Josh Haas's Web Log

Why people hate Silicon Valley

with 2 comments

Ben Horowitz, a prominent venture capitalist, wrote a great post on Can-Do vs Can’t-Do Culture making the point that the world is changed by people with a “yes we can!” attitude.  As he sums up at the end of the article, “Don’t hate, create.”

Part of me is going “hell yes!” at this.  I’ve seen “can do”, and I’ve seen “can’t do”, and believe me, I want to be part of team “can do.”  I respect the problem-solvers, not the critics on the sidelines.

But Ben also points out that there’s lately been a cultural shift towards can’t-do criticism of the technology industry:

Lately, it has become in vogue to write articles, comments and tweets about everything that’s wrong with young technology companies. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t find something in my Twitter feed crowing about how a startup that has hit a bump in the road is ”fu&%@d,” or what an “as*h%le” a successful founder is, or what an utterly idiotic idea somebody’s company is.

Ben attacks this as toxic and counter-productive, but he doesn’t ask the important question: why?  Where is the hate coming from?  Are some people just natural haters?  Did we stop spiking the national water supply with Prozac?

Here’s my theory: “can’t do” attitudes are the rational response when people don’t buy into the vision, and don’t know how to change it.  People are hating on Silicon Valley because they don’t like where it is going.

The question Ben doesn’t address in his article is, is technological innovation good?  Sure, we can build the future faster if we all get on the same team and go after it with a gung-ho attitude… but is the future we’re building one that we actually want?

It’s telling that Ben decorates his post with World War II propaganda.  World War II represented, in America, a successful campaign to silence the war’s critics and build a national narrative that this was a just cause: “the good war”.  Decorating the post with Vietnam War-era propaganda would have a very different cultural meaning.

Here’s the thing.  Technological innovation, the way it plays out Silicon Valley-style, is Win-Win-Lose.  Consumers win, innovators win, existing producers generally lose.

For instance, take one of the big disruptions that we can see coming: the self-driving cars that Google is developing.  The advent of self-driving cars is very likely going to render everyone who makes their living by driving, such as taxi drivers, unemployed.  (It’s no coincidence that Google invested in Uber).   Unemployment isn’t a death sentence, but realistically, life is going to get very hard for a lot of people because of this advance in technology.

I’m not in favor of halting technology.  Personally, self-driving cars is something I’m really hoping for: my family, like a lot of families, has the dilemma of aging relatives who want the independence of having a car, but whose driving is getting increasingly scary.  So I am rooting for Google to succeed.  But I’m not going to pretend there’s no price, and I acknowledge that it’s a price that is likely going to fall on others more than it falls on me.

People hate Silicon Valley because entrepreneurs reap the rewards of innovation without paying the price themselves.  Moreover, the prevailing in-Valley narrative is that those who succeed do so because they are better and more deserving: they’re the smart ones who took risks and therefore deserve the rewards.  This perspective largely ignores the reality that socioeconomics, gender, race, birthplace, and random chance play a big role in where people start the race from.  It also ignores the reality that prize for first place is disproportionately higher than the prize for second or third.

You can’t expect people to buy into a narrative that they don’t see themselves in.  For a lot of people, identifying with the founders of the latest successful startup is hard to do for various reasons — maybe the founders don’t look like me, maybe I didn’t learn to code at age 12, maybe I have to work full-time supporting two kids.  And the Silicon Valley narrative is merciless towards those who don’t find a place for themselves at the top. (This is what it’s like to be a worker in one of Amazon.com’s warehouses).

So that’s why haters are going to hate.  Haters are going to hate anyone whose success isn’t their success; whose success, in fact, is at the expense of their economic stability and safety.  Can you hate the haters for hating that?

The sad thing is that it doesn’t have to be this way.  The driving spirit of technological innovation is freedom, creativity, and empowerment.  The internet, the medium through which much of this development takes place, has the potential to be one of the greatest democratizing forces in human history.  Silicon Valley was built on idealism and a spirit of making the world a better place.

However, there are two songs here.  One song is that of human progress.  The other song is an economic power-grab: the growing ranks of the unemployed, the startup equity structures that make founders billions of dollars wealthier than employee #2, acquihires and San Francisco housing prices.

The challenge for the technology industry is, are we serious about the first song, or are we really just in it for the money?  It’s one thing to talk the talk of idealism.  It’s quite another to take it seriously, with all the personal trade-offs that implies: do we build things that people need or do we just build things that people want?  Do we try to become billionaires or do we try to share the wealth?

Not a rhetorical question.

Written by jphaas

January 2nd, 2014 at 4:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

  • Anonymous

    Great post Josh, thanks. Your main point here provides a nice insight and what seems like a sound explanation for why “haters are going to hate”. I buy it.

    You make two other points apart from providing this plausible causality. I have no answers about their truth, but I’d like to pose some questions, if merely for the sake of argument. Firstly, you say we “can’t expect people to buy into a narrative that they don’t see themselves in.” But is it so that anyone really has that expectation, or is the underlying expectation that people change the narrative for themselves so that they will fit into it? When people who make a living by driving cars find their livelihood endangered by Google’s endeavours, do we expect them to cheer, or do we expect them to adapt? Granted, alternatives may not be immediately obvious, and if you didn’t learn how to code at age 12 you may find yourself less able to adapt to societal change that involves complicated technological advancements. But isn’t that the expectation that makes us ignore, or devalue, this cost? And as societly as a whole, shouldn’t we be able to organically adapt? It seems there would only be so much unemployment that can occur in a sustainable, democratic, economy. And in a true democracy, would a vision that a majority does not buy into, succeed?

    The second idea you introduce essentially states that we may have become distracted from our goal of human progress by forces of capitalism. I concur. We measure success and in dollars and let capital get its ultimate win, without regard for social impact or any other metrics of human progress. It doesn’t have to be this way, you say. But is the dichotomy you paint fair? Is it idealism and human progress vs. an economic power grab? Doesn’t the ideal of freedom which, as you point out, is one of the driving spirits of technological innovation also drive us towards Ayn Rand-like techno-utopianism? Could the two perhaps be in line? Could we somehow make our current metric of progress (dollar value) more accurate? What if we had a more complete account of cost that is associated with everything we produce? What if we could reflect social inequality and environmental impact in a profit and loss statement? Would that slow down human progress or would it be socially beneficial?

    • http://blog.joshhaas.com/ Josh Haas

      Great questions and points 🙂

      On expecting people to adapt vs trying to accommodate them, I don’t think there’s an objectively right answer: it comes down to what we value as a society. There are shades of grey in between the extremes of radical social darwinism (“tough luck, taxi driver, here’s a book on Python, good luck”), and radical stasis (“sorry entrepreneur, you can’t build your company in this jurisdiction”). Personally, I don’t want to live in either of those societies; I’d prefer one in the middle where it’s easy to start new things, but we work together as a community to mitigate the displacement that change has on people. My suggestion is that the entrepreneurial community get out ahead of this by actively looking for ways to share the wealth, rather than wait to see how much they can get away with before the general populace starts passing laws and / or rioting to keep them in check.

      Another way of putting it is, as technologists, let’s try to think of ourselves as members of a gift economy rather than a capitalist economy. Yes, we have to pay rent, and using our productions to help us stay alive is good… but the end goal should be about creating value for other people, not ourselves.

      Which ties into your second point — maybe we should try to quantify the social good or harm that innovation does and add it into our bottom line. I think that would be awesome! Not sure how to do it, though… getting a system that both a) accurately captures some notion of social good (without being easily game-able) and b) that people buy into and adopt on a widespread basis is a big challenge. But maybe it’s a big challenge we should go after!