Sil­i­con Val­ley’s mo­ment of reck­on­ing

Fast Company - - Contents -

As the country starts to ex­pe­ri­ence the dan­gers of tech­nol­ogy,

Sil­i­con Val­ley it­self could be ripe for dis­rup­tion.

Sil­i­con Val­ley showrun­ner Alec Berg just wanted to let view­ers in on the joke. When he started writ­ing the satir­i­cal HBO series five years ago, the Val­ley seemed to him like a car­i­ca­ture, rife with over­hyped tech prod­ucts and self-ag­gran­diz­ing cor­po­rate mis­sion state­ments. It was full of “ar­ro­gance” mas­querad­ing as “al­tru­ism,” Berg says—and he and show cre­ator Mike Judge be­gan skew­er­ing the startup in­dus­try for dressing up dumb so­cial me­dia apps as world-chang­ing in­no­va­tions, pro­duc­ing self-driv­ing cars that can’t fol­low di­rec­tions, and li­on­iz­ing ma­chine­like en­gi­neers who build things with­out fear of the con­se­quences. “Those peo­ple scare the shit out of me,” laughs Berg,

who re­mem­bers meet­ing with var­i­ous de­vel­op­ers in the early years of writ­ing the show and be­ing alarmed by how lit­tle con­sid­er­a­tion they gave to the po­ten­tial dan­gers of what they were cod­ing. “It was like, ‘Hey shit­head! You un­der­stand this has mas­sively bad ap­pli­ca­tions, right?’ But they just don’t see it.”

It’s hard to miss these days. So­cial me­dia apps like Face­book, Twit­ter, and Youtube are harm­ing democ­ra­cies; au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles from Tesla and Uber have killed peo­ple; and Ther­a­nos has been charged by the SEC with a mas­sive fraud that put pa­tients at risk due to sham blood-test­ing science. The Sil­i­con Val­ley writ­ers’ Slack chan­nel (yes, they use Slack) started out as a place to brain­storm tech-driven ab­sur­di­ties, like an app that lever­ages AI to iden­tify hot dogs. Now, it’s filled with links to news ar­ti­cles about Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica and Rus­sian elec­tion hack­ing. Mean­while, the Bay Area has failed to ad­dress its lack of di­ver­sity, its hous­ing cri­sis is ex­ac­er­bat­ing in­come in­equal­ity, and ev­ery­one from nepo­tis­tic bro-vestors to prig­gish Val­ley se­ces­sion­ists are fur­ther iso­lat­ing the in­dus­try. Those near­sighted en­gi­neers, in other words, re­main stuck in their bub­ble. Even now, Berg says, “I just don’t think any­body has been shocked into re­al­iz­ing that there are neg­a­tive im­pli­ca­tions to a lot of this stuff. Un­for­tu­nately, I think it will take a metaphor­i­cal Ch­er­nobyl for [them] to go, ‘Oh wait, this can go hor­ri­bly wrong.’ ” As if it hasn’t al­ready.

Peo­ple out­side the tech in­dus­try’s heart­land—val­ley ex­pats, in­ter­na­tional VCS, re­porters, politi­cos on the left and right, con­sumers—of­fer sim­i­lar re­frains: that Sil­i­con Val­ley is too pow­er­ful, too in­su­lar, too flawed. Mean­while, along the 101 Free­way stretch­ing from San Fran­cisco to San Jose, not much has changed. Ven­ture fund­ing for uni­corns hit an all-time high in 2017, tech­nol­ogy stocks are for the most part soar­ing, and although there’s been chat­ter about re­think­ing tech’s core ethos—“growth at all costs”—there’s lit­tle ev­i­dence of that hap­pen­ing any­time soon. Like Rip Van Win­kles of Sil­i­con Val­ley, some in­sid­ers I’ve spo­ken with in re­cent months seemed puz­zled as to why a re­porter would even won­der if this might be a mo­ment of reck­on­ing, from the VCS who told me Travis Kalan­ick’s long-over­due ouster last sum­mer was ac­tu­ally ev­i­dence of the cor­po­rat­e­gov­er­nance process work­ing (never mind how that sys­tem put him in power in the first place) to the slew of ex­ec­u­tives at so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies who seemed in­sulted that any­one would draw a con­nec­tion be­tween their ser­vices and the 2016 elec­tion.

