Silicon Valley should welcome the scrutiny

The glowing haze won’t cover things up forever

It’s been a tough year for the tech startup capital of the world. One marred by scandals, flame-outs, and pissy, defensive postures by its royal court. I get the sense that a common thought is “what happened?!”. Why all the scrutiny, why now?

Because you’re not a punk upstart anymore, slick. Not that you were last year either, or the years before that. It takes a while for people to catch up when the world changes, but eventually they do, and now they have.

Just look at the lingo. It used to be that you could unironically claim to be disrupting this or that, and people would look at you with puppy eyes asking to hear more. Now if you claim to be on some disruptive mission, you’re far more likely to be met with skepticism and critical inquiry, if not outright eye rolls.

That’s because the disruption story hasn’t had the neat happy ending its main protagonists would like you to believe. Whether it’s the gig economy normalizing, nay, celebrating, working three jobs to make ends met. Or specifically ride sharing outsourcing all capital costs and risk to drivers. Or apartment buildings turned into defacto hotels by short-term rentals. There are real, systemic downsides.

Remember “move fast and break things”? So hoodie, so cool. Until we realized that what was being broken was us. People. Broken as mechanical turks in the gig economy. Hidden beneath a savvy app that rendered the human connection as cold as code.

And if it wasn’t your literal back being broken, then it was your mind. Your attention hacked. Your base instincts exploited. Your dopamine trail trashed by self-confessed dark patterns. All so you could juice an engagement meter. Be that DAU. Deliver those clicks. Supply all those likes. Posit those comments.

We got grounded up as “traction” to pave a road for a few high-riding winners that took it all.

The consequences of these trends weren’t clear to most for a long time. It was just new, and exciting, and oh-my-god-look-at-that-kitty!!! The distraction worked until it didn’t. More and more people are waking up to a world driven by Silicon Valley software companies and thinking: is this really better?

Sure, it’s better in some ways. And those ways have gotten the lion’s share of the press and focus over the past decade. But in all the many, many ways it is not, well, we’re just starting to look at that critically as a society. It’s beyond overdue.

Those critical eyes haven’t had to look very far to find the rot and the malfeasance. Uber is both the most valuable tech startup to come out of San Francisco in this latest rush, and one of the most despicable companies ever to reach such a large scale.

But the ethical rot is of course not restricted to the unicorn of unicorns. It is merely the prize stallion breed from a culture seeped in it. Starting to clean that up requires acknowledging not only that there’s a problem, but the role these dominant software companies now play in the world.

The royal court in and around Silicon Valley is clearly struggling with that part. Here’s the head of the influential startup accelerator Y Combinator justifying bigotry on account of “innovation”:

This is uncomfortable, but it’s possible we have to allow people to say disparaging things about gay people if we want them to be able to say novel things about physics. [1] Of course we can and should say that ideas are mistaken, but we can’t just call the person a heretic. We need to debate the actual idea.

If we want “innovation” from Silicon Valley, and elsewhere, we need to debate people who think gays can be “cured”? Or whether phrenology actually has scientific merit? What the actual fuck.

No. Cuddling bigots out of fear they won’t keep shitting unicorn turds is not what this industry needs. Instead, it needs to accept just how dominant and controlling the major software companies out of Silicon Valley from the last ~decade have become. They now are the man.

With this awesome and fearsome power over the lives of billions of people around the world should come an equal measure of responsibility. Along with decency, empathy, and some gawd damn ethics.

It’s ironic that while some corners of the tech world loves to shit on the humanities, it’s these areas of study that they most dearly need right now. Less focus on how we find the people to build the next engagement trap, a little more on finding people who’ll ask whether we should.

But this lack of self-awareness and self-critique is hardly surprising when you hear them whine about the “distracting and demoralizing dishonest reporters”. As Kara Swisher replied: Cry me a river!

It’s in large part thanks to reporters and journalists that we’re just starting to understand and map the rot of Silicon Valley. From the despicable business practices to the harassers and abusers who’ve been preying in their ranks.

It’s time for Silicon Valley to stop running from the skepticism.

Sure, it could embrace the old Wall Street ethos of proudly flouting a complete disregard for accountability and decency. But the difference is that the new cast of characters don’t just want power and wealth, they want to be loved too.

Here’s a newsflash: The way to our heart doesn’t go through excuses, but through redemption. Fewer former executives looking in the rear-view mirror shuddering at the car crash they caused, more current executives making the conscionable choices to avoid them.

That’s unlikely to happen through some sudden corporate epiphany, but because brave individuals and outlets keep turning up the heat and the scrutiny.