Socrates in Silicon Valley
If Socrates’ gadfly was in Silicon Valley, it would have a lot of lazy horses to sting. The citizens of the techno-polis appear oblivious to how the outside world’s perception of them has changed, and radically so. Once universally revered as a hotbed of innovation, the world’s premier technology hub is increasingly viewed with suspicion and resentment.
Yes, Silicon Valley is still admired as a source of invention and creative destruction; but it is also widely viewed as having lost its ethical compass. With proliferating reports of lax attitudes toward data privacy, wanton disregard for the dignity of the less fortunate, and a growing sense that technology companies are pushing their preferred policy agenda on the rest of the world, discontent and disillusion are rising.
Viewed from outside, the world sees companies that exude a sense of entitlement – for example, by flouting local regulations as they expand into cities around the world, from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro. Supremely confident in the power of their knowledge and skills, they are convinced that they will guide the world onto the Path of Truth. This overweening certitude is not new – the United States, after all, was founded on missionary zeal – but the ethical arrogance is.
Of course, not all technology companies should be tarred with the same brush as the main offenders. But the recent spate of high-profile cases harms the reputation of the sector as a whole. As the world looks to Silicon Valley and sees an echo chamber of self-righteous conceit, mature and lawabiding technology companies are assumed to be inside it, too.
The cases are becoming legion. Uber, the data-abusing car-sharing app that spikes prices during peak demand and threatens journalists who write negatively about it, has been banned in Spain, the Netherlands, Thailand, and two Indian cities so far, including New Delhi (after a driver allegedly raped a passenger). These reports follow the revelation that pictures shared on Snapchat may not be deleted, as promised. In August, Brazilian authorities banned the social-networking app Secret after the company failed to respond to cyberbullying concerns, with Israel considering a similar move. The list goes on.
Silicon Valley is risking a backlash that will not do anyone any good. Its leaders are increasingly out of step with the public’s expectation of ethical and conscientious behaviour. If they fail to generate new ideas and devise novel approaches, their problems will only multiply further.
One thing that would help is fresh blood. Much of Silicon Valley’s success stems from its tight networks – people who have been successful and support one another. But history shows that the same structures can also choke off innovation. Organisations, like species, become inbred and weak, and eventually perish, when they fail to embrace diversity.
Indeed, one of the most revealing facts to come to light about Silicon Valley in recent months is the extreme ethnic and gender imbalance at large technology companies, including Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter. No one is shocked, but clearly something needs to change. Somehow a place that prides itself on innovation and doing things differently should be doing this differently as well.
Above all, there is value in questioning and challenging the status quo. Independence in thought and deed is vital for any company to function and to build things that last and contribute to economic growth and prosperity. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates advocates for the examined life – the habit of rigorous self-reflection and posing hard, heterodox, and possibly upsetting questions. The tech sector needs to embrace that credo.
Ironically, questioning prevailing wisdom – and thereby inventing radically new solutions – has been Silicon Valley’s modus operandi from the outset. But it has followed this approach on a macro level and for problems elsewhere in the economy, without examining itself.
Silicon Valley’s citizens must start applying their skill at innovation – and their pride in “breaking things” – to themselves. The only way to evolve is by adapting to new environmental pressures, and now Silicon Valley – owing in large part to its own behaviour – is facing plenty of them. Unless it changes, it will be overtaken.
The good news is that if any place has proved that it can innovate, it is Silicon Valley. Now, however, its citizens must recognise that they do not have all the answers; unfortunately, so far at least, there seems to be no awareness among them that there is even a problem. Like the “skilled craftsmen” described by Socrates, “on the strength of their technical proficiency, they claimed a perfect understanding of every other subject, however important.”
As Plato’s teacher knew – and as every fresh report of the tech sector’s abusive behaviour should remind us – a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.