*I’ve been stewing over George Packer’s New Yorker piece on Silicon Valley and its politics since Friday. Like Packer, I grew up in the Bay Area, but whereas he lived in Palo Alto in the 70s (pre-Silicon Valley days), I grew up alongside a burgeoning Silicon Valley in the 90s and early aughts. My mother started her own company that sold computer hardware and microchips out of a small office in Sunnyvale (at one point it was robbed at gunpoint. Believe it or not, there were gangs that specialized in hardware robberies). My father was an engineer at Hewlett-Packard for ten years and worked on the inkjet printers there. Because of the pace that Silicon Valley has developed, their jobs seem antiquated now.
*My parents sent me to a private school in San Jose that capitalized on technology early on. Beginning in the fourth grade, we had to take computer classes. First, we learned rudimentary skills like typing, which we practiced on Skittle-colored iMac G3s. Later we graduated to basic graphic design. In sixth grade we used AlphaSmarts to type up essays in class, beamed them to printers, and turned in our tests, typed and printed. Computers were a compulsory part of our education; in fact, we were required to bring laptops to school everyday in high school. My classmates were hackers and nerds, who helped the less technologically-inclined of us break through school-sanctioned firewalls so that we could chat on AIM and access Facebook. These were the same kids who were rigging up their Nintendos in the hallway so that they could play video games during school hours. In order to graduate, I reluctantly took AP Computer Science, in which the complexities of the Java scripting language made me want to punch the teacher in the stomach (he looked like Luigi but had Mario’s belly). Though I had no concept of “startups,” I even wrote about Tesla and Pandora for my high school newspaper.
*I grew up in the Silicon Valley bubble, among kids whose parents were tech execs—the very first of the crop, like SanDisk and Marvell. These were kids whose families owned private jets and Lamborghinis, and who always had the latest Apple products before they were even released to the public. Now, after four years at school on the east coast, I’m back in Silicon Valley, working at a tech company.
*All that to say—George Packer’s article was an anthropological criticism of where I grew up and the world I am currently inhabiting. I’ve traveled quite extensively, and I lived in Cambridge, MA for four years, but I call Silicon Valley home. At some level, however, I’ve always felt like an outsider. I was the poetry-obsessed, literature-loving girl at a high school filled with math and science geeks; now, I am one of the few people at an engineer-heavy company who holds a non-technical position. Despite feeling like an outsider, I still felt incredibly convicted by his article. The libertarian leanings, the “inward looking places [that] keep tech workers from having even accidental contact with the surrounding community,” the delusion that technology is changing the world even as issues social justice and economic inequality go largely ignored, and the selfish gentrification of once-gritty San Francisco neighborhoods were not only familiar in sound—they concretely comprise my reality.
*There are so many strands here, but I’ll begin with politics. Steven Johnson addressed Packer’s observation about Silicon Valley’s libertarian leanings with an argument based in partisanship and equity distribution, to which Packer countered, “the Valley’s libertarianism is [...] not at all doctrinaire, or party-dependent [...]; it’s an instinctive aversion to government intruding on the work being done in its labs and startups [...] It’s about a particular brand of utopianism that sees solutions for social and political problems in the industry’s products and attitudes.” I think these statements, though broad generalizations, are correct. That they are difficult to substantiate with statistics and concrete figures is besides the point. What Packer (and so many New Yorker writers) does successfully here is capture the ethos of an industry—of this tech world.
*It’s not that every single person is politically unaware or libertarian or passive; it’s that there is an underlying (or overarching) attitude about what tech can do for the world, and how these models of efficiency and efficacy are prized solutions to humanity’s problems ... if only our systems and institutions could adopt these models. The idea that everyone can benefit from technology is naive and delusional, especially because most of the people who do benefit from the newest technology are the ones creating it, the ones who already have both a lifestyle and infrastructure in place that can support technological enhancements. The trickle-down effect of technology is slow-going, and I am inspired by the companies that are using technology for healthcare, or medical advice, or charitable giving, like Hamish McKenzie mentions in his rebuttal to Packer, but if we look at the overwhelming focus of the tech industry—in other words, where money is being invested--it’s largely self-serving and self-gratifying.
