Silicon Valley – Religion, Operating System, or Something Else?

Earlier this week I wrote a post titled The Religion of Silicon Valley. It was intended to be provocative and exploratory.

The comments were great and helped me think through this concept more (note: the comment counter is broken on the main page due to a plug-in conflict – we are trying to figure it out. The counter is correct on the post page…)

Then I wrote a post titled The Board Operating System. A few folks tied together the concepts of Religion and Operating System as an operative metaphor for Silicon Valley.

That stimulated a bunch of other phrases in my mind to use as metaphors. As I ponder them, I’m curious which ones fit or don’t fit, and why. Some phrases include:

  • Religion
  • Operating System
  • Frame of Mind
  • Culture
  • Cult
  • Something Else?

If you are game to play and help think through this, comment away!

  • I think Silicon Valley has a very rare combination of many necessary ingredients – not impossible to replicate, but not easy either

  • My smart-ass first response; “Operating System” is what so many in SV think/wish they could possess/own in their investment/management methods, only to end up with “something else”.

    In your BOS article, You mention how CEO’s must help shape board behavior, otherwise, the board ends up with “default behavior” (something else).
    I might suggest ordering your list into a systematic approach:

    1. First, set your frame of mind, and share with your team.
    2. Then begin to establish a culture that keeps stoke and productivity high.
    3. Based on product and team, then attempt to develop a replicable OS.
    In this manner we might avoid developing a “religion’, or ending up with “something else”??? 🙂

    PS- This is our current “Guitar Friday” culture at our software startup in Flagstaff. This is not a replicable OS, but the culture can be furthered.

    • Guitar Friday looks like a lot of fun. I agree that #1 is the starting point. I’d also suggest that as the company grows, if you really want to do this, you need to iterate on all three of these.

      • Product iteration can be hard/painful enough.
        Brad, have you found that many teams seam to come undone when they realize that their culture and OS may need to iterate, too? (“not what I signed up for” syndrome). Replicating/transplanting operations to new locations being a common example?

        • Yup – this is one of the regular and consistent reasons for breakdowns, especially at a leadership level.

  • Ask&Bid
    • I love Steve Blank’s post on this. There’s also a great book – – about the 100 year arc of Silicon Valley that deepens the “it all started with Shockley / Fairchild / Intel meme.”

      • Ask&Bid

        Great book, looking at history often helps to get a deeper understanding.

        But I do not think that the SV way works everywhere, especially regarding symbolism, like everybody has to wear a branded T-Shirt from the Startup “uniformity” on the other side everybody has to be individualistic, that is uniformed Individualism? That’s like the uniformed Hipster.

        I am German, may that’s the reason why I do not understand it:-)

  • Operating System – The dreaded Blue screen
    Frame of Mind – Should get a Mac
    Culture- OS X is refined
    Cult- All Apple is good
    Religion- Standing in freezing cold to get latest idol from Apple

    • I’ve started to be very frustrated with iOS and some of the things I have to deal with on OS X. That’s the challenge of an OS being a frame of mind. When all of a sudden things don’t work as you want or hope, the frame of mind has an abrasive shift that is probably an overreaction to reality.

      • It is this very change of frame of mind which prevents a rational mind from creating a cult/ religion (The words “cult” and “religion” are inherently loaded with connotations of inflexibility and blind faith).

        All notions, as long as open to rational query, and then amenable to change are fine.
        Abrasive shifts are good, they are like a leap of faith, like an electrons in an atom jumping to form a molecule and forming something entirely new. Abrasive shifts question status quo, abrasive shifts can always lead back home if nothing else works better.

  • I think “religion” fits. When I think of the term “religion,” I think of it as a collection of people, places, and things that people worship. In Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs and some hallowed spaces are uniquely worshiped to varying degrees. Money is something that is rarely discussed openly but that is quietly worshiped. What a person worships drives his or her priority stack. And priorities lead to behaviors that are recognizable as incidents of “religion” uniquely identified with a specific place.

