In 2017, Mary Beth Meehan moved into an Airbnb in Menlo Park to spend six weeks documenting Silicon Valley. For the New England native, the Valley was “as far from my roots as the surface of the moon.” She visited at the invitation of Fred Turner, a Stanford professor of communication, who hoped her photographic eye could help him deconstruct the region’s mythology by documenting its people. Now, Meehan’s photos—which uncover a “hidden world” of economic disparities, social isolation and environmental degradation—accompany an essay by Turner in Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America (University of Chicago Press).
We need to look up from our screens, turn away from the dazzling streams of bits and bytes flowing through them, and look again at the people who inhabit it.
The book tells the stories of 26 individuals and families through a combination of environmental portraiture, landscapes and details. In one memorable frame, a carpet of artificial turf blankets the steps of an RV parked near Stanford’s campus—a “front lawn” in a region where skyrocketing rents have made even apartments unattainable for many. “What kind of society does the relentless pursuit of technological innovation and wealth produce?” Turner writes. “And what kind of future does it suggest for the rest of us?” Meehan juxtaposes glimpses of the region’s humanity with an unflinching view of the tech industry’s unceasing ambition: cold glass-walled skyscrapers, gold scissors at an office ribbon-cutting ceremony, shiny advertisements for the latest gadgets.
After immersing herself in the Valley for weeks, Meehan began noticing a pattern of economic and spiritual unease—“a sense of distress,” she phrases it in the afterword, one “so pervasive that I wondered if I was seeing things correctly.” She asks readers to consider the costs of allowing the unrestricted pursuit of innovation to become ingrained in our society.
The authors compare Silicon Valley and religion in surprising ways. Meehan uses light, shadow and color to draw parallels between the Sunnyvale Hindu Temple and Apple Park Visitor Center, while Turner references 17th-century Puritan minister John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon. Silicon Valley, says Turner, has become a new beacon of entrepreneurship—one whose promises of utopia remain unfulfilled for many who seek it. What remains, as always, are the people, striving to survive and create community in the face of long odds.
Melina Walling, ’20, MA ’21, is a writer and multimedia storyteller in Wayne, Pa. She spent the summer of 2021 as the Boyd’s Station Writing Fellow in Harrison County, Ky. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.