The crumbling of the Californian Ideology: Technology Disruptors’ limited OS
We don’t need rule-breaking tech founders anymore, and yet they don’t seem able or willing to change. Where do we go from here?
‘This new faith has emerged from a bizarre fusion of the cultural bohemianism of San Francisco with the hi-tech industries of Silicon Valley. Promoted in magazines, books, TV programmes, websites, newsgroups and Net conferences, the Californian Ideology promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies. This amalgamation of opposites has been achieved through a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies. In the digital utopia, everybody will be both hip and rich.’ The Californian Ideology, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron (1995)
Twenty-three years have passed since the writing of the paper from which this passage is extracted, yet I can hardly think of a more apt description of the ideology collectively shared by most prominent Silicon Valley technology founders. Discussing its shortcomings hits close to home for me. While I am not one of them, several have nonetheless long been role models of mine, which, admittedly, is part of the broader problem I aim to describe. As we near the end of 2018, it is abundantly clear to anyone who has been following the news lately that the technology industry is in troubled water, and has for a few years now, with no signs of improvement. Technology companies are continuously clashing horns with regulatory bodies and apologising profusely to the public for what they paint as mere ‘mishaps’ that have already been long corrected. Just days before the writing of this article, a trove of internal Facebook emails were unsealed by British MPs, showcasing the predatory attitude of its executives. Yet, the problems plaguing technology companies are far more systemic and entrenched than we are being let on or willing to admit, originating in the very DNA that was passed on to them by their founders. A deep dive in these technology founders’ psychology is long overdue, and I suspect we will collectively find that the former cannot be saved.
Dr Frankenstein’s Little Monsters
Over the last decade or so, technology and startups strangely went from being dismissed as nerdy to being hyped as cool (though tables may be turning). Technology founders are being celebrated as heroes or artists, with Steve Jobs gathering a cult-like devotion. Consequently, the actual circumstances surrounding the birth of Silicon Valley have been largely obscured and replaced by an attractive romanticised narrative. Essentially, Silicon Valley would have begun with a bunch of rebels and renegades, driven creatives, who pulled themselves by their bootstraps and ended up creating new empires. This is an inaccurate or rather incomplete reflection of the reality.
The Bay Area was always technology-driven, even before the rise of the personal computer and later software. It was involved in the development of telegraph and radio in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which made the region a significant military research and technology hub. It also subsequently received significant public investment in the post-war era for the production of semi-conductors crucial to winning the Space Race against the Soviet Union. These prior events set the ground work to establish Silicon Valley as a technology powerhouse, which was later on truly launched by the establishment of strategic partnerships between local universities and private companies in the 1970s. The cooperation of all local actors around the single mission of advancing technology was extremely powerful because it led to the development of a cluster, benefiting from strong network effects, and preventing others to match its strength.
Infrastructures and cooperation are no doubt crucial, but remain only part of the story. After all, technology was, and still currently is, developed by humans, whose ideas, skills, and creativity are crucial. In the 1970s, California was also already an intellectually and culturally fertile land, where opposing ideologies clashed. On the one hand, it was home to a prominent and dynamic counterculture movement, especially in San Francisco Haight-Ashbury district. The hippies were at their zenith, advocating for a social and cultural revolution, as well as opposing the Vietnam War. More than anything they argued for an alternative approach to life and relationships, their ideals echoing a social-anarchist utopia. On the other hand, Ronald Reagan, before he became the fortieth President of the United States, was also the Governor of California at the time. Reagan is of course known for championing individualism and trickle-down economics, appropriately labelled ‘Reaganomics.’ While Reagan played a key role in popularising and putting in practice these economic theories, he was not their father as they were being actively studied and promoted by the Chicago School, and in particular Milton Friedman.
Amidst the conflict that raged on between these two opposing ideologies, culminating in 1969 with the People’s Park protest, was born a sort of a third way. Some of the people wanting change were not viscerally opposed to technology as a way to progressively establish their ecological egalitarian libertarian pipe dream. Prompted by technophile local media, like Wired (which had a sensibly different editorial line at the time), and Sci-Fi pop-culture, these people became convinced that they were embarking on some grand mission to save the world. And sure enough, give highly creative and capable individuals a pseudo-mission, unencumbered by laissez-faire policies with continuous economic growth, and you eventually get modern Silicon Valley some 50 years later, for better or worse.
Childish, Petty, and Naïve Demigods
In a recent interview, Peter Thiel, of all people, warned against the potential pervasiveness of network effects in clusters, which ultimately drove him out of Silicon Valley. While the concentration of world class entrepreneurs, universities, companies and investors in a restricted area has been a driver of technological innovation, it had also led to the formation of a real-life bubble. Technology workers tend to have rather identical opinions and believes, and may often, especially those at the top, lack an appreciation for what consequences the products they make have on society. A recent survey by the New York Times (2017), showed that a majority of technology founders advocate for redistribution and social programs, but are against regulations. They likely share the same naive optimistic and deterministic outlook on the future as their predecessors, probably repeating to themselves in front of the mirror every morning that they are ‘making the world a better place’. All too often, they see government and institutional regulations as largely inefficient and ineffective, slowing down progress.