    FWIW, here are some other phrases that come to mind:
    * Paradigm
    * Norms
    * World view

  • Brad, when I first saw your other post on this subject, I wondered who was the originator of this idea.

    It turns out I didn’t have to look very far as @GuyGamzu, posted a link in the comments to this video of a talk by Yuval Noah Harari at Google on January 29th, 2015.

    It seems to be to the source of the SV religion idea.

    It is largely predicated on the materialistic assertions by the Life Sciences that there is no human soul and that all thought manifestations are bio-chemical algorithms and are not of spiritual origin, so that when electronic algorithms supersede biological ones, the computer essentially becomes God.

    It’s more complex than that though, as he explains that traditional religions are perceived to have failed to innovate in the face of scientific breakthroughs and can now only react; and the last ideologies which have had the impact that religion should have had were Socialism and Communism. He uses this argument as a bridging thought.

    It’s easy to misinterpret what he’s communicating and therefore assume that he’s saying that Silicon Valley is a religion.

    *But* what I think personally is the most important takeaway in his talk is the admission near the end that there is a giant hole in the Life Sciences’
    theories which has been addressed by their *assumption* (he calls it dogma) that they will eventually be proven right. In other words the Life Sciences are saying “There is this huge gap in our theory; however we think we are right and it is just a matter of time before we can prove it.”

    And *that* is the point that is easy to miss.

    That is a dangerous assumption.

    What if thoughts *don’t* originate in the brain?

    Perhaps they can be registered and even chemically influenced there and yet not be of physical origin.

    For example, I have met someone who had been clinically dead while being operated, during which time, she was very clearly outside her body and floating above the operating room and “hearing” and “seeing” what was happening below her before re-entering the body and coming back to life.

    How can that be explained by taking only a materialistic view of life?

    What is likely to occur, IMOHO is the following scenario: we’ll keep falling down the materialistic rabbit hole as a society for decades — or centuries even — only to eventually realize that the true answers were of a spiritual nature all along.

    That’s a possibility that shouldn’t be ruled out by assumptions and arrogance.

    Arrogance is what did Detroit in, let us all remember.

    The purpose of religion for eons as been to seek answers to questions of a spiritual nature. Whether it has succeeded or not does not change its purpose. The Life Sciences should perhaps help Religion figure itself out, as opposed to look at it as a zero-sum game.

    As a final thought, I believe it behooves us to not confuse “Ideology” with “Religion”, even while we are at the apex of the Materialism Age.

    And this is coming from me, a non-believer of any traditional religions, per se.
    I hope this provides some clarification.

    • Mario,

      Interesting video. Thanks for sharing!

      • You can’t possibly have watched it all, though, it is almost 1 1/2 hour long and I’ve just posted it a few minutes ago 🙂
        Anyhow, you’re welcome.

        • Yes just watched the first few minutes and then fast forward now and then. I saved it for night watching (completely). So yes I just skimmed through it! Thanks again!

          • Be ready for a mixture of powerful observations and questionable hypotheses; so have your bullshit antennas out as you sort out what to make of it for yourself, ha ha.

          • ha..thanks for the heads-up! Will let you know what I think after I’ve seen it!

          • Please, I’m very interested in other well-thought out perspectives.

    • Guy Gamzu

      Referring back to Harari, he actually beholds that there’s no material difference between ideology and religion. The main diffenerce is that the later used to be perceived as an ideology created by a superpower rather than humans.
      Anyway, I’m a little confused.
      I can’t help wondering, what is the real purpose of this thread?
      Say we get the ‘perfect’ metaphor or definition of SV; in what way does it serve anyone?
      Why do we need to care?

      • I am a big fan of metaphors for a variety of reasons, including using them to both explain phenomena as well as anchor people in reality around potential problems. I also like intellectual exercises like this because they generate a lot of interesting data and opinions.

