Silicon Valleyís Problem

Catherine Bracy

December 31, 2012

From cbracy.tumblr.com

I posted something on Twitter the other day that got a bunch of attention, and I realized I wanted to clarify what I meant. Hereís what I wrote:

ďSilicon Valley’s problem in a nutshell: crazed about Instagram’s ToS, not a peep about FISA reauthorization.Ē

I meant to capture something Iíve been thinking about a lot since I moved to the Bay Area in February: the tension between Silicon Valleyís impact on democracy and its utter lack of interest in or understanding of the institutions and systems of government its companies do business in. Silicon Valley isnít on a bubble, itís in a bubble.

But as I tried to make that point in my tweet, I realize I conflated both the Silicon Valley-based tech industry folk and the population of Internet-savvy semi-celebrities who have the ability to—for better or worse—push stories and memes onto everyone elseís agenda. For the purposes of this blog post, Iím going to separate the two groups because my critique is actually different depending on who ďSilicon ValleyĒ refers to.

Letís start with the Bay Area tech community. In addition to living in San Francisco for most of 2012, Iíve gotten to know the tech start-up communities in Chicago and New York, and to a lesser extent Bostonís, and the attitude towards the communities in which Chicago/NYC/Boston companies operate is different from the attitude Bay Area companies have. Maybe because tech is not the dominant industry in those cities like it is in the Bay, but start-ups in those other cities seem much more well integrated into the civic fabric; The founders and employees are living lives that arenít circumscribed by technology in the same way it is in San Francisco. As much as city officials will deny it, San Francisco is very close to becoming a company town; the Valley itself is already far beyond that status. There are a couple consequences of this:

First, Silicon Valley, including San Francisco, becomes a much less interesting place for world-changing ideas. The well-documented lack of diversity in the Valley would be comical if it wasnít so harmful. It feels like, and often is, a bunch of Stanford guys making tools to fix their own problems. Sometimes they stumble into a groundbreaking new app that has a more far-reaching impact (see: Twitter) and sometimes they try and shoehorn a social good mission into their business plan (see: a thousand other companies). Barely any of them start from an entrenched social problem and work backwards from there. Very few of them are really fundamentally improving society. Theyíre making widgets or iterating on things that already exist. Their goal is to make themselves as appealing—or threatening—to a big player as possible so they can get bought out for a few hundred million dollars and then devote the rest of their lives to a) building Burning Man installations, b) investing in other peopleís widgets, or c) both. They really donít care that much about making the world a better place, mostly because they feel like they donít have to live in it.

This isolation has also deluded them into thinking that they are in fact making the world a better place, simply by building their products and platforms. The Silicon Valley rich are famously stingy philanthropists and a defense Iíve heard more than once is that the tools they spend their time building are inherently good. ďWhy donate money when people can just download my app and instantly have a better life?Ē

Second, the lack of forced interaction with different constituencies and the political influence that the tech industry has over local government here means that these companies—and founders—donít need to reckon with the role of government or governance. Couple this with the libertarian streak of the Valley and you come out with an utter disregard for policymaking and regulatory environments. They should know by now that this is dangerous thinking. Put aside the moral obligation I think they have to be good citizens, they donít fully understand the impact government has on their ability to do business and they desperately lack the political and organizing skills necessary to help governments come around.

But even if they were politically savvy, the issues the technology industry would be pushing are a different set of interests than consumers (and by that I mean citizens) are concerned with. Which brings me to the second part of what I meant: those who have outsized power and influence through network technology to make their voices heard often put it to use in the most inane and self-centered ways. There was lots of talk after the Internet beat back SOPA and PIPA about the potential for networked models of citizen participation that actually WORKED. The so-far failed opportunity to realize that potential has been starkly revealed in the last few weeks: the tech-savvy in an uproar over Instagramís terms of service while at the same time sitting idly by as FISA gets reauthorized, and staring helplessly from the sidelines as Congress bungles the fiscal cliff.

What if these two groups—the tech industry and the denizens of the Net—put its economic, political and media clout behind fixing our broken system so it works for everyone? What if, instead of imploring people to vote on Facebookís privacy policies, we were pushing Florida lawmakers into fixing the stateís broken voting system? What if prison reform advocates could speak as loudly as the anti-SOPA activists? Why canít we, the tech community, figure out how to harness our talent and influence to fundamentally change the way our democracy works—not just for us, when it suits our interests, but for everyone?

So thatís what I meant: too much focus from the tech community on issues that only matter to us and not enough on issues that affect everyone and that we have the power to address. Before people complain that Iím being way too broad in my characterizations, Iíd like to make clear that what Iím describing is the overall culture of what Iím calling Silicon Valley and I donít mean it to describe every single person who falls into these categories. Despite my criticism, thereís a reason Iím making my home in the Bay Area and it has a lot to do with a really vibrant and inspiring social innovation sector thatís taking root here.

I also realize Iím not offering any solutions. But I really canít think of a better place than right here to start working on some. More to come soon on what shape that actually takes.