For years, the ascent of tech has broadly been viewed as positive, heralding an era of increased productivity and greater communication. But recently, the litany of corporate missteps and a general sense of power accreting to a few extraordinarily rich and powerful companies and the men–yes, largely men–who lead them has triggered a wave of criticisms of the once-Teflon culture of the Valley.
With this in mind, a few weeks ago I suggested to my editors at WIRED I write a piece about the notable change in public attitudes towards Silicon Valley over the past year, from largely laudatory to increasingly damning. I thought to write an essay that cautioned against having the pendulum swing too far from adulation toward condemnation, that cautioned against lumping Silicon Valley in with Washington and Wall Street as exemplars not of American exceptionalism but of venality. In this piece, I would argue that we have spiraled too far into a maelstrom of cynicism about Washington and Wall Street over the past few decades, and we do ourselves no favors tearing down Silicon Valley and an industry that appeared to be the last bastion of positive change.
And then a story broke about a noted Washington think tank, New America. The foundation, which has received millions of dollars in funding from Google over the years, decided to part ways with a noted thought-leader, Barry Lynn, who has long been warning of the monopolistic dangers in tech behemoths like Google amassing too much innovation, too much capital, and too much of the web. Lynn’s ouster was widely, though in my view, not correctly, characterized as “Google Pushes Out Critics at Google-Funded Think Tank.”
It happens that I am on the board of New America and have been for many years. So while I had planned to write a story about the dangers of an American culture quick to tear down heroes and seek villains, an ultimately self-defeating vortex, this New America episode makes the conundrum here even more sharp and painful for me, but more important, for all of us.
What happened between New America, Google and the Open Markets Program that Lynn led certainly does touch on thorny issues of money, power, and control both. In many ways, accurate or not, it also feeds the new narrative Silicon Valley is no longer the golden child or the cultural exception. Google has gone from a company known for “do no evil” to one that is charged with being evil, its leaders, and those of other Valley behemoths, treated as latter-day Robber Barons and monopolists in need of trust-busting and regulation and push back. Headlines such as “Echoes of Wall Street in Silicon Valley’s grip on money and power” and “Too Much Power Lies in Tech Companies’ Hands” proliferate. Hence the recent change in tone.
And scrutiny of the Valley and its issues is long overdue. People should push against the arrogance that “our way is the right way and the only way” and the intolerance of ideas that don’t accord with the Valley’s groupthink. People should be alarmed that incredible wealth is concentrated in a few hands. They should question the industry’s sexism. They should pay attention to the industry’s ideas on social issues ranging from privacy to regulation and the government’s role.
The challenge is how to balance legitimate criticisms without descending into demonization. This is not a challenge unique to Silicon Valley. The same argument could be made about government and the financial world. Washington may be corrupt and dysfunctional, but relentlessly tearing it down makes it that much harder for us to allow government to do what most of us expect and need it to; Wall Street may have been infected with greed, but we need a stable and innovative financial system to facilitate a vibrant economic system.
We humans tend to fail at balance. We either adore or revile; trust or suspect. Holding two or more contradictory truths is often beyond our collective capacities. So it is a tall order to ask (demand?) that we view the current status quo in Silicon Valley as both in deep need of reform and in deep need of respect. Technology has helped solve some of the elemental problems of humanity, from food supply to disease eradication to connectivity and reducing the cost of many of life’s essentials. Technology is at the epicenter of whether we will successfully manage and mitigate climate change, how living standards globally and domestically will continue to improve, and whether we become an ever-more connected collective or an increasingly divided one. Silicon Valley is hardly the only center of technological innovation, any more than downtown New York or the D.C Beltway are the only centers of government and finance. But they set the tone, and how we understand them matters.
Pessimism and cynicism corrode our ability to harness our energies to reform and build. No one other than a greedy few invests in a company, raises capital, strives to create a new service or product, or works hard if they are convinced that the system is rigged, the future is grim, and the country is screwed. And until a heartbeat ago, Silicon Valley remained one of the few engines that most people actually believed was shaping a better future. That in turn formed a virtuous circle of money, customers and innovation, with products and services that hundreds of millions of people celebrated.
What we don’t want is to copy the unceasing demonization of Washington. We now have a federal government so torn and divided, led by a populist fueled almost entirely by anger and id, that it is nearly impossible to see much positive coming from a sector of our societies that employs several million people and sees trillions of dollars flowing through it.
A lesson, then, for the Valley today is to demand greater accountability and transparency, and to relax control and concentration of wealth and power. Idols are easy to tear down, but every society that has done so is then left in the position of now what? We have already unleashed the wrecking ball on Washington and Wall Street, with less than optimal results. Let’s not go down the same path with the Valley.