Jan 21 2020

Cynicism in Silicon Valley

As I was reading The Atlantic article Silicon Valley Abandons the Culture That Made It the Envy of the World I kept flashing to the end of Anna Wiener’s awesome memoir Uncanny Valley. And it was no surprise to see this article in the Boulder Daily Camera titled Big tech in hot seat at congressional hearing at CU Boulder.

Readers of this blog and my book Startup Communities know that I’m a huge fan of AnnaLee Saxenian. She has a great quote in The Atlantic article.

This is a full reversal of the language that tech promoters used to sell Silicon Valley–style innovation and competitiveness for decades. Saxenian has noticed the change in how the Valley describes itself, or at least in how the dominant firms do. “Advocacy of the small, innovative firm and entrepreneurial ecosystem is giving way to more and more justifications for bigness (scale economics, competitive advantage, etc.),” Saxenian wrote to me in an email. “The big is beautiful line is coming especially from the large companies (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple) that are threatened by antitrust and need to justify their scale.”

Margaret O’Mara, who wrote The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America, also has a good reminder.

“The story the Valley told about itself has been very much a small-is-beautiful story since the 1970s,” O’Mara told me. “It has a politics—this Vietnam-era rejection of the military-industrial complex, rejection of the mainframe, Big Business, Big Government, big universities.” This led people to take risks and launch new projects and firms. Entrepreneurs from all over the world migrated to a place where people understood why they wanted to start companies. And the idea even embedded itself right near the heart of the Valley, at Google. The company’s slogan, “Don’t be evil”, had a particular meaning when it was adopted around the millennium. In the classic Valley mind-set, “evil is bigness of all kinds,” O’Mara said.

The techlash is in full bloom and Silicon Valley is in the center of it. Ironically, of the three public companies that have > $1 trillion market caps, one of them (Microsoft) is headquartered in Seattle, which is definitely not part of Silicon Valley. Oh, and Amazon … Nonetheless, it’s part of the pending mess that is going to hit all of society very hard in the next few years, as the collision between the various factors—and factions—around innovation are going to be profound.

I expect historians will look back on this time with curiosity. They will wonder why there is such a huge disconnect between what is said. what is wanted, and what is done. Here are a few recent artifacts to ponder.

And, in case you thought the government was the solution, here are a few more to read.

Every time someone tells me they are going to “change the world” or “put a dent in the universe”, I think to myself, “For better, or for worse?”