women of color.

The two most regulated elements of the social world, are, first, what can enter the body, and second, what a body may be in proximity to and/or intermingle with.
Critical Art Ensemble [3]

Harmful working conditions are often seen as unintentional byproducts of the pursuit of profit. This is how we can fault deregulation of industry for labor and environmental abuses – corporations will do what they can get away with. But, if, as CAE remarks, the body is the most regulated sphere of social life, then we could begin to view industry exploitation of the body as an instance of hyper-regulation rather than deregulation. Epidemiological studies that reveal rates of occupational illness in Silicon Valley production workers over three times that found in other industries would be viewed as part of regulatory procedure, rather than as a failure of it. Such an assertion may sound absurd, but just consider the strictly controlled production environment: the “clean room” and the “bunny suit.” As Park and Pellow point out, both of these technologies are designed to protect the product from the worker, who is considered a “major source of contamination…a potentially 2 billion particle emitter,” not the worker from widely-used toxic substances like xylene and glycol ethers. [4]
Obviously, this is not just an issue in Santa Clara County, California. Throughout Silicon Valley of Dreams, mention of the global economy is present, and the authors do not turn a blind eye to the increasing manufacturing facilities being opened by transnationals in the Global East and South. The last chapter, in particular focuses on the paradigm that most of us relate to as the “death of distance.” Despite the miniaturization of iPods, laptops and cell phones, we in the North are using more resources than ever, and much of them are still coming from subjugated economies in the Southern Hemisphere. In contrast to the “weightlessness” experienced while cruising the Internet on a broadband wireless connection in an airport coffee shop, is the materiality of the Tantalum powder found in most wireless devices. The powder comes from a substance called Coltan, often illegally mined in places like the Okapi Faunal Reserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Looking through archives of industrial stock photography, the images used by the digital industry in creating their public image, one sees no evidence of the industrial processes. No immigrant workforce, no drums of unmarked petrochemicals, no company directed medical tests that are kept from the workers and the public. Only clean, precise, pure digital magic. It would seem that we, as users of the technology are the ones suffering from mass hysteria.
How else can we explain the hyperbolic rhetoric of ephemeral instantaneousness surrounding the desire to be “connected”? What is it we are connecting to, if not a delusion that negates the bodies of those that make the connections possible? If we, as artists, theorists, coders, writers and pranksters, can envision creative methods for connecting the wired to new experiences of pleasure, expression and knowledge, can we not envision the connections with those bodies in clean rooms and garages as they breath in xylene fumes?

1. from "Some Social Implications of Modern Technology," 1941
2. from "Recombinant Theater and Digital Resistance")
3. “Clean Room Clothing Performance,” Robin Howie

related resources:
ElAndar Magazine's issue on High Tech work
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition
About Coltan
Prema Murthy's Mythic Hybrid