Recasting Silicon Valley’s role in society

Silicon Valley culture showcased itself at Bloomberg’s recent technology confab in San Francisco as much as the companies, products, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists on the dais and sidelines.

Speakers and attendees alike traded extraordinary visions of the future: colonizing other planets, commuting to work in flying cars, employing self-programming computers and extending human life by centuries.

One of the conference’s most celebrated guests, Marc Andreessen, offered a vision for entrepreneurship itself, defining it as the ability to see how the world potentially could be, then inventing what is needed to change it.

And herein lies the perennial dilemma for Silicon Valley: The same questions that spur its entrepreneurs and their backers to remake the world are often the same questions that lead it into conflict with the forces that define reality for the majority of people.

Why can’t I rent my home out for a day here or there? Is there a better way to order a car than hailing a taxi? Shouldn’t cars be able to drive themselves? What if I could hook up my refrigerator to the internet? Who needs a keyboard when you can talk to a computer?

Each of these queries has prompted driven, creative people to start “disruptive” companies and invent new products that commercialize technology in ways that improve everyday experiences.

Yet, at the same time, these questions — and the answers provided in the form of applied tech — offer as much uncertainty as they do improvements.

Why can’t I rent my home for a day here or there? No reason, unless it triggers a trend that saps affordable housing in underserved markets to accommodate tourists. Sure, there are better ways of ordering cars, or turning vehicle ownership into income — but what about the people who have spent time and money getting licensed as professional drivers, the value of which is now eroded? Should heavy machines that can go 150 mph really steer themselves?

The vision that so many in the Valley have for their ventures should include a much more genuine and clearly articulated connection between technology and practical realities.

Even more pressingly, the Bloomberg conference took place against an ominous background. It occurred days after the worst mass killing in U.S. history. The U.S. presidential race and the Brexit vote have laid bare the disconnect between the body politic and its elected leaders in developed and “representative” democracies. And the promise of an economy that reliably generates jobs, living wages and retirement security seems arguably more tenuous than at any point in living memory.

William Gibson, the author of much, often dystopian, science fiction, said: “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”

If it’s hard to see how flying cars, the Internet of Things and extending life by 10X are anything more than quixotic fantasies, then it’s arguably a problem of the uneven distribution, whether real or perceived, of the benefits that can arise by bringing the Valley’