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 corporate-governance 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.
There’s a sense, 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.”