Silicon Valley’s reputation is taking its worst battering ever. And it’s probably not just a temporary dip in esteem. I believe that like the media, the legal industry, the financial industry, and the government, the business of technology will remain generally unpopular with the public.
It’s tempting to blame tech leaders behaving badly. But that’s not the only factor. Globalization and the culture wars are facts of modern life. Resentment from the 99% will continue to grow as the gap between the minority rich and the rest of the population widens. Technology is growing increasingly complicated and powerful–and people aren’t happy about it.
It wasn’t always like this.
From 1976 (when Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak single-handedly designed and built the first Apple computer) until 2015 (when Wozniak signed an open letter warning of the risks of AI weapons) most people viewed technology with optimism and Silicon Valley as an unparalleled engine of innovation. But then something happened.
In the past two years, and especially the last six months, media coverage of technology, the industry that produces it and the people who control it has skewed negative.
A February report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found that media coverage of technology in the 1980s and early 1990s was “largely favorable.” That tone, however, “gradually shifted over the years,” becoming more negative.
The report suggests a slow and gradual decline in positive tech press from 1990 to 2010, then a sharper drop starting before 2013. It attributes the trend to the rise of tech-focused watchdog organizations and also financial pressure on media, which they say is incentivized by a need to get readers, clicks, and ad dollars.
While the report is valid, it downplays factors beyond the media.
Technology: Friend or Foe?
Years ago, technology was seen as fun, exciting, and aspirational. Nowadays, new technologies can inspire anxiety. Even technologists like Wozniak, as well as AI weapons co-signatories Tesla CEO Elon Musk and physicist Stephen Hawking, warn of the risks of AI in general, and AI weapons in particular. The fear is that smarter-than-human computers will have their own values, not ours, and may see humans as a threat. More practically, some people fear that AI and robots will steal jobs.
AI is a source of fear and confusion, according to a survey of 6,000 consumers in the U.S. and five other countries conducted by CRM software maker Pegasystems. Pegasystems CTO Don Schuerman told me that because of the media and Hollywood, consumers tend to “conflate AI with the edge cases,” like the AI in self-driving cars and surgical robots, and not with helpful, harmless current AI that people encounter unknowingly every day.
Also: “AI is a stand-in for a lot of other more specific concerns,” Schuerman says. The technology represents anxiety about the future generally.
Fear and confusion also attend new business models based on personal data. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon want to learn and record where we are, what we’re doing, who we’re interacting with, and what we’re buying–and they’re harvesting this data every way they can.
Even smartphones can be viewed as a threat. One technology fan on Google+ complained to me about the price and data-harvesting optimization of smartphones by saying: “We’re spending $1,000 to carry a device designed to harvest data about us for other people to profit from. That’s getting a bit old.”
San Diego State University psychology professor Jean M. Twenge recently published a book called iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us. Twenge says in the book that smartphones are making young people anxious, depressed, and lonely.
New technologies increasingly inspire fear, dread, and a loss of control, rather than excitement and optimism. The home automation segment of the growing internet-of-things trend takes familiar, analog devices like thermostats, toasters, and light bulbs and turns them into finicky gadgets consumers neither understand nor easily control–and which, consumers are told, represent a security and privacy threat as well.
Fictional entertainment fuels the anti-tech fire by grappling with the effects of real-world technologies. TV shows like Silicon Valley, Orphan Black, and Black Mirror are convincing viewers that Silicon Valley companies are riddled with bumbling incompetence and that technology progress leads to a dystopian future.
Silicon Valley: America’s Animal House
In the past two years, books and news reports have increasingly shown the culture of some technology companies in an increasingly bad light. In the 2016 book Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons, which the Los Angeles Times called the “best book about Silicon Valley today,” lambastes the tech industry’s “bro culture.”
Lyons bases much of his book on his personal experiences working at Boston-based HubSpot. (He’s also known for his pseudonymous The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs blog launched in 2006 and working as a writer on the HBO series Silicon Valley.) He describes HubSpot as a typical tech startup–an unprofitable venture running on squandered VC cash that offers its mostly young employees a frat house-like work environment with free beer and candy but unsound management. He told me that while his book resonated with mostly rank-and-file workers in the tech industry, “there is a core group in Silicon Valley who are immune to criticism. . . . I think they lack self-awareness. They either don’t know how the rest of the world sees them, or they don’t care.”
Super-startup Uber is a kind of poster child for Silicon Valley “Bro Co.” excesses. It’s been accused of lying, cheating, stealing, and mismanagement–the whole “Greyball” scandal, the Waymo lawsuit, the rate at which Uber is burning through cash. Oh, and the allegations of sexism.
Uber is just one of many tech companies accused of sexism. The Information and the New York Times published articles in June about a pattern of sexual harassment of women entrepreneurs by male venture capitalists. Prominent 500 Startups investor Dave McClure even admitted his wrongdoing in a Medium post. “I’m a Creep,” he admitted. Two women entrepreneurs even invented a fictional male cofounder they named “Keith Mann” so they would be taken seriously by developers and other partners.
