"Look at This F**king Tech Worker." Why snarking on techies' appearances is unfair and unproductive
There's a new flavor of ridicule that's become a cornerstone of the modern Silicon Valley snark: Mocking funny-looking tech workers with funny-sounding job titles.
The trend reached a fever-pitch with David Shing or "Shingy" who works at AOL as its chief "Digital Prophet." In addition to his imaginary job title and penchant for empty, made-up buzz phrases, Shingy has a jet-black explosion of hair riding high on his forehead, black nail polish, and clear oversized glasses that seem to weigh down his entire face. When he appeared on MSNBC this month as AOL's representative, observers derisively called him the "Skrillex of the Valley."
Just yesterday, the site "Death and Taxes" posted a screenshot of former Obama for America CTO Harper Reed talking social media on Bloomberg West, adding the headline "Look at this asshole." The writer calls him "an anthropomorphized Slate article," which is far less clever than it sounds. This is Reed:
We've officially reached the tech and social media equivalent of "Look at This Fucking Hipster."
It's healthy to be skeptical of social media gurus and ninjas, but there's plenty to critique about guys like Shingy without bringing their appearance into it. Just listen to the speech he puts front-and-center on his website. It's full of meaningless techno-business koans like "mindshare equals market share," "embrace a fast fail culture," and "become the connection generation." I'm not saying Shingy is an idiot or that he doesn't earn his paycheck. I'm saying I have no idea whether he's an idiot or not because his rhetoric is 95 percent buzz phrases and 5 percent substance.
That said, I get the tendency to direct scorn on Shingy's clothes and hairstyle: They look as silly and calculated as his ideas sound, and both are designed to promote a vague feeling that this guy knows something we don't. Shingy's style perpetuates tech's new "rock star" culture that runs counter to the Silicon Valley of old, when companies like Fairchild Semiconductor ground it out, caring only about the size of their computer chips, not the size of their blowout hairdos.
But as observers to this new concentration of power and money, we should look beyond appearances and job titles in ferreting out truth from bullshit, whether someone chooses to wear a white button-down shirt or a sequined bathrobe. After all, Prince spends a lot of time crafting a flashy, fashionable visual presence, but that doesn't make his music any less perfect. (Though it's telling that we've yet to encounter the Silicon Valley analogue to Prince).
The problems with critiquing appearance run even deeper. Drawing attention to Shingy's hair, regardless of why he styles it like that, reinforces larger cultural arguments about how certain people should look and dress. Many criticize Rush Limbaugh for being overweight. Granted, Rush Limbaugh is a hateful, deceitful asshole who deserves any and all insults thrown his way, especially because he's known to attack his opponents, particularly women, over their appearance. But by calling him fat, it turns a person's body weight into a signifier of worth, which is hurtful to others and destructive to discourse. Of course, making fun of someone's weight and making fun of someone's sartorial choices are not the same thing. But just as not every overweight person is a hateful bigot, not every dude with crazy hair and silly glasses is a fraud.
Certainly, tech workers do themselves no favor by getting caught up in crafting these personas, which are really just "personal brands" gone apeshit. Last week, Valleywag wrote a piece called "The Biggest Bullshit Titles in Tech" which featured eBay's "Chief Curator" Michael Phillips Moskowitz. In response, Betabeat interviewed Moskowitz to find out if his job is really as pointless as it sounds. After hundreds of words of meaningless Silicon Valley slide-pitch drivel, Moskowitz finally admitted that he's essentially eBay's "Creative Director." Was that so hard? Sure, "Creative Director" has a flavor of old world bullshit to it, but guiding the visual themes of a huge company's branding and customer interactions is hardly a pointless endeavor. Moskowitz doesn't need a torrent of buzz phrases and a made-up title to justify his work. In fact, they threaten the legitimacy of his job in the minds of outsiders.
Regardless of the blame some tech workers share in their own ridicule, focusing on the haircuts of digital prophets and gurus is a distraction from the issues in Silicon Valley that really matter. That's one of my biggest problems with much of the new tech snark. While there's value in taking self-important digital prophets and fake entrepreneurs down a peg (particularly when they're so well-paid or well-funded) there are far more serious critiques about far more powerful tech firms, like Google's complicity in for-profit surveillance and wage collusion schemes.
Both critiques can run in parallel. But it'd be a shame if we never noticed Silicon Valley selling our data and screwing its workers, because we were too busy laughing at Shingy's hair.
[Image courtesy infomatique]