Silicon Valley: A Close-Up
Is Silicon Valley the 21st century American equivalent of the inferno/purgatory? Or of paradise?
August 14, 2016
The Silicon Valley dream machine is a unique meld of angel, spiritual guide, dating service, matchmaker and – not least – source of seed money for start-ups.
It is an organizational species all its own whose native habitat is a roughly 100 square mile zone of suburban sprawl located 50 miles south of San Francisco.
Silicon Valley has no natural predators. It can always beat any potential competition indirectly first by adopting the idea and then offering an array of niblets, so that whatever good new idea becomes grist for the alphas of the Valley’s IT food chain.
Key players in Silicon Valley like to say they gather America’s “best and brightest” from elite U.S. universities.
These youngsters march to the tune of a Pied Piper who has instilled in them a very special belief and destiny — that they are building a wondrous global community wherein all humanity are in touch with each other. They can achieve all that glorious stuff while still having one hand free to write code.
No wonder then that Silicon Valley and its annex, the San Francisco sandbox, is a world populated by juveniles. The phrases that jump to mind are: instant gratification; impulsive; narcissistic; thin-skinned; inability to empathize; naïve; relentless ambition; shortened time horizons.
All about the money
This mélange of immature traits are not just tolerated, it is encouraged and, when emblems of successful Valley personalities, exalted.
Conversation is all about shop: the next ploy, the next gadget, the next “product,” the next sales campaign, the next promotion, the next personality clash, the next bash.
In Silicon Valley, mature adults – of any age – are scarce. Anyone who violates that rule gets immediately identified as an alien.
Of course, IT companies do hire thousands of ordinary grown-ups to perform the humdrum tasks that any big business requires. They are stashed in barrack offices and, by tacit agreement, segregated far from the maddening crowd who romp in the “field of dreams.”
Make no mistake about it, money is what the IT world is all about. Forget the slogans that conjure up utopias never before imagined. Forget about the cult of electronic technology. And forget about trailblazing new frontiers.
Exploring targets through algorithms
At the end of the day, the only denominator of success in Silicon Valley, of reputation, of status – and the pleasures that money alone can provide – is a) cold, hard cash and b) stock options.
Where do these masses of lucre come from that propel the IT world? It is astonishing only on the surface. True, the hundreds of millions of people, now well over a billion users for Facebook, often into the far reaches of India (now the world’s biggest Facebook nation) don’t pay for the service — not overtly. Being a citizen of the Facebook empire is pretty much free.
However, users pay indirectly. Every user is also a consumer. That is what all those code writers, venture capitalists and Nawabs at the summit of the Silicon Valley pyramid have in their sights.
They want a precisely defined target whose features and preferences they can explore with data. You gladly provide every time with fodder for their algorithms every time you post a blog comment, click on a hub-bub site, search for a hot number in Mule Shoe, Texas who shares your passion for rattle snake round-ups, or reach out to some stranger in the desire to create a better connected world.
A lot of brainpower devising sophisticated techniques is deployed in the operation – metadata, key word filters, algorithms, dummy variables, etc.
Facebook is just like the NSA
Just as the NSA relentlessly pursues menacing persons, i.e., potential terrorists, so do Facebook et al. pursue “the buyer.”
The net result is that vast amounts of national wealth are funneled into the pockets of the Zuckerbergs, Gateses, Thiels and numerous others, plus many, many more minor Rajas of less renown.
They, in turn, use their wealth to achieve their own, self-defined larger purposes. For Bill Gates, the target of his fancy is to replace the public school system in the United States with a motley array of Charter schools established by whomever for fun or profit or indoctrination.
For Peter Thiel, who according to reports thrives on blood injections from young people, it is to destroy Gawker. For others, it is to endow Presidents, Senators, Governors and similar devotees to government.
Meanwhile, Americans — like sheep – still refer to government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” It’s anything but that.
Google actually is an exception. They, and their super-rich founders, do generously fund worthy causes, in particular environmental ones, with a minimum of posturing, compared to that of the Zuckerberg variety.
Enormous waste of talent
For all the glitz and the constant spectacle, let us not overlook the legions of talented persons who are the worker bees of the IT hives.
Most are well rewarded in salary, perks, stock options and multiple other forms of gratification derived from being part of the SM/Valley scene – at least until their hormones and metabolism start to give out at the age of 38.
It is not they whom we should feel sorry for. It is the rest of us. Their talents, their strength and also whatever measure of true goodwill they might have, is being siphoned off into activities that do not serve the national community’s welfare.
Some will argue vigorously that, as individuals, we gain much from the satisfactions that Facebook et al. provide. That opens a big, complicated subject.
It obliges us to consider the individual vs. the collective, the second-order effects of prioritizing certain wants while neglecting others, and resource allocation trade-offs.
One thing is indisputable: There are important collective needs that are not being met. That the shortfall is due to a lack of financial means, a lack of will, a lack of the communal sense that is a prelude to actually doing something concrete rather than wallowing in abstractions, and the lack of talent in what we call “the public sphere.”
There is not much that is done well, efficiently and when needed in the United States nowadays.
The changed world
Infrastructure, “Obama Care” websites, commuter transit systems utilizing cutting edge 1980s technology, regulatory officials up to confronting the powers they must contend with, architects capable of designing halfway interesting buildings, journalists and writers with the skills and verve of Martinez, etc., etc.
In the old days, red-blooded American kids dreamt of becoming police detectives, building bridges or writing the great American novel.
Today, the vision is of “monetizing” data brokerage skills. So the world turns.
It is hard not to regret what opportunities are being wasted by having such a large fraction of the nation’s resources swallowed up by the antics of the Silicon Valley world (and equally unproductive antic worlds of Wall Street, the Pentagon and the NSA).
The crumbs and cast-offs that are left cannot prevent the long decline on which we already are embarked.
Silicon Valley: Instant gratification, relentless ambition and shortened time horizons.
Forget the slogans that conjure up unimagined utopias. Money is what the IT world is all about.
Only denominator of success in Silicon Valley is a) cold, hard cash and b) stock options.
Just as the NSA relentlessly pursues potential terrorists, so do Facebook et al. “the buyer.”
Americans still refer to government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” It’s not.
Michael J. Brenner
Professor Emeritus of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh [Texas, United States] Michael Brenner is Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and a Fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS/Johns Hopkins. He was the Director of the International Relations & Global Studies Program at the University of Texas. Brenner is […]