        • Guy Gamzu

          I am totally with you. I just feel that this discussion can be elevated to the next level: What are the implications of all this? Where are we heading?
          The metaphors and other thought-clarity enablers will follow.

          • I think the next level is accepting that science has transcended metaphors and that there aren’t necessarily going to be thought-clarifiers for the nature that is going to be revealed by science.

            We don’t have the right to just assume that nature is going to be simple enough, or close enough to our everyday reality, for it to be amenable to simple, clear explanations, much though we might wish this to be the case. Such explanations will likely prove to be the low hanging fruit.

        • I am of the opinion that the sciences are increasingly digging so deep that phenomena we are uncovering CANNOT be described by analogy or metaphor because there is no everyday parallel. Forcing a metaphorical explanation distorts the reality that science has uncovered. A well known example is quantum mechanics, but there are many others. The difficulty of discovery is precisely ‘rewiring’ one’s brain, beyond our everyday experience, to accept what reality is telling us. You can’t expect a person who has not spent years of hard work doing such cognitive reprogramming to readily understand models that depend on it. Metaphors are great, and until recently used to be the bedrock of human explanation, but I fear we have in many areas transcended their usefulness.

          • As a huge fan of science fiction, I both agree and disagree with this!

          • OK. I’ll bite. I’d like to better understand what you disagree with and I’m intrigued by what SF fiction has to do with it. I can of course speculate. Eg Gibson (in his time) had prescient imaginings of possible tech driven futures. But if this is the kind of thing you have in mind I wouldn’t consider that to be a counterexample as there is nothing in his work that moves beyond a creative application of analogy or metaphor. There is nothing I am aware of that is so beyond everyday experience that it is literally unimaginable to the untutored intellect. Perhaps there are other such writers who do. But I would be a little predisposed to be skeptical because, as a longtime fiction writer, the balance between ideas and emotion is a tricky balance and too much ‘idea’ isn’t too effective in the medium. So I suspect that truly imponderable ideas would be a real challenge.
            I think the best example I can think of of an artist who tried to directly present the incomprehensible was Tarkovsky. .Solaris, (the adaptation of Ulam’s work), for example is an exploration of a truly alien intelligence that is completely beyond our experience or ability to fathom it.
            So – all this is a long way of saying. I’d like to hear what you had in mind wrt disagreement.

            If anyone can think of a way to present the E8 Lie group simply I’d be very interested to hear it.

      • I’m of the opinion that we should care about the ideas that get passed around as it is how false concepts become widespread.

        Harari makes a claim as you’ve said and then some undergrads and others take it at face value and next thing you know there’s the widespread belief that there’s no difference between ideology and religion.

        But if someone would take the time to do some digging, they may uncover that this is simply not true.

        A lot of rationality can be lost that way, and I personally find that to be reason for concern.

        • Guy Gamzu

          debating the difference between ideology and religion isn’t going to contribute much to the essence. Harari is an historian. But his books are all about provoking the mind and make us think about the future. He coined the phrase ‘Dara religion’ to give way to what he believes may turn to the most influential force on the future of humanity. The modern era has proven that the weight of ideology can be as imminent as religion (and sometimes more). From 10k miles, looking at homo sapiance 300,000 years history, there’s no doubt that collective narratives has driven the path. And the name we choose for those narratives isn’t going to help us in projecting what’s next.
          The techno data ideology / religion is just a phrase. My point is that we should spend time discussing the implications and where does this all takes us rather than putting too much energy into phrasing.

          • I really appreciate your thoughtfulness in conducting an argument. I tried to find out more about you on your Disqus profile, but there is little to go on there. Perhaps you want to beef that up a little if you keep impressing people with your level of engagement 🙂

  • Avishay Ovadia

    “The Holy Valley”

    If you believe in a the holiness of the place because of the land itself, in the end you will believe in land cult, establish a religion and then, culture is a matter of time.

