Socrates in Sil­i­con Val­ley

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE - By Lucy P. Mar­cus

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.

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