Sil­i­con Val­ley no longer the promised land

The Irish Times - Business - - BUSINESS - Kar­lin Lilling­ton

Pub­lic at­ti­tudes are chang­ing to­wards Sil­i­con Val­ley’s com­pa­nies in ways I have never seen be­fore. In late Novem­ber, when I was in Palo Alto for Thanks­giv­ing with fam­ily, it felt like an old ro­mance be­tween the in­dus­try and the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion was de­clin­ing into not just ir­ri­ta­tion but re­jec­tion. And that’s mir­rored at a na­tional as well as in­ter­na­tional scale.

I grew up in the Val­ley re­gion when places such as Palo Alto and Menlo Park were hardly house­hold names. Never would I have imag­ined that, decades later, Stan­ford would be in­ter­na­tion­ally known as the prim­ing en­gine be­hind so many tech com­pa­nies, and Palo Alto as the city where so many of them longed to be based.

For many years Palo Al­toans rel­ished be­ing tech’s ground zero. But now the pres­ence of so many com­pa­nies in the city has con­trib­uted to a slow-burn­ing anger. Streets that were once full of busy shops – where I ac­com­pa­nied my mother as she pur­chased gro­ceries or my new school shoes – are in­creas­ingly con­verted to of­fices for tech com­pa­nies.

Re­cently I re­alised the old build­ing where my brother and I went for child­hood mu­sic lessons is now gone, re­placed with . . . an Ap­ple Store. A per­fect metaphor for ev­ery­thing.

Driv­ing down High­way 101 in the Val­ley re­gion, I used to love the many tech bill­boards tout­ing prod­ucts and ser­vices to en­gi­neers and com­puter sci­en­tists. So ex­cit­ing, these hall­marks for a dawn­ing dig­i­tal age that prop­erly val­ued the code­mak­ers and elec­tri­cal tin­ker­ers. Now the tech­ni­cal lan­guage seems ex­clud­ing, sym­bolic of the dis­con­nect be­tween those who plan and build what the rest of us don’t un­der­stand, tech­nolo­gies that too of­ten ex­ploit rather than serve.

Our col­lec­tive use of the in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia, and our re­al­i­sa­tion over time that com­pa­nies haven’t found any way of fund­ing their var­i­ous ser­vices ex­cept by ac­cess­ing, and/or giv­ing oth­ers ac­cess to, our data, is chang­ing the pub­lic view of the Val­ley. Af­ter Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica, Ed­ward Snow­den’s rev­e­la­tions, elec­tion and ref­er­en­dum med­dling, troll bots and murky sources of elec­tion ad­ver­tis­ing and pro­pa­ganda on fake-news sites, af­ter leaks and hacks and dis­cov­er­ing our data is si­phoned over to barely vet­ted third-party “part­ners”, we are be­gin­ning to get the pic­ture. And we don’t like what we’re see­ing.

Wary

But, make no mis­take, the code­mak­ers are dis­il­lu­sioned, too. While I was in Cal­i­for­nia, the New York Times pub­lished an ex­traor­di­nary story in­di­cat­ing that many of to­mor­row’s top com­puter sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers weren’t in­ter­ested in work­ing for the very tech com­pa­nies con­sid­ered – un­til now – the Val­ley’s most de­sir­able em­ploy­ers.

Grad­u­ates are wary of com­pa­nies such as Face­book and Twit­ter, say the stu­dents them­selves, but also the Val­ley re­cruit­ing com­pa­nies that aim to fill po­si­tions at such well-pay­ing, ben­e­fits-rich com­pa­nies.

“Em­ploy­ees are wis­ing up to the fact that you can have a mis­sion state­ment on your web­site, but when you’re look­ing at how the com­pany cre­ates new prod­ucts or makes de­ci­sions, the cor­re­la­tion be­tween the two is not so tightly aligned,” one re­cruiter said. That’s some shift.

Pri­vacy is clearly at the heart of such dis­cus­sions – how and why data is gath­ered, how and why it is then used. And as has be­come in­creas­ingly ob­vi­ous af­ter the im­ple­men­ta­tion of GDPR in the EU, which has prompted many dis­clo­sures on data use, the US – home to the vast ma­jor­ity of com­pa­nies un­der scru­tiny for ques­tion­able use of data – takes a very dif­fer­ent, less pro­tec­tive ap­proach to pri­vacy.

Ac­cord­ing to his­tory pro­fes­sor Mar­garet O’Mara of Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity, the US ap­proach dates from the 1960s, when Congress opted to pri­ori­tise the flow of in­for­ma­tion and data trans­parency over data pri­vacy, for­get­ting that such an ap­proach al­lowed pri­vate com­pa­nies to se­cre­tively gather and ex­ploit data.

As she ar­gues, a new data pri­vacy con­ver­sa­tion needs to be had in the US, and new data pro­tec­tion leg­is­la­tion passed. This is true for the EU, too. GDPR is in­deed ground-break­ing leg­is­la­tion, but isn’t the end of the pri­vacy story and has wor­ry­ing gaps, such as ef­fec­tive pro­tec­tion for sen­si­tive DNA data.

Without laws and reg­u­la­tion, pri­vate com­pa­nies will con­tinue to take what they can get of our per­sonal data to drive their rev­enue streams. That’s not only go­ing to cre­ate fur­ther prob­lems and ever-greater alien­ation be­tween the tech in­dus­try, its em­ploy­ees and the gen­eral pub­lic, but – as we now know – that data grab and lack of ac­count­abil­ity threat­ens pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions and even the sur­vival of democ­racy.

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