Don’t Be Evil, and Get Rich Trying

My short break in California has so far included four hour-long trips on Caltrain as I hop between the cities of San Francisco and Palo Alto. These short periods disconnected from the web, have allowed me to catch up on my reading list.

Although unintentional, the articles I had saved and now chosen to read, paint a disparaging picture of the companies that are based here, and the people who choose to work for them.

Abandoning the checks and balances

I found Evgeny Morozov’s interview with the Guardian fascinating, if not a little outlandish at times. Morozov is author of The Net Delusion and has written a second book To Save Everything, Click Here, both of which I’m inclined to read, if only because they challenge common ideas perpetuated within the tech industry.

In this interview, Morozov begins by criticising the self-tracking movement, which he describes as ‘solutionist’:

All solutions come with cost. Shifting a lot of the responsibility to the individual is a very conservative approach that seeks to preserve the current system instead of reforming it. My fear is policymakers will increasingly find that it is much easier, cheaper and sexier to invite the likes of Google to engage in some of this problem-solving rather than do something that is much more ambitious and radical.

Such a situation leads to an inevitable conclusion:

Once Google is selected to run the infrastructure on which we are changing the world, Google will be there for ever. Democratic accountability will not be prevalent. You cannot file a public information request about Google. We are abandoning all the checks and balances we have built to keep our public officials in check for these cleaner, neater, more efficient technological solutions. Imperfection might be the price for democracy.

With great power, comes great responsibility. Google has already shown itself to be an organisation that can’t be trusted.

The bacon-wrapped economy

Morozov describes the people working in these companies as overly concerned with efficiency, with little understanding of the human condition. That may be taking things a little to far, but they do lead lives often far-removed from those of their users.

Ellen Cushin’s article The Bacon-Wrapped Economy describes how the influx of young, wealthy individuals into the Bay Area is having an impact on the financial sustainability of its cultural institutions:

Old money is being replaced by new, but it’s a new kind of new, one that has different values, different habits, and different interests than the previous generation. The very rich have always, to a greater or lesser degree, been guilty of excess, but what’s changed is that the Bay Area’s new wealth doesn’t necessarily have the perspective, the experience, or the commitments of the group it’s replacing.

This new group views philanthropy as results-oriented giving. Kickstarter is cited as one such example:

Kickstarter is, after all, an essentially consumerist-oriented form of charity, one that rewards entrepreneurship and free-market values: Don’t donate, invest. Don’t give someone a fish, don’t even teach him how to fish – take a look at his fishery’s business plan, decide if you’d like to support it based on a video and some short copy, and then make a one-time payment of whatever amount you’d like, most likely in exchange for some kind of concrete reward.

Silicon Valley’s problem

Cushing’s article led me to a post by Catherine Bracy, Director of International Programs at Code for America, who talks about the bubble in which start-ups in the valley and San Francisco now operate:

Barely any of them start from an entrenched social problem and work backwards from there. Very few of them are really fundamentally improving society. They’re 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 people’s widgets, or c) both. They really don’t care that much about making the world a better place, mostly because they feel like they don’t have to live in it.

I joked about it with friends when arrived last week, but I think I was on to something; Silicon Valley needs a healthy dose of cynicism.