I’ve heard calls for more in­clu­sion ef­forts, less hubris, and less naïveté about the im­pli­ca­tions of their prod­ucts, and some crit­i­cism of weak cor­po­rate gov­er­nance, but not much talk of rev­o­lu­tion­ary trans­for­ma­tion. “Gosh, I’m not sure there’s a lot I’d change,” says Donna Du­bin­sky, the Ap­ple vet­eran and former CEO of mo­bile-de­vice pi­o­neer Palm, when asked what she’d al­ter if she had a magic wand. “It’s been an in­cred­i­ble pow­er­house of in­no­va­tion and change and progress. It’s ex­tra­or­di­nary to look at how many big ideas and world-chang­ing tech­nolo­gies have come out of this Val­ley.”

What does it mean that the Val­ley still mostly sees it­self as an ex­cep­tional home to axis-tilt­ing in­ge­nu­ity while the rest of the country in­creas­ingly views it as a menace? In a way, the tech world is un­der­go­ing some­thing of an in­no­va­tor’s dilemma: It can’t rely on dis­rup­tion to rocket it to the next strata of hu­man progress, yet fun­da­men­tally al­ter­ing that model could dis­man­tle the in­dus­try’s orig­i­nal in­no­va­tion en­gine. If it doesn’t em­brace change, a value long so cen­tral to its DNA, the Val­ley risks get­ting dis­rupted by any num­ber of forces: new tech hubs, gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion, or even con­sumers who are be­gin­ning to think dif­fer­ent.

in some Val­ley cir­cles, that the tech in­dus­try’s orig­i­nal mis­sion has been cor­rupted. Alan Kay, the pi­o­neer­ing com­puter sci­en­tist of Xerox PARC, the re­search cen­ter that helped ig­nite the PC rev­o­lu­tion (and the rise of Ap­ple and Mi­crosoft), feels the Val­ley’s am­bi­tions have changed since the 1960s and ’70s. In a series of lengthy


emails to me, he de­cries how “in­cre­men­tal and en­tre­pre­neur­ial” the Val­ley has be­come, fo­cused less on in­no­va­tion that im­proves and ad­vances hu­man­ity than “what is marketed as con­ve­niences . . . over­sup­ply­ing things that we have de­sires for and al­most no de­fenses against.” Tech­nol­ogy, Kay ar­gues, went from the Job­sian ideal of “bi­cy­cles for our minds” at Ap­ple in the early ’80s “to soft­ware that pretty much counts as le­gal drugs.” He cites Twit­ter and Face­book as ex­am­ples.

But it wasn’t just Hewlett and Packard and Jobs and Woz­niak dreaming up fan­tas­ti­cal fu­tures in Cal­i­for­nia garages. “Less in­formed peo­ple look back and think it was some sort of bliss­ful place where ev­ery­one only wanted to save the world and the money was in­ci­den­tal,” says his­to­rian Les­lie Ber­lin, au­thor of Trou­ble­mak­ers: Sil­i­con Val­ley’s Com­ing of Age. In re­al­ity, she says, “plenty of peo­ple were just in it for the money,” and what banded the Val­ley to­gether wasn’t some “uni­fy­ing ide­ol­ogy or shared sense of mis­sion” but rather its “un­der­ly­ing ecosys­tem and eco­nomic in­fra­struc­ture,” from the tal­ent pool flow­ing from Stan­ford to the dol­lars pour­ing out of Sand Hill Road. At some point, how­ever, the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion started con­fus­ing the Val­ley’s un­bri­dled ide­al­ism—and ex­pen­sive brand mar­ket­ing—for a moral code. (She chal­lenges Kay’s per­spec­tive, say­ing, “Alan was in a very priv­i­leged place, with a priv­i­leged mind, to be in­volved with all those breakthroughs [at PARC]. Most peo­ple around then weren’t.”)

