Now that everything is ‘smart,’ the temptation to enlist technology companies in Silicon Valley to solve all of the world’s greatest problems is on the rise—and many technology companies don’t exactly shy away from the challenge.
From their cool headquarters and gorgeous campuses, the likes of Google, Apple and Facebook seem to have developed a knack for building their brands on a robust ‘world-saving’ intellectual foundation. In light of the toxic debacle of 2008, we now know what bankers stand for—but what does Silicon Valley stand for? While many of us are unfazed by Czars of the Valley wanting to own the world, there is a growing public malaise towards them as they self-proclaim themselves as the ‘good guys,’ helping humanity. Surely, the technology industry bears the seeds of something progressive, but the beginning of a backlash against the conflict between their beliefs and reality is starting to show. Here we present three writers who have started what promises to be an epic story on the trials and tribulations of an industry faced with the realities of growing-up.
“One question for technology boosters—maybe the crucial one—is why, during the decades of the personal computer and the Internet, the American economy has grown so slowly, average wages have stagnated, the middle class has been hollowed out, and inequality has surged. Why has a revolution that is supposed to be as historically important as the industrial revolution coincided with a period of broader economic decline?” — George Packer
In his 10 000 word essay aptly named “Change the World,” Packer makes the argument that while Silicon Valley produces great products and incredible wealth at the top, it remains, with respect to social progress, “just another special interest, as intent as the oil and pharmaceutical sectors on maximizing profits and minimizing its obligation to pay taxes.” In a follow-up blog entry, Packer said: “My analysis of the Valley’s politics isn’t about left-right in the usual sense. It’s about a particular brand of utopianism that sees solutions for social and political problems in the industry’s products and attitudes [...] I am skeptical that Kickstarter and Airbnb provide models for solving more than superficial problems [...] Life inside Silicon Valley can be a paradise (for its winners) of opportunity and reward. Meanwhile, life outside falls further and further behind [...] their success isn’t extending very far into the rest of the economy.”
Tech sociologist and author of To Save Everything, Click Here, furthered his thinking at a recent Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) conference in London: “You would listen to the executives and they would very explicitly state that they are not just in this business for making money, they are in this business of saving the world and helping to solve the world’s greatest problems. You would listen to Eric Schmidt or Mark Zuckerberg and they would very explicitly say “we do not wake up to make money. We do not necessarily respond to what shareholders expect of us, in the short term, we are essentially, almost a quasi-humanitarian sector with its own socio-economic and political aspirations.” It is much harder to regulate companies like Google and Facebook if they present themselves as essentially helping us deal with social and political problems. They’re not the likes of ExxonMobil or Halliburton, they are the likes of Transparency International or Human Rights Watch, this is how they would like us to see their activities. And it does make sense for them to want to play up this revolutionary rhetoric when they speak in public.”
In a series of guest blog posts that this University of California, Berkeley researcher wrote for James Fallows at The Atlantic back in 2011, he started developing his core thesis stating that when it comes to technology and human intent, the latter matters more: “We fetishize technocratic devices and forget that it’s our finger on the ‘on’ switch and our hands at the controls.” Recently he decided to take on the gist of a new book on technology’s promise by Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen. Toyama concluded that “Unfortunately, the book is only the latest in what seems to be a growing strain of punditry: technology proponents conceding technology’s dark side so that they can disarm readers into accepting their worldview, one in which the advance of technology is still the key to a better future.” Interestingly, Toyama also jumped in the Packer/Johnson debate with a follow-up text called “Dear Silicon Valley: Meritocracy Is an Ideology Too,” highlighting that “tech companies—as corporations, not as aggregates of employed individuals—are just as politically promiscuous as other corporations.” We are looking forward to Toyama’s upcoming book, tentatively titled A Different Kind of Growth: Wisdom in Global Development.
On the whole, Toyama et al. are not against technology, but they seem to be joining a league of minds who see its promise to cure the world’s ills as being grossly exaggerated and believe that we might be neglecting the downside of these new tools. No doubt, technology will have to start thinking about larger issues of justice and fairness.