The James Damore memo scandal cut Google both ways. In his now-infamous “memeo,” Damore claimed that biological differences make women less interested in technology careers and that Google’s culture is a leftist “echo chamber” of political correctness that doesn’t tolerate ideological diversity. To many, the incident confirms the dominance of Silicon Valley’s sexist bro culture. To others, it confirms Damore’s echo chamber claim.
These individual stories are changing public perceptions about what Silicon Valley culture is all about. The image of scrappy, visionary nerds inventing the future in a garage is morphing in the public eye to a culture of entitled frat boys behaving badly.
Haves And Have-Nots
It doesn’t help that Silicon Valley has a growing reputation for greed, in part because a few billionaires make the news with lavish lifestyles, conspicuous spending, money-fueled power grabs, or apparent contempt for ordinary people. Tech-company enrichment is increasingly viewed by some as coming at the expense of everybody else. The Valley’s favorite word–“disruption”–rings hollow to those whose livelihoods are “disrupted.”
For example, technology companies are working to invent self-driving delivery trucks. A tiny number of technologists may become billionaires for this innovation, which could eliminate millions of jobs. Similarly, knowledge of Amazon Go, the automated convenience store, and Zume Pizza’s pizza-making robots may not sit well with the public, given that retail sales and food-service workers are the most common occupations in America.
Technology companies are also increasingly associated with the dark side of globalization. Hardware companies are blamed for exploiting cheap factory labor in one country, selling their products at inflated prices in another, and all the while evading taxes by exploiting loopholes in whichever countries offer them. Apple, for instance, is accused of dodging $60 billion in U.S. taxes by keeping its more than $260 billion cash hoard overseas.
In short, Silicon Valley seems to have too much money, which is often squandered, abused, or used for unfair advantage. And that causes public resentment.
Sucked Into The Culture Wars
As much as Silicon Valley would like to remain neutral in the divisive and rancorous political and cultural arguments taking place generally, it’s probably impossible. As social sites increasingly become the “public square” for conversations about politics and other topics, as well as taking over the advertising industry, Silicon Valley companies are drawn into the fracas, accused of bias and slammed for either doing too much or not enough to monitor and control who can say what to whom.
After Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville while protesting a group defending white supremacy, Google, Facebook, PayPal, Airbnb, Instagram, Twitter, and even Spotify (apparently neo-Nazi bands exist) banished hate groups from using their services for violating terms of service. A neo-Nazi website called the Daily Stormer lost its domain registration first with GoDaddy, then Google.
While many applauded the bans, others slammed tech companies for hosting hate groups in the first place, then doing the right thing only in the wake of public scandal. Some critics focused on the tremendous power tech companies have to control or suppress legal and Constitutionally protected speech.
Steve Jones, communication professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told me that tech companies struggle over the governing of speech because there are no clear-cut answers. Their leaders don’t really want to get involved in questions of free speech. So they “hope for a blow-over option . . . inaction of sufficient length that a problem blows over.” But as Jones points out, companies tend to be risk-averse, and so will take action if public pressure becomes too intense.
In the wake of a presidential election in which social media bots and fake news played a role in shaping public opinion, some are critical of algorithmically sorted social networks and their role in spreading fake news, and also in creating insular “filter bubbles” where users are shown only content that agrees with their existing worldview. As with Google, Facebook is caught in a no-win position, slammed both for allowing extreme-right fake news and for programming in a leftist bias.
The culture conundrum extends to advertising: Facebook enabled ads targeted at “Jew haters,” “9/11 Truthers,” and other objectionable demographics, according to an investigative report by ProPublica. The reality is that automation is to blame: Facebook, as well as Google, Twitter, and others, allows any customer to target just about any demographic by simply filling out a form and paying for the ads. (Facebook has now prevented these objectionable categories for advertising.)
Why Silicon Valley’s Bad Rap Is Here To Stay
The dynamics that have damaged the Valley’s once-pristine reputation this year are going to continue. As Lyons told me, “the ageist, sexist, bro culture is working, and working very well” for those at the top. But the larger share of the blame belongs simply to the inherent power of technology and the internet.
Technology products, services, and sites are now where we get our news, debate topics of the day, and encounter what seems like an increasingly scary world. And people do tend to shoot the messenger. While the benefits of AI, algorithmic content filtering, and consumer electronics are easily taken for granted, technopanic will be driven by fear-mongering reports, fiction, and grandstanding politicians looking for someone else to blame.
The truth is that Silicon Valley is a shiny engine of innovation–and a bit of a frat house. Technology can both save and threaten the world; above all, it’s having an ever-growing impact on everyone’s lives. To use an old Facebook phrase, the public’s relationship status has officially and permanently changed from “friends” to “it’s complicated.”