What’s dif­fer­ent now—what Ber­lin calls an “in­flec­tion point” (not, in­deed, a Ch­er­nobyl)—is that the av­er­age per­son is “in­cred­i­bly aware of the im­pact the Val­ley has on our daily lives.” Whereas decades ago, we might not have re­al­ized the an­tilock brakes in our car were run by mi­cro­pro­ces­sors, to­day we are at­tached at the brain to our iphones and An­droid de­vices, which are loaded with apps like Face­book and Uber. We feel on a vis­ceral level the tech in­dus­try’s mo­nop­o­lism, its so­cial bi­ases, its com­plic­ity in ad­dict­ing us to so­cial me­dia and min­ing our data. Will peo­ple still be­lieve in Google’s orig­i­nal “Don’t be evil” slo­gan as they fully come to re­al­ize how the com­pany has mon­e­tized the con­tents of their Gmail and search his­tory?

Though ac­tivist cam­paigns to delete Uber and Face­book have yet to dent these gi­ants’ for­tunes mean­ing­fully, to­mor­row’s con­sumers are grow­ing up steeped in Sil­i­con Val­ley skep­ti­cism: Their loy­alty will be harder to earn and keep. Politi­cians and the press, who once her­alded Val­ley en­trepreneurs, are now call­ing for more in­dus­try ac­count­abil­ity. The real blow, though, may be when en­trepreneurs leave Cal­i­for­nia for com­pet­ing in­no­va­tion hubs in Bei­jing, Paris, and else­where.

Daniel Hut­ten­locher, dean of Cor­nell Tech, is help­ing to de­velop one of them, on New York City’s Roo­sevelt Is­land. Seven years ago, when he was pitch­ing the city on Cor­nell’s plans for a new tech cam­pus, he found that most of his com­peti­tors for the site just wanted to repli­cate Sil­i­con Val­ley and its par­a­digm of dis­rup­tion. No longer. “Now you hear ev­ery­one in New York say­ing, ‘We don’t even want to call our­selves Sil­i­con Al­ley,’ ” he says. “Peo­ple re­al­ize that be­com­ing Sil­i­con Val­ley is a fail—not a suc­cess.” Hut­ten­locher en­vi­sions Cor­nell Tech be­ing part of a startup ecosys­tem that en­cour­ages di­verse en­trepreneurs to fo­cus on is­sues tied to their com­mu­ni­ties and take into ac­count hu­man im­pact. “That whole in­sur­gent men­tal­ity [of Sil­i­con Val­ley] isn’t re­ally serv­ing so­ci­ety any­more—blow­ing stuff up be­cause it’s bet­ter to blow it up,” he says.

In true Val­ley fash­ion, some in­sur­gents see huge op­por­tu­nity. “The golden era of Sil­i­con Val­ley en­tre­pre­neur wor­ship—the reign of the hoodie king—is now over!” says Ca­te­rina Fake, the Web 2.0 se­rial en­tre­pre­neur and co­founder of Flickr and Hunch. Fake re­cently launched a new in­vest­ment firm called Yes VC that’s aimed at right­ing the Val­ley’s wrongs. “With the poor rep­u­ta­tion of the Val­ley right now, there couldn’t be a big­ger op­por­tu­nity to cor­rect mis­takes and rein­vent the fu­ture.”

Still, even Fake, a self-pro­claimed techno utopian, can’t help but re­vert to Sil­i­con Val­ley con­ven­tions. “Ev­ery­thing is just blow­ing up right now,” she con­tin­ues ex­cit­edly. “It’s so great.”


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