Po Bronson's The Nudist on the Late Shift and Other True Tales of Silicon Valley
12.02.99 | reviewed by Nicholas Confessore
'Tis the season for mainstream magazines—Time, Newsweek, BusinessWeek—to finally run cover stories on that newest of old trends, e-commerce. Skip them. You are unlikely to find a more vivid or readable tour of Silicon Valley culture than Po Bronson's The Nudist on the Late Shift. Bronson's prose—fast paced, irreverent, casually portentous—is well-suited to its subject. Less a book about the industry than one about the people who constitute the industry—six of the eight chapters are named for different castes in the valley hierarchy, from "The Newcomers" to "The Dropout"—The Nudist is Wolfian new journalism at its most narcotic.
But it is this same enthusiasm that makes The Nudist on the Late Shift practically bloodless. "If I could say just one thing about Silicon Valley, this is it: every generation that came before us had to make a choice in life between pursuing a steady career and pursuing wild adventures," he writes early in the book. "In Silicon Valley, that trade-off has been recircuited. By injecting mind-boggling amounts of risk into the once stodgy domain of gray-suited business, young people no longer have to choose . . . the career path has become an adventure into the unknown." For Bronson—himself, interestingly, a former investment banker—this seems to be the valley's saving grace. Sure, it's all corporate drudgery for your average high-tech schmoe. But with a little heady optimism and a remote chance at vested stock options, even drudgery is exciting!
Indeed, nearly every phenomenon in the valley, from frenzied IPOs to the requisite mad scientists, seems to exist primarily to be described, never questioned. Are the freelancers profiled in "The Programmers"—part of the vast pool of "independent contractors" who form the wellspring of the valley labor pool—worried about health insurance? In Bronson's Silicon Valley, everyone is too busy pulling in six figures (or hoping to) to worry about doctors' bills. Work conditions that would seem appalling for, say, a sausage-factory worker—hundred-hour weeks, sleeping under your desk, no time to eat—are for Bronson merely hallmarks of life in the tech industry, love it or leave it. Why else tag the nudist of the title, a man who worked so hard one night he forgot he was at work and got undressed to go skinny-dipping, as the defining metaphor for the New Economy?
Bronson does not lack an eye for irony. He devotes his penultimate chapter to "The Drop out," computer genius Danny Hillis. What does Hillis, the inventor of the ultra-fast parallel-processing computer, do today? He is building a giant mechanical clock that will run for 10,000 years—twice as long as the pyramids have stood and orders of magnitude beyond the time horizon of Silicon Valley. So by the time we get to the end of The Nudist, it's not clear exactly what Bronson thinks. "Am I looking at another 'steel city' Pittsburgh, the ground zero of an industry that is supplying a valuable technology to the whole world?" he writes toward the end. "Or am I looking at the future of the world itself—as the rest of the world adopts the technology being created in the Valley, will the rest of the world also adopt the Valley's work habits and campus parks and organizing principles?"
The Nudist on the Late Shift provides few answers; the dozens of parasitic Silicon Valley industries that Bronson profiles in the final chapter—do-anything caterers and cubicle refurbishers alike—work on the tech schedule, all driven by the same never-stop creed. But that doesn't mean the party will last forever. After Pittsburgh boomed, remember, it also bottomed out.