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Dreams of fortune: Photographing Silicon Valley

Laura Morton has spent a decade photographing the tech industry in San Francisco. Her work, which explores the daily lives of young people who flock to the Bay Area with dreams of launching start-ups and become billionaires, is showcased at this year’s Visa pour l’Image photojournalism festival in Perpignan, France

Silicon Valley
A participant sleeps at her computer during a ‘hackathon’ event organized in San Fransisco by the company Shirts.io.Laura Morton

In recent years, another gold rush has swarmed San Francisco. Fueled by stories of making massive fortunes in the tech sector — the third most lucrative industry for the rich, according to Forbes — young entrepreneurs have flocked to this promised land with dreams of launching a start-up and becoming billionaires.

“Their lives are intertwined: they live together, they work online, they compete with each other, but they also go out and party together,” explains photographer Laura Morton (1984, Maryland, USA). After obtaining funding through the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund, she spent the better part of the past decade immersed in the day-to-day lives of this subculture of dreamers, whose ambitions have been recently re-fueled with the rise in artificial intelligence. The result of Morton’s work: a photographic series titled Wild West Tech, which won the 2022 Pierre & Alexandra Boulat Award and will be featured at the upcoming 35th annual Visa pour l’Image, the world’s leading international photojournalism festival, which opens on September 2 in the French city of Perpignan.

Morton photographed the first part of her project during the economic boom created by innovations in mobile phone technology and the rise of social media, which fueled a thriving ecosystem of tech start-ups in the city. “Young people, people in their twenties and thirties, were coming from all over the world, excited to participate in this prosperity and ready to create companies with nothing more than a laptop,” explains Morton, speaking to EL PAÍS via videoconference. “A lot of these people had no money and moved into communal houses, which was helpful given their tendency toward loneliness, and helped them quickly make friends. Sometimes 40 people would sleep under the same roof, sharing a single kitchen and two bathrooms. It was a close-knit community, isolated in many ways from the world around them. They were pursuing a very specific dream in a city ready to nurture it.”

At the time, start-ups were gaining ground in sectors like virtual reality, drone technology, robotics and cryptocurrency. Until November 2022, when the collapse of one of the main cryptocurrency platforms, FTX, left a million users with their funds up in the air and many investors and young entrepreneurs in a state of uncertainty, not knowing where to invest their capital or how to prioritize their time. Then, OpenAI launched ChatGPT, unleashing a new craze that captured the tech market conversation. Since the early months of this year, there has been a proliferation of so-called “hacker houses,” or spaces dedicated to creativity and innovation aimed at people with ambitions to create start-ups, and investors have already announced $10.7 million in funds for generative AI. Every night at the hacker houses, someone hosts one or more competing events focused on AI tech. “At every event, the same group of people comes together and enthusiastically shows off their work, in an atmosphere that is more communal than cutthroat,” the photographer says.

“The people I photographed when I started the project are very different from the people I’m photographing today,” Morton says. “The former were so-called millennials and now they’re Gen Z. With the latter, you see more and more of a mix between the spirit of the gold rush and the spirit of the 60s and the ‘Summer of Love.’ Like the hippies, these young people are reinventing themselves, but perhaps in a less conscious way. Either way, it seems like in San Francisco rich people don’t act the same as they do in other places — they go more unnoticed, in their hoodies and jeans. New York is about money; Washington D.C. is about power; L.A. is about fame; and San Francisco is about building or creating. I think people coming to the city now are more attracted by the idea of doing something that lasts, or is important, or has an impact on the world, than by the idea of money alone,” she says. “They pursue their purposes relentlessly and develop successful businesses, but at the same time they do it while living a hippie lifestyle, in communal houses. They party all the time and go to Burning Man. But they give the impression of being much more scrupulous with their products. Some entrepreneurs are interested in AI because they want to help make sure the technology is developed responsibly, and some are in favor of its regulation. Advances are occurring so quickly, and without precedent, and even some of the people working on the technology are worried.” Apparently, Mark Zuckerberg’s famous motto — “move fast and break things” — was failing to find an echo. “Uber broke the cab business model but it didn’t break the world, but AI might, which is something that young people seem to understand and it makes them more thoughtful,” Morton says.

“Photographing this community is not exactly an overly visual endeavor,” she says. “They spend most of their days sitting in front of a computer. You have to wait many hours to get what you’re looking for. Gaining access to their hangouts isn’t easy. It’s still a very closed community. But at the same time, I think it’s a very important moment to document. There are many industry experts who believe that we are witnessing a historic technological change as important as the development of personal computing or the Internet.” From that era, we have the visual histories of Doug Menuez, who photographed Apple’s early years and became Steve Jobs’ personal photographer. “You feel like you’re part of a unique moment, like being there for the first gold rush,” Morton says. “Many of the people who came then didn’t achieve their goals, but in their diaries and correspondences, they wrote that it was the most exciting period of their lives.” San Francisco was, and is, a wild city. From one day to the next — for these young people and for everyone — life can change at a moment’s notice.

Wild West Tech.’ Laura Morton. Maison de la catalanité, Perpignan, France. September 2 to 17.

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