  • John Dufresne

    I am moving to SV June 1st to attract Angels and more founders for my company I’m not sure what I’m in for and I keep reading great post such as this one that point out there is something wrong with SV culture and the general infustucture being too costly to grow or enjoy. Many people are moving away from the area for reasons such as the constant tone of the culture is saturated in tech and it becomes overwhelming. My friend is leaving his job at Tesla to move to North Carolina which has a booming tech community growing. I can’t comment on what I think SV has become but to me it’s still represents hope for progress and prosperity. If it’s a religion then I guess say a prayer for me 🙂

  • josh

    For those of us that prefer the taxonomic classifications… would you start with the H Sapiens Venturecapitus Doerr-ini tree? From pete baston we know what the denbo side looks like

  • CGFSyncresis

    Ideology. It’s a pervasive set of thinking patterns, ideals, and values, with distinct political and economic patterns of interaction, exchange, and control.

  • Dasher

    Gods – entrepreneurs
    VCs – prophets
    Product Market Fit – Nirvana

  • But you know, SV has multiple personalities, and is multi-faceted, so it’s so tough to pin it down to a single metaphor. It is multiple metaphors at once, just like the Internet is. If you asked several people what the Internet means to them, you’ll probably get as many different answers, and they will all be correct.

    If you asked several entrepreneurs outside of SV what SV means to them, again we might get different answers, and they will all be correct, because that’s how they see it.

    • And that is part of the fun of it!

      • haha…it’s like this question:
        “If a synchronized swimmer drowns, do the others drown too?”

  • Having traveled to SV several times per year for two decades, lived there for seven years (99-06), and seeing my son’s experiences for the last three years since he moved there fresh out of college, the fundamental SV milieu hasn’t changed much. I still grok it as a theme park. In fact using religion as a metaphor (loved that post, and the comments), SV as a religious theme park hits home. It’s presumptuous, exploitative, shiny, kitchy, dogmatic and arrogantly opportunistic. And if you grok the concept of creating truly meaningful software out of nothing but your own mind and mettle, SV is like one of those big crazy Texas churches, except you may be the god that changes the world. SV is where art fucks science, creates a singularity, then rebrands it as a virgin birth and the second coming for the next generation congregation. Or something like that.

    • Priceless! Love it. Having grown up in Dallas, the Texas church reference really rings a bell.

    • Rosey

      ‘SV is where art fucks science, creates a singularity, then rebrands it as a virgin birth and the second coming for the next generation congregation.’

      Busting a gut, Ben! Stop! Stop!

      “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Shakespeare, Hamlet

  • pankajvaghela27

    This is an awesome article on what context matters in notifications and recommendations. Thanks – Result Zoo

  • It’s an economic paradigm, with hypothesis on growth, distruption, valuation, sharing equity, VC roles, founders, ideas, etc., with consequences such as unicorns, financial and gender inequality, failure rate, etc.

    Past paradigms include financial monarchy, feudalism, merchantilism, and the Industrial Revolution.

    • The key difference between paradigm and religion being that paradigms occasionally (and often suddenly) change, whereas religion at best changes slowly over millennia.

      The modern VC paradigm itself shifted into existence less than 50 years ago. It is not at all an age-old religion with unchangable traditions. Any of a few changes to the Securities Exhange Act or IRS code and it could easily shift again this decade.

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  • PatrickOConnor

    Brad – brilliant thoughts. I think it is difficult to pinpoint exact definitions though you are in the right direction. I think it is an amalgam of every word you used with the “something else?” factor likely being the most truthful of statements as Silicon Valley is its own constantly in a state of flux beast. Could we say that it is both entropy and enthalpy at once? Yes. Somehow concepts that flow in a logical way, come to fruition in a rather disordered / entropic fashion springing forth into this entity we call a “company” with some degree of enthalpy occurring; “some” is the operative word as no human system is perfect. Alas, this is why you live in Boulder – it keeps you sane.