It is not itself that a group people have strongly held, almost dogmatic, possibly wrong, opinions that is problematic. But rather that they find themselves to be some of the most influential individuals in the world today, as a result of their past and current successes. When we consider forms of influence, most of us would likely think first about money. Money matters. Jeff Bezos’s net worth topped US$134.7 billion as of the writing of this article. Over the years, it has enabled him to buy the Washington Post, donate to political campaigns and causes of his choice, and, through Amazon, invest in lobbying. This has undoubtedly, if perhaps indirectly and difficultly quantifiable, influenced the political sphere. But there are other forms of power to which we tend to pay less attention because they are more elusive and harder to regulate. Products and companies, especially successful ones, inevitably shape the society within which they exist, influencing politics, the economy, culture, and even people’s psychology. Finally, technology founders because of the popularity of their products and their effective PR campaigns have also attracted significant fan bases. Elon Musk’s 23.6 million twitter followers herald him as a modern day Jesus and bully his critics, conferring him formidable power in spreading his ideas.
Here lies the crux of the problem. Silicon Valley founders have proved themselves fundamentally unable to handle their new powers. To put things in a language they will understand, as Spiderman’s Uncle Ben once said, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. In the grand scheme of things, it did not matter what Mark Zuckerberg did with Facebook when it was used only by a couple thousand college students, now that is has over two billion users, it’s pretty much breaking democracy. For a long time, we collectively excused, and even enabled, technology founders’ childish and irresponsible behaviour, disrupting existing norms and breaking rules, because overall it led to a positive outcome, the birth of new technologies. However, because of the scale at which their products are now being used, this is no longer tolerable. They went from being considered underdogs, to main villains, yet fail to ask themselves why, which is precisely the problem.
How to REALLY kinda’ Save the World
So if you have made this far down this article, you may legitimately be asking yourselves ‘so what? Where do we go from here? Is there an alternative?’. And I want to start with a controversial and somewhat hyperbolic argument: Most of these people cannot change, partly because they do not know how but also possibly because they do not want to, or see the need for it. It is important all acknowledge that they have collectively done humanity an enormous service by advancing us in the digital age, which promises to solve many important issues. But at the same time, it is also fair to point out that perhaps we do not need these people anymore. We have passed the ‘installation phase’ of the current digital revolution and are now entering the ‘deployment’ one, as described by Carlota Perez. We no longer need driven risk-taking disruptors but rather level-headed leaders who are able to heed the broader impact of their actions on society. In some ways, this process is already ongoing, because this illicit behaviour and the repeated scandals they inevitably produce are bad for business. Each in their own ways, board members, Investors, and consumers punish founders who fall short of what is expected of them. Uber’s intention to hike its prices during a protest against the ban of refugees and immigrants from certain countries from entering the United States prompted many users to delete the app from their phone. Similarly, Travis Kalanick’s was forced to resign under pressure from the Uber board of shareholders following repeated controversies surrounding his unethical and inappropriate behaviour. This movement will likely continue in the future and gain even more traction, with people paying increasing attention to how the products and services they use are made.
However, it is not enough to wait for disruptors to show themselves unable to rise up to their responsibilities, and later be forced out of the spotlight in disgrace. While companies’ executives are largely responsible for what goes on, they may not always be able to change things, as is Dara Khosrowshahi currently finding out about Uber’s toxic culture. Indeed, even if it was possible for Mark Zuckerberg to get removed from his CEO position, it seems to me that little could be done to fix Facebook’s issues short of breaking its core business model. This brings to my second point, we need to take immediate action in implementing effective oversight and regulatory frameworks over technology companies, even if it means curbing innovation somewhat and incurring a loss of economic value in the near-future. One of most needed reforms is the abolishment of dual class stock structure, which comes with different voting rights on the board. For instance, While Mark Zuckerberg only has about 18% of Class B shares (those who do not come with voting rights), he has about 60% of class As, effectively allowing to run Facebook however he sees fit within the boundaries of the law. More generally, there needs be greater transparency on what goes on inside companies, as well as the provision of their data to government branches and independent watchdogs to better understand how mass consumer products are made and what effects they have on their users and society. Furthermore, additional policies should be enacted depending on specific companies and regions, so to avoid generalisation whitch tend to have unintended consequences, this is particularly relevant for antitrust issues. The new economy requires new mental frameworks and new methods.
Finally, we also need to prepare the next generation of leaders for the digital age, which comes down to education. Current policy makers and legislators have a long way to go to reach technological literacy, partly because of the generational gap that exists, which will eventually resorb itself, but not soon enough. Their successors should dedicate a large portion of their studies to understanding better technology, as it will surely be the cause of many of their long sleepless nights at the office. Simultaneously, future technology leaders and executives need to be given better training on social sciences and humanities. Unlike some pundits, I do not think that all developers need to be reading philosophy, just like not all philosophers need to know how to code. Do not misunderstand, both groups would benefit from studying each other’s discipline, but it is not absolutely necessary for society. On the other hand, the future leaders of companies, and even more so technological ones, need to be better than their predecessors at understanding the effects that their companies, products, and actions have on society. Humanities and Social Sciences should be helping them escaping their bubble, and benefit from the compound knowledge of the smart people who came before them. There are sometimes reasons for rules and norms, not all deserve to be broken.
I am no luddite. If you can believe it, I am technology optimist and wannabe start-up entrepreneur. But for technology to once again be a force for the good, change is needed. It is time to grow up.
This post was written as an assignment for the course History of Technology Revolution at Sciences Po Paris. The course is part of the policy stream Digital & New Technology of the Master in Public Policy and is instructed by Laurène Tran, Besiana Balla and Nicolas Colin.