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.

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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.