*To support this point, I looked at the top 10 deals that VCs invested across all sectors in 2012 (a grand total of $5.86 billion). They were Genband ($343.5 million), Air Watch ($200 million), Pinterest ($200 million), LivingSocial ($110 million), NestLabs ($80 million), AppNexus ($75 million), Intrexon ($64.4 million), Domo ($60 million), PTC Therapeutics ($60 million), and SevOne ($60 million). Of these ten, only two make obvious positive contributions to our society (others you could possibly argue in a convoluted way). Half of these are software companies that serve business interests: GenBand provides “smart networking solutions for service providers and enterprises,” AirWatch provides Mobile Device, Application, and Content Management solutions; SevOne provides IT management and reporting platforms; AppNexus is an advertising technology platform; and Domo is a business intelligence dashboard for the cloud. Pinterest (which I use) indulges women who have the time and luxury of collecting online images. Nest is a $250 luxury object--a sleek thermostat which gives owners more control over their home thermostats, and LivingSocial is a daily deals website. Besides the energy-saving potential of Nest, it’s difficult to argue that any of these companies—the ones that VCs are investing the most money in—are doing even slight good—tangibly, concretely—for \ our society. It was relieving to find that two of these companies, at least—PTC Therapeutics and Intrexon—are biotech companies working in RNA and DNA biology to make some contribution to healthcare and cell therapy.
*But what was very clear to me in this survey of the top ten deals are the tech industry’s values (and these are the very keywords splashed on many of these companies’ homepages): efficiency, elegance, profitability, and scalability. I’ll add entertainment to that list, seeing how 42% of VC deals in mobile in Q1 of 2013 was in gaming. Aren’t these values all ultimately narcissistic and egotistical? George Packer’s criticism of the tech industry isn’t that it is morally obligated to improve society; he points out the subversive hypocrisy that results from the discrepancy between the claims the tech industry makes (about how it is changing the world for the better) and what it actually values. The mandate that I’ve taken from this is that the tech industry needs to look outside of its bubble and into the community that has fostered its existence instead of deluding itself into thinking that it can make positive changes without real engagement. And here’s the thing about issues like social justice, homelessness, and poverty: there are no elegant and efficient solutions.
*(I will concede though, that it’s possible for a tech company to have extremely positive and suprising benefits on society without those benefits being intended from the outset. Take Twitter, for example, and how life-saving (literally) it’s been in the wake of natural disasters, current events, and rapid-fire journalism.)
*For someone like me, who is a part of the tech industry but lacks buying power, authority, or much voice, what all of this comes down to is where my energy is invested on a day-to-day basis: the places, people, and communities I am a part of, what I give my thought and our attention to, the services that I buy into, and the causes I support. I am very guilty of selectively supporting local establishments (e.g. (read: Bi-Rite, Tartine, the bourgeois establishments of Valencia Street) and “sharing” economies (e.g. Lyft, Sidecar, Taskrabbit—which aren’t truly sharing economies, as they really only benefit the wealthy in a way that might be to the detriment of the poor) while shirking, or at least shying away from, civic responsibility. It’s not that I don’t care about the community around me; it’s that I am selective about both the community and social issues I actually invest my money, time and energy in, and that largely excludes many of the issues that Packer mentions.
*I’m don't blame my childhood in Silicon Valley for my attitude towards politics, but my own political beliefs, up until recently, are either a confirmation or a symptom of the problem that Packer describes. I’ve spent most of my life with an indifference to politics, claiming that the system is too corrupt a bureacracy, too helpless and imperfect to afford my participation—or my care. I haven’t taken the time to learn about governance, and I didn’t vote in the last election. Yet my recognition of institutional flaws, without any action on my part, is merely denigration and resignation. The man who has changed my own view on politics, as of late, has been (another New Yorker writer) Hendrick Hertzberg. In the introduction to his compendium of essays Politics, he writes about Dwight MacDonald, saying that in MacDonald’s conception of politics, like his own, “what counted were the ideas, the ethics, the values—even the aesthetics. He seldom lingered over such trivialities as Democrats, Republicans, and elections.” The way Hertzberg writes about politics is humanizing, and I no longer see myself as apart from the system but as a part of it. This means that my daily choices, no matter how small, become larger life principles over time. These principles reflect my own values as a person, and my values are shaping the ethos of this community.
*I don’t have any answers for the problems that George Packer points out, but I do think that this discussion about the state of the tech industry—what it values, where it places its money, and how it is or can be (more) involved in our political system—is an important one. After all, with the amount of buying power it has, it has the potential and the intellect to be a game-changer. Instead of going about our daily lives mindlessly devoted to our algorithms, luxury objects, and iPhone apps, maybe we can begin taking action, even if just small ones, to better understand what San Francisco needs and how we can, with our time, energy, and money, address those needs as our own.