Scott Alexander usually has takes I disagree with, and his new post “Silicon Valley: A Reality Check” is no exception. He tries to rehabilitate Silicon Valley by highlighting new startups that have an “altruistic or international development focus” or that have “really exciting cutting-edge technology” apart from business-focused startups or the usual ridiculous Uber-but-for clones.
I would contend that most of the “altruistic or international development focus[ed]” startups are neoliberal approaches to solving social problems that will be ineffective or exploitative, especially if they are for-profit. (Another way of saying this is that they do not approach problems systemically nor do they threaten capitalism, which has caused these problems.) And the “really exciting cutting-edge technology” ones are often times more hype than reality (see, for example, Theranos, or self-driving car vaporware), but I’d give them more leeway.
More egregious is this whopper at the end:
When Capitol Hill screws up, tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis get killed.
When Wall Street screws up, the country is plunged into recession and poor families lose their homes.
When Silicon Valley screws up, people who want a pointless Wi-Fi enabled juicer get a pointless Wi-Fi enabled juicer. Which by all accounts makes pretty good juice.
First, the Iraq War and the Great Recession were disasters; that’s quite obvious. However, these are not necessarily examples of Capitol Hill or Wall Street “screwing up.” These realities were caused or allowed to happen to varying degrees, and people profited from both.
Second, these groups are not distinct things. Capitol Hill, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley have a lot of the same people in common, overlapping interests, and generally have the same goals (in the service of neoliberalism).
Third, many destructive and harmful things are developed by technology companies. These are things like: drones used as weapons platforms, software for spying or for predicting crime or for profiling people, and products that micromanage daily life (usually affecting the poor), like dynamic scheduling software.
Fourth, Silicon Valley, as a driving force of neoliberalism, has a political program that will likely be considered a disaster in hindsight. Its political “screw ups” cause people actual harm today. And the industry has negative effects on the economy more generally in various ways. These points are worth expanding on.
Many Silicon Valley firms are trying to revamp social relations by keeping out unions and rewriting the terms of employee-employer relationships to make way for short-term, “flexible” employment arrangements. These have many disadvantages, the most notable being that these jobs rarely come with benefits. Gig economy workers who are misclassified as independent contractors are already suffering under unfair working conditions.
Silicon Valley is also attempting to convince anyone who will listen that robots are going to take our jobs (when they won’t). This is a strategy to use political power against workers and their bargaining power, de-emphasizing the need for labor since mass automation is supposedly right around the corner.
Both of these political projects, if successful, will be disasters for the working class.
As a whole, the industry gives power and a platform to people with questionable ideologies, skills, and values (see: Travis Kalanick and Elon Musk). It also convinces many people (who could have promising careers doing things that have social value) that careers in Silicon Valley are, broadly, worthwhile. This has not only a human cost but it is also a drain on the economy, as talented people end up at companies that might be burning through venture capital money, rent-seeking, or providing questionable value as middle-men. This is true for workers in the glitzy offices and also for those doing the hard work.
So, Silicon Valley is indeed “screwing up” — and there are consequences now, and there will be in the future. This isn’t something to gloss over.
Thanks to Hannah Emple for comments on this post.