The Valley Has Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself

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Silicon Valley, at its best, is a kind of insurgency. Most of the world is ruled by dinosaur bureaucrats; but as software eats the world, Valley misfits and iconoclasts, armed with razor-edge tech and contempt for the status quo, overthrow those antediluvian empires and build better ones, which light the path to a brighter tomorrow for us all…

Or at least that’s the story we tell ourselves. “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.” Right?

Problem is, it’s awfully hard to be a misfit or a rebel after you become The Man; and make no mistake, that’s what we are these days.

As Justin Fox and Fred Turner put it in the Harvard Business Review:

The irony is that [Silicon Valley has] entered a place of corporate dominance with a rhetoric built from an era of business insurgency … the research world that brought us computing also brought us the counterculture … a turning away from politics, a turning toward the self as the basis of political change, of social action … power to people is a really good way of ignoring the structural differences between kinds of people. Structurelessness is a problem. And it’s less of a problem when you share cultural similarities with other folks, or genotypic or phenotypic similarities. So Stewart Brand’s circle tends to look a lot like Stewart Brand. It tends to be mostly white, often male. And that’s true for many elite Silicon Valley leaders.

Which we saw quantified this week, with Google’s diversity report. Tech workers at Google — which is unquestionably one of the most progressive companies on the planet; witness their release of this report! — are 83% male, and 94% white or Asian. Big numbers.

That’s race, and gender … and now let’s talk about class. Specifically, this interview of Kevin Roose by Ezra Klein in Vox:

EK: Have you been watching HBO’s Silicon Valley?

KR: Yes, I love it. But the part it gets wrong is that if you look at who actually works in Silicon Valley now, the geek contingent – the stereotypical socially awkward hackers – is no longer the dominant phenotype of Silicon Valley. Now it’s people who are well adjusted, good looking graduates of elite institutions. It’s gone from weirdos in pocket protectors to the guys who used to go to Wall Street.

I talked to one guy who’s a former Goldman Sachs guy who left to go to the tech industry who said the adage in the tech world now is “be wary when the pretty people show up.”

That might explain why the New York Times, America’s longtime self-appointed arbiter of class, is increasingly (embarrassingly) obsessed with San Francisco these days. Meanwhile, SF’s vomiting anarchists are fighting Google buses, and by extension, the tech industry as a whole, because once San Francisco was America’s finest city for counterculture anarchists, artists, freaks, iconoclasts and malcontents, and now they’re being priced out of town.

This is a little unfair; plenty of elite-school graduates in the Bay Area — I can cite multiple friends of mine — are also socially maladjusted geeks and/or counterculture freaks, who would have been as at home in the old SF/Valley as they are in the new. (But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? My own Canadian alma mater turns up on Wired’s graph of “The Schools Where Apple, Google, and Facebook Get Their Recruits.”) Regardless, it’s fair to say that tech, once largely home to driven engineers and/or graceless geeks, is becoming the upper-class industry of choice in modern America, and, increasingly, worldwide.

This is a problem.

For one thing, it sure doesn’t help with diversity and/or inequality. “To put it in blunt terms: Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t,” to quote Paul Tough of the NYT. For another, as Roose puts it, Ivy League graduates, as a class, frequently

hate risk and are terrified about what to do next … in a lot of schools it’s these scared organization kids … They want money. They want structure. And they want respect when they tell people where they work. And Google now has that in a way the banking industry doesn’t. There’s a lot of risk aversion in that.

The tech industry doesn’t need more risk-averse graduates of prestigious universities. Instead we need more of — well, you know: “The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers.” The dropouts. The counterculture.1

But the counterculture needs the tech industry even more than the tech industry needs the counterculture. No, really. It’s easy to mock SiliValley’s venture-capital-fuelled techno-utopian mindset, I know, but look around. Do you see many other genuine engines of change out there in the world today? Do you see any?

Let’s face it: the status quo across most of the planet is deeply fucked up. (It’s significantly better than it used to be, granted, but that’s still not good enough.) People who have succeeded despite or because of this fact — including a disproportionate fraction of the people reading this post, no doubt — tend to minimize it, but it’s true.

So what we really don’t need is a dynamic wherein the tech industry absorbs and internalizes more and more champions of the status quo, phalanxes of risk-averse elite-school graduates raised by wealthy upper-class families, while the marginalized, the misfits, the dropouts, the weirdos, and the troublemakers increasingly begin to fear us or even view us as an outright enemy. But that may be where we’re headed, culturally, at least in America … which is often a harbinger for the world.

Instead we need the marginalized misfits to embrace the tech industry, now more than ever, and harness its engine of change. There are signs of hope. Hackerspaces. Bitcoin. Even the Valley’s deep libertarian streak, which otherwise makes me more than a little uneasy. But I’m worried that we will make less and less room for “the ones who see things differently” now that the insurgent ethos of the Valley is inexorably morphing into that of the New Establishment.

Image credit: Wikimedia.

1That link will probably seem more than a little self-serving if you click through, for which I apologize; but the majority of it which is not about me is worth reading.