Here is something to ponder: Silicon Valley will have gotten more work done on its April Fools’ Day jokes tomorrow than Washington has gotten done in the past several years. And that’s scary, for as much as playing PacMan on Google Maps is funny and maybe even endearing, driving on bridges ready to collapse is not.
Things are not looking good in our nation’s capital, and they haven’t in a long time. Gridlock in Congress has kept legislative action of almost any kind at a complete standstill, while the nation’s aging infrastructure continues to disintegrate. Just at a time when more attention has finally been garnered by these persistent problems, Indiana dropped gasoline on the smoldering fires of the culture wars, reigniting interest in such vital issues as who can eat at a Dairy Queen.
This weekend, I argued quite strongly that Silicon Valley is now at the zenith of its power, and wields it with a force almost unknown by any other industry today. Tech has become the most powerful force in the universe, which, while perhaps a tad hyperbolic, seems so eminently true when we look at just how little actually gets done politically.
Even technology’s critics are calling it quits. Evgeny Morozov, perhaps one of the most consistently strident critics of Silicon Valley and its political and social culture, recently wrote that there was practically no radical undercurrent in technology criticism and that “While radical thought about technology is certainly possible, the true radicals are better off theorizing—and spearheading—other, more consequential struggles, and jotting down some reflections on technology along the way.”
For Morozov, trenchant criticism has declined due to a lack of a framework for analyzing the relationship between technology and society, which he pithily summarizes as “No vision, no critique.” He offered a mea culpa here as well about his own writing: “Thus, I must acknowledge defeat as well: contemporary technology criticism in America is an empty, vain, and inevitably conservative undertaking. At best, we are just making careers; at worst, we are just useful idiots.”
It’s not just technology’s critics though that lack imagination and vision, but its proponents as well. Silicon Valley’s leaders talk about the idyllic utopia that rests just on the other side of this funding round or new product release, and yet, when we look around our society at the number of challenges we face, the action seems completely absent.
Of course, there were visions in the past. The internet was supposed to bring the world together, if not fully for peace, then at least for understanding. The internet was then supposed to be a cyberlibertarian paradise, bereft of the complicated regulatory state that had supposedly brought the physical economy to its knees.
Just in the last few days, we have seen the darker side of this network, with the Chinese government likely behind massive attacks on GitHub, as well as with the continued growth of ISIS in the Middle East. The internet is increasingly dividing into independent and militant fiefdoms, almost the antithesis of what it was all supposed to be about.
Today, it was announced that Silicon Valley heavyweights Ron Conway and Sean Parker are launching a new think tank that will hopefully get more involved in at least some of our nation’s pressing issues, such as infrastructure and economic opportunity. We should definitely have a more steady voice in policy discussions and try to minimize the wide distance between government officials and the technology world.
Policy briefs are not a vision statement though, and that sort of leadership still seems really far off. Instead, we are too busy deploying the next feature to really see what effect all of our work is actually generating. We have barely scratched the surface on what our technologies and startups are doing for workers, such as immigrants and contract laborers. While we have started responding to the need for cybersecurity (a need we created!), we do so more out of avarice than service.
There are visionary statements galore in this industry, but so little real thought about what those statements mean outside of a couple of blocks in South of Market. Even worse, there is a persistent groupthink about technology and politics, despite the vast interest that most nerds have with engaging on these topics.
What does Silicon Valley stand for? Technology progress is too easy – those words have almost no meaning whatsoever. Do we represent every individual in the pursuit of their creativity and industry? Do we want the world to become more egalitarian? Do we want more of our personal property to be managed by others? There is a cacophony of views out there, but those views are expressed so limitedly that they are almost silent to hear.
That wider discussion might be ambitious, but we can always take a few early steps. Taking a cue from some of Apple’s recent software releases, maybe it is time that we actually spent some cycles figuring out how to clean up our existing products and services rather than purely push new features. Commentators always talk about our country’s financial debt, but what about the country’s technical debt in terms of lines of code? How can we rebuild reliability, safety, and security in terms of technology and economics into the products that consumers and enterprises use everyday?
Silicon Valley has had enviable success for some time now. There are moments in a country’s history when everything looks lost, only for success to be found right around the corner, and we have the ability to potentially offer the way forward. That requires a bit more time to think and to ponder, time for concentration that just isn’t available in these frenetic unicorn days. If we can look around though, we might not just find the next big product, but a more fulfilling purpose as well.