On a recent visit to Silicon Valley, Dan Primack, senior editor at Fortune was asked, "why so many outside Silicon Valley vilify those within it." He replied:
The Valley's public figures often seem to exude a particularly insular narcissism – that so long as the tech biz is thriving then everything else is largely irrelevant…
It also probably doesn't help that so much of the local tech press is personally friendly with industry insiders — thus prompting outside media to be particularly harsh (as a counter-example, not as much NYC financial press spends its free time with bankers or PE execs — there's much more of a separation).
Reuters' Felix Salmon points to a common characteristic of the local tech elites:
It’s populated by people who consider themselves above the rest of the country — intellectually, culturally, financially. They consider themselves the cognitive elite; the rest of us are the puppets dancing on the end of their strings of code.
Dan Primack asked readers for their thoughts. I left the following comment:
I've lived here since the mid-1980s and self-awareness is a very rare quality among the tech companies and techno-elite. They don't see much and they fantasize about doing great things on a grand scale but achieve nothing locally. Hypocrisy runs rampant.
For example, Twitter execs a couple of years ago were making public comments about how they were changing the world and how Twitter was empowering individuals and communities and how the Arab Spring was a great example. Yet at the same time they were willing to hold San Francisco hostage, threatening to move hundreds of jobs unless they received special tax relief on payroll taxes and on profits from an IPO.
Twitter's response to my criticism was simple: it's head of communications unfollowed me! (He later said it was accidental and re-followed.)
The city government gave in and Twitter got what it wanted and it agreed to move into the mid-Market/Tenderloin area, one of the poorest neighborhoods, that the city has been trying to gentrify for decades.
But there's not much gentrification going on because Twitter keeps hundreds of staff inside, with free gourmet meals, plus a slew of free services, dry cleaning, even cleaning staff apartments. It is competing with local businesses rather than helping support them — it's the opposite of gentrification.
Google is doing the same in the center of Silicon Valley, competing with local businesses by providing a multitude of services to its staff. Living in the shadow of the Googleplex, or Twitterplex, or Facebook's giant campus at 1, Hacker Way, is causing job losses and hurting rather than boosting the local economy.
The violent urban ghetto in the heart of Silicon Valley
It's Silicon Valley's blindness to its own hypocrisy that is truly shocking. Silicon Valley towns continue to suffer from terrible public schools and broken communities. East Palo Alto is a violent urban ghetto in every sense of the definition — is smack-dab in the heart of Silicon Valley! In one two week period this summer, eight people were shot. It's right next to Facebook, Google, and close to Stanford university. [The only high-tech East Palo Alto has is a system of microphones to triangulate the position of gun shots sounds.]
Silicon Valley has all these incredible visionaries saying they are changing the world yet can't change their own neighborhoods. The local schools should be showcases instead they are basket cases; the local communities should be healthy and thriving, yet they are suffering from unemployment and local government is dealing with the same problems that other communities across the country have to deal with on a daily basis.
Our CEOs will fly to Washington to complain about the poor state of education in the US. But why don't they walk down the street and address a high school? We have all these rock star CEOs that could inspire so many local students. (Kudos to Marc Zuckerberg for starting to do that.)
What's the point in having these high tech giants in our midst when there is little advantage to the communities that surround them? They want special treatment; they want to pay less taxes or hardly any taxes; they would rather be a burden on their neighbors than ease the burden of others.
Surely, where you live should reflect your values and ethics? Surely, if you can make a difference in the world you should be doing that where you live first. Because if you can make a difference here you can do it anywhere. It's a reality check on all these grand fantasies of a connected, open, and better world through technology.
But people make changes not technology, that's the tool, you still need the determination and the will to make the world a better place — it has to come from someone.
Patience has run out...
I think that the rest of the country has been waiting for Silicon Valley to step up and start contributing to making things better, to start producing on its implied promises of a better tomorrow and it hasn't. Their patience has run out.
Silicon Valley companies should just f*ck-the-shut-up about changing the world when they consistently haven't been able to change anything locally. For decades now, East Palo Alto remains a ghetto, the Tenderloin is still the poorest, most deprived neighborhood in San Francisco, and our public schools have only a 50% graduation rate. And the tech companies are willing to let things stay that way. Their techno-optimism doesn't require any techno-activism, it's as if the technology itself is the agent of change without any human direction or determination required.
It should be embarrassing to say, "Yes, we're inventing the future here" — but it looks the same as the past. But there is no embarrassment because there is no self-awareness.
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Update: I don't think that Google et al are evil or deliberately negligent. But they often exhibit an amoral nature, a corporate mentality that sits somewhere on the spectrum of autism, where they aren't sure about what's right and wrong. They try to rely on data to inform their decisions but reading the meaning of data requires a moral and ethical compass as a reference.
Silicon Valley companies will get better at making where they live a better place for all, and by doing that, they will make a reality of the fantasies they tell themselves about the greater world. I can't wait!