The Brutal Ageism of Silicon Valley

We’re told that our high-tech meritocracy based on productivity is the source of our enlightenment when it comes to our resolute opposition to racism, sexism, and heterosexism. 


Certainly the demands of our global competitive marketplace have attuned us more than ever to the productive truth of multicultural diversity. But Noam Scheiber, writing for the New Republic, reminds us that all still is not well.  Silicon Valley is in the thrall of an increasingly “brutal ageism.”

Mark Zuckerberg, for one, has an argument for his preferential option against more senior Americans:  “Young people are just smarter.”   I, for one, have not observed that to be true. 

A very old professor told me a couple of years ago:  “Every year I know more and more, and the students less and less.”  Me too.  I don’t quite agree with the guy who claimed that today’s young are “the dumbest generation,” but they sure aren’t as smart as they think they are.  (Well, it’s likely I’m not as smart as I think I am either.)

But what Zuckerberg might have meant is that young people typically do better in keeping up with the latest technological developments.  Certainly they’re the ones who think they’re so darn important—or transformational or whatever. Maybe the key is that “people over forty-five basically die in terms of new ideas.”  That might seem fairly plausible if “new ideas” is limited to technological breakthroughs, but even then it’s not so hard to find middle-aged exceptions who aren’t dead in any way.

The same sort of prejudice is directed against “older entrepreneurs.”  The old, it’s thought, are too suspicious of “disruption”; they’ve become “too cynical to believe that real change is possible.”  But real change, after all, is not always possible.  And not every techno-change is beneficial, and many are only beneficial if deployed with care. 

There’s a lot to be said for “marginal improvements” that chasten innovation with prudent attention to both environmental and moral sustainability. There’s a lot to be said against “the Silicon Valley model” of “throwing massive amounts of money at highly speculative investments.”  They are, after all, “suspiciously bubble prone.”   Having said all that, Schieber reminds us there’s less correlation that you might think between being youthful and entrepreneurial disruption.

It’s certainly true that the young value less than ever the wisdom gained through experience that has been traditionally accorded to the old.  That wisdom has something to do with the enduring exercise of personal responsibility, enduring moral virtue, astute judgments, and in some cases the deep learning that has come through decades of reading and thinking.  It’s about being a grown-up in full.  But in Silicon Valley, being “naive and immature” impresses employers more than being seasoned.  Older employees have to knock themselves out to prove they aren’t “schoolmarmish authority figures out to stifle fun and creativity.”  Nobody wants to work with parents!    

Certainly the techno-sophisticated young, more than ever, don’t reflect on what old people are for.  That doesn’t mean they want to die young.  They’re particularly attuned to avoiding the risk factors that might extinguish their own being.  And they even hope for indefinite longevity and even the Singularity.  It’s only an exaggeration to say that our techno-sophisticates want to live for hundreds of years (at least) without ever actually getting old. 

That’s why, as Scheiber reports, that Silicon Valley has become America’s main Botox dispensary.  The irony, of course, is the Botoxing and similar procedures only help in not looking old;  they don’t actually keep your thinking from getting old.  The Botox physician’s customers are getting younger and younger, showing that people are ridiculously identifying looking not-all-that-young with being over the hill as a thinker.  In that wonderful California climate, rumor has it that our techno-sophisticates are even avoiding with the sun for fear of premature wrinkling.

That kind of obsessive calculation is one piece of evidence among many of how far Silicon Valley has wandered from “the tech industry’s hippie roots.”  The hippies, of course, sometimes said don’t trust anyone over thirty, but they never said knock yourself out, including using all techno-means available, not to look thirty.

The attraction of the Singularity, of course, is that your aging body will be replaced by a machine of some kind.  That machine will be as disposable or quickly obsolete as any being produced these days.  It’ll be regularly replaced and upgraded, even as your consciousness remains eternally the same.  So the promise of the Singularity is that we’ll remain “forever young,” or, better, forever not old.

Scheiber is certainly right to observe  that “the veneration of youth in Silicon Valley now seems way out of proportion to its usefulness.”  And those sensitive to the bullying of school kids should be outraged at what’s happening to older guys.

America’s education system is centuries old. Can we build something better?

The Lumina Foundation lays out steps for increasing access to quality post-secondary education credentials.

Sponsored by Lumina Foundation
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  • Elizabeth Garlow explains the Lumina Foundation's strategy to create a post-secondary education system that works for all students. This includes credential recognition, affordability, a more competency-based system, and quality assurance.
  • Systemic historic factors have contributed to inequality in the education system. Lumina aims to close those gaps in educational attainment.
  • In 2019, Lumina Foundation and Big Think teamed up to create the Lumina Prize, a search to find the most innovative and scalable ideas in post-secondary education. You can see the winners of the Lumina Prize here – congratulations to PeerForward and Greater Commons!

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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.