Let’s just stipulate that 2016 was a lousy year. We lost the Greatest, Prince and a Princess (Leia), and saw the election of a clown who thinks he’s a king. Worse yet, the President-elect likes to communicate simple and wrong answers to complex questions in 140 characters. 2017 will be somewhat better if it sees the end of Silicon Valley tweeting its own 3 character simple and wrong answer to complex questions. UBI: It’s the wrong answer to the wrong question.
There is real angst in the United States about inequality and in particular with opportunity creation and the likelihood of moving ahead. Moreover, there is a legitimate debate about the future of work and what happens to employment with advances in technology (will software and robots eat our jobs?). Unfortunately, Silicon Valley’s obsession with the latest shiny object, Universal Basic Income, is making that problem worse. Like Donald Trump’s wall, it is absurdly expensive, won’t work and is a disingenuous distraction from the real problems. It’s time for Silicon Valley to stop the techno-libertarian navel gazing and turn their considerable talent and resource to the core issues.
We often talk about the ways that Silicon Valley is selfless. How we improve lives with world changing technology. How we spend our time helping other, younger entrepreneurs. But we rarely spend time talking about the ways that Silicon Valley is selfish.
I must admit that most of my last decade building and investing in tech companies has been spent trying to figure out how to make my businesses work for me. How do you get users to click on more things? How do you get them to spend more time or more money? How do we raise more money, increase our value, sell our company, enrich ourselves? Silicon Valley is the Wall Street of the 80s: Greed is good. For us, the market has been the ultimate arbitrator of value: if you make a product lots of people use and give you money for, you’ve definitionally done something that has made a positive impact in the world. Because here it has been possible to make an incredible fortune so quickly, clearly Silicon Valley must be changing the world!
This week was an eye opener for me. In coastal bubbles a Trump presidency was literally inconceivable. Silicon Valley was optimizing around the margins; the main battle finished, it was picking new battles (sometimes with Thiel affiliates who were pro-Hillary!). The election results showed something completely different: 50% of voting Americans, and the majority of the electoral college sent a giant Fuck You to the establishment and went Trump.
Aaron Levie and his co-founders at Box have lived the full hype cycle of Silicon Valley legend. They dropped out of college to pursue their passion, driving their mini-van to the promised land of the Bay Area, living rent free at an Uncle’s house. Levie himself slept on a yoga mat for nine months, as the team found early traction with a product they created mostly to solve their own technology problem (managing files across different computers).
True to the Valley myth, they pivoted the company to a new market (enterprise), grew like crazy, rebuffed a rich buyout offer that would have made them all generationally wealthy, filed for an IPO, were brutalized by the press as the IPO failed to materialize, then triumphed, after ten years of hard work, with a successful public offering early last year.
Especially among people who haven’t traveled there, there’s still conventional wisdom that China is the land of the cheap knockoff, not just of hardware but of Internet services: Baidu apes Google, Tencent is just Yahoo, and so on. That’s not true anymore and How a Nation of Copycats Transformed Into a Hub for Innovation, by Clive Thompson in Wired, destroys that characterization conclusively.
The tales Thompson tells are very Silicon Valley: educated young adults with an entrepreneurial urge break away from steady but uninspiring positions at established firms to create something new or convince their leaders to try something new. There’s an obsession with speed. Accelerator proliferate. Thompson spies a DO EPIC SHIT sticker on a refrigerator. He explores how phone maker Xiaomi delivers highly anticipated weekly updates to its operating system that are built around user feedback.
As in Silicon Valley, the entrepreneurs Thompson interviews tend to be solving problems like movie ticketing and dating game shows that aren’t exactly world-changing. And China’s repressive political system doesn’t allow for the sort of government-challenging social enterprise that can thrive in other nations. But Thompson reveals a widespread attitude to innovation that’s way beyond the copycat caricature. After years of being accused of stealing product ideas from Silicon Valley, China’s latest success may come from grabbing select Silicon Valley values and grafting them onto its unique culture.
Laura Morton has an outstanding multimedia piece on The Silicon Valley Hustle in The New York Times that I’m embarrassed to say I’m just catching up with now. Her stark photos and captions are a cultural anthropologist’s dream. The photo we’re pointing to above is, we think, one of the most vivid images we’ve seen capturing the position of many women in the Valley. There’s way, way more in Morton’s piece; read and see the whole thing. (Thanks, Lee Anna, for the tip.)
(Warning, loads of unabashed cursing ahead. Cross posted from my site.)
Everyone’s definition of what makes a person or a company “douchey” varies, but the Supreme Court’s approach to pornography is a good start: You know it when you see it. The very fact that the HBO series Silicon Valley can confidently parody douchey behavior is proof we’ve at least found common ground when it comes to extreme douchebaggery.