Age-ism, Transhumanism, and Silicon Valley's Cognitive Dissonance

"They don't get too old to be relevant. They get too old to be cheap."

Silicon Valley is a place where ideas like cryogenic suspension, genetic engineering to switch off aging, or even uploading your brain into an emulator are taken seriously by a surprisingly large number of very bright, very "in" folks.

See it yet? It's big, folks, one of the biggest voids of cognitive dissonance I've personally ever spotted. For the real boots-on-the-ground culture of the Valley seems like it's all about youth and only youth and accelerating obsolescence. [...]

But if they are interested in quality-of-life extension, they're operating within a culture that seems like it has the opposite philosophy. If people become fossils when they turn thirty, why not just cut off healthcare at 40? Hell, why not reenact one of those dystopian sci-fi stories where people have "age clocks" and get euthanized when their value to society no longer outweighs their cost?

Why doesn't Mark Zuckerberg just live it up for a few more years and then opt for a nice humane form of euthanasia, perhaps leaving his billions to an angel investment fund to help younger entrants into the tech economy? According to the values he's perpetuating, he is no longer relevant.

Big nasty contradictions usually point to some deeper misalignment. Based on what I know of the Valley, the culture it exports, and the nature of the winner-take-all New Economy it's building, the only thing I can come up with is this:

All the Valley's talk about transhumanism, human potential, life extension, and generally "changing the world" is a bunch of hooey. It's a myth  --  in the pejorative sense of that term. It's a fluffy religion meant to snooker young professionals into giving their employers everything they have and working their brains down to the myelin until they become too old to be relevant anymore.

No, it's worse than that.

They don't get too old to be relevant. They get too old to be cheap.

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24 Responses:

  1. M.E. says:

    I liked this part:

    When I observe Silicon Valley by its cultural and technical output, what I see is a tweaked-up greedy optimization algorithm converging hard and fast on a local maximum that involves using web sites and mobile devices to sell ads. I see a place where $3000/month will get you a “crack den” apartment and where people who want to start families leave. I see a disproportionate number of mobile startups and webby things, but not a lot of work tackling the brutal soul-crushingly hard problems that stand between us and any kind of post-human anything.

    • phuzz says:


      [older people] know how to spot a fad

      What's that Twitter, you want people to give you lots of money? So how much revenue do you actually make in a year hmm?

      • jwz says:

        What? They have extracted plenty of money from their customers for their product. Maybe your confusion is that the product is you and the customers are investors. It's all going according to plan.

  2. Citizen jwz, with all due respect for your diversity you are at least 40 years old.

    Have you checked your life clock recently? You should probably be putting your affairs in order in preparation for your trip to the Arena for Apotheosis.

    (All other right-thinking citizens are urged to ignore citizen jwz's doubleplus ungood quackspeak. Citizen jwz is fast approaching obsolescence and will be replaced shortly by a new, improved version.)

  3. chris says:

    I don't think there's any dissonance -- they value youth, so they want to stay young forever. It's a totally consistent position.

    Apart from that, of course, spot on. I've spent the occasional evening planning what I'm going to do after I'm unemployable in software. I do think that he's judging us by our worst excesses. Hacker News is really the worst possible side of the valley, and that 3k will still get you a very nice apartment.

    • tkil says:

      I've spent the occasional evening planning what I'm going to do after I'm unemployable in software.

      Hm. When do you think that might be, and why?

      As my reply to Eric below indicates, I'm in my 40s (hence "fossil"), yet I was able to find a well-paying job fairly quickly. (Much to my happy surprise.)

      I had worried about the age-ism and tech-of-the-week issues, but they were largely a non-issue. Granted, it is at a huge company, not the hot "going IPO next quarter" place. On the plus side, that means that they don't expect me to work 20 hours/day and then sleep under my desk.

      So, seriously -- why do you think that there is such a barrier as "after I'm unemployable in software", and what do you think that barrier is?

      • chris says:

        Well, I'm not saying there's a hard line -- I know people in their 50s who've been able to move around comfortably, and not at jobs requiring an embarrasing level of seniority. I do think, based on the experience of those same people, that it gets much harder.

        You're right, I'm probably overstating the problem. "Unemployable" is putting it too strongly. But for me, if I find myself having to struggle, I'd like to be in a position where I can just shrug and do something else.

  4. Eric says:

    I've been professionally developing software for over thirty years, starting when I was 18. I've had a very successful career. Five years ago I moved to San Francisco from Los Angeles, and despite being a Ruby on Rails contributor, and using it since 2007, I haven't been able to get a job in San Francisco as a Ruby on Rails developer. I've stayed current on the latest technologies, and even contributed to them, and have good interviews, but they go nowhere. I've been supporting myself by consulting for customers out of state.

    I would gladly work for what they're offering as starting salaries now for twenty-five year olds, because I love developing software, and it's all I've ever wanted to do. I'm a simple man with simple needs. I finally got a job with a small startup based in Los Angeles, and I work remotely, but that gig will probably end in a few months when they run out of grant money for this project. I would love to stay in software development, and I would like to stay in San Francisco, but I don't think that's going to happen, because rich young software developers in their 20s and 30s in San Francisco want to work in a "monoculture" of people that are just like them in almost every way, and don't want to work with someone old enough to be their father.

    • James says:

      Nobody wants a monoculture. Wow them with your skills, and you'll get paid. It's not like you have to leave these days, what with elance,,, odesk, vworker, innocentive, dice, craigslist, etc. Just watch your weight.

      • Eric says:

        In my experience, that just isn't the case. I've been in several interviews where I've been told that I know more about Rails than the people asking the questions, but in the end it doesn't matter. I go through several rounds of interviews, and they end up hiring a white guy in his twenties they can go out and get drunk with, or get drunk with in the office. Every. Single. Time. You can say that "nobody wants a monoculture", but that hasn't been my experience, or the experience of every recruiter I've worked with, who have all told me that this is a problem.

        Hell, there have been several articles written about it, including the one jwz linked to that this thread is based on.

        As for Elance, etc., if you had real experience with those sites, you would know that it's almost impossible to get paid a rate that makes it possible to live in San Francisco. You're competing with numerous shops in India, etc., that can charge pennies on the dollar compared to US consultants and still make a profit.

        As for the final dig about weight, what happened to "nobody wants a monoculture"?

        • tkil says:

          I was pleasantly surprised to find a job quite quickly once I started looking. I'm 41, and I was worried that age would be an issue, but it didn't seem to be. (I did have to move out here to the Bay Area, but that doesn't apply if you're already here, obviously.)

          Maybe it's a Rails phenomenon. My resume is more about creaky old stuff like C++, Java, SQL, Linux... so maybe the Rails culture is skewed younger / "hipper".

          Also, every recruiter / interviewer mentioned that they found the sheer variety of my experience at least as interesting as the individual bits of experience themselves. Maybe you can try highlighting more than just Rails?

        • James says:

          Definitely ditch the resume and go full-on CV with working hyperlinks to your portfolio. You can easily compete with nonnative English speakers and inexperienced party boys, especially if you highlight the differences in subtle ways and approach those who have already been burned by the less productive alternatives. Nobody wants a monoculture, but not everyone knows they don't until they get burned.

        • James says:

          How do you feel about Worklist?

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