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.