Inside Taiwan’s ‘Sacred Mountain’ of Chip-Making

Lauren Goode: Yeah. This is what Kara Swisher calls, assisted living for millennials. Here—

Virginia Heffernan: Assisted living for millennials.

Lauren Goode: —at the San Francisco tech companies. Yeah.

Virginia Heffernan: It’s perfect. But I did say, I said, “So wait, do they get any perks here?” to one of the people in HR. And they said, “Oh yeah. They get, let’s see, 10 percent discount at 7-Eleven and 10 percent at Burger King.” That’s another one they get, 10 percent at Burger King. I just love 10 percent. 10%!

Lauren Goode: At good old BK. And you drank the 7-Eleven coffee, and it was perfectly, you wrote, perfectly potable.

Virginia Heffernan: It was perfectly potable, and especially when you know that the guy’s gotten it for 10 percent off. I mean, it was a dollar and it was 90 cents, and I tasted every cent.

Michael Calore: Nice.

Virginia Heffernan: So the culture of absolute precision and obsession inside the fabs, and then this aesthetic that I heard called “chabuduo”—it’s good enough, whatever outside the fabs. No one talked about the food. No one said where we should get anything, go to eat. No one swept me off my feet for some farm-to-table thing. It was just mediocre, weird flatbreads from Starbucks or this thing at 7-Eleven. I just got used to it. I mean, my luggage had been lost anyway, so I had to wear these clothes I got in a mall and it was kind of maybe an Old Navy-ish, seconds—the stitches were kind of wrong and I just gave into it. I was like, “Right, save your energy for the heavy thinking and the heavy lifting and trying to understand this engineering and drop off the lifestyle part of things.”

Lauren Goode: Meanwhile, American engineers would say that, that culture is more like a sweatshop.

Virginia Heffernan: That’s it. They have said that. We just opened, you probably know, TSMC opened a subsidiary fab, great fanfare, but Joe Biden was there in Phoenix, Arizona, and it goes into production next year and in Taiwan, again, off the record, I’m just like, “They’ll never handle it. They’re babies.” And as it’s happening, some of the training engineers are already saying, “This is a sweatshop. We can’t do it.” And there’s an element of racism in the description like, “Oh, this work is so monotonous.” Well, it’s monotonous the way that it’s something’s monotone if you don’t have good-enough hearing to hear the variety, the symphony in the notes. And I feel like it’s a failure.

Lauren Goode: What do you mean by that?

Virginia Heffernan: Well, just as we can’t see the electrons and the atoms that are the work of lithography, we can’t hear the rich variety and imaginative possibilities. I know I can’t. I have to have them explained to me in doing atomic constructions. Apparently, it looks just like making an umbrella on a line to American engineers, when to them it’s no greater privilege, no greater privilege. I mean, they were talking about their work, I’ve never heard people talk about their work this way. I mean, maybe like a poet or a painter who somehow makes a living off it. No resentment. These are billionaires. I said, “Where do they live?” And someone was like, “Oh, I don’t know. A condo over there.” No lifestyle. One of the heads of the company works in his church. One guy, another billionaire who developed this particular photolithography, had just fixed his own roof. He’s 80. They play tennis. They wear pretty much the same clothes every day, they are very light—just light, flexible, imaginative, fun, not rushed. I mean, I left and I went there thinking about Elon Musk like we all are. And I just came away thinking, “He’s just not an engineer. It’s not a tech company.” I cannot imagine one of these guys who’s like, “Here’s my day. Be with my wife, check in on my children, go to my church and do some volunteer work. Go and study the face of God under an electron-scanning microscope with someone else is equally interested in it, and knows that I’m doing the right thing. Play a couple of rounds of tennis with a graduate student and go home and fix the roof, and then make a nice meal.” In a fairly modest setting, and then there are people with 10 wives who married Grimes and are on Twitter, and we think—

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