Marc Abélès

The New Rich An Anthropologist in Silicon Valley Publication date : February 1, 2002

Sixty-four Silicon Valley residents reportedly become millionaires every day. Just the name 'Silicon Valley' evokes a universe of innovation, success and prosperity. People from all over the world come to visit the birthplaces of such famous companies as Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Apple, Fairchild, Sun, Yahoo, AOL,$Netscape or Amazon. The heart of new technologies in the 1960s, Silicon Valley has become the Mecca of capital risks. It is the symbol of the most extreme form of capitalism, and of the most alluring aspects of individual financial success. And yet, it is here that several foundations were recently created by young millionaires following in the tradition of nineteenth-century American philanthropists such as the Carnegies, Rockefellers and Kelloggs.
Because stereotypes about the United States are so powerful, they often overshadow anything that seems to contradict them. According to one preconceived image, social dynamics in the U.S. are entirely determined by two factors, business and the market. But this ignores the strong American tradition of philanthropy, which enables certain public-sector services and activities to be privately financed, in contrast with the state-funding favoured in Europe.
What can one conclude today? Are the initiatives taken by Silicon Valley's nouveaux riches no more than PR operations? How do current forms of philanthropy differ from earlier ones that sprang from the American Puritanical tradition? Hasn't charity, and even philanthropy itself, been overtaken by the values and forms of reasoning inherent to a market economy and capital risks?
French scholar and anthropologist Marc Abélès went to live in California, where he studied the behaviour and ways of thinking of the people who have made Silicon Valley one of the richest parts of the world, but also one of its most unexpected social laboratories.
But is it really a paradox if in the paradise of the market economy, where everything seems to be governed by individualism and money, there is a sudden upsurge of interest in the community? Perhaps success and personal wealth cannot escape the needs and demands of the community.

Marc Abélès is an ethnologist and anthropologist. He heads the Laboratory of Anthropology of Institutions and Social Organisations at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. He is the author of numerous works, including the recent Un ethnologue à l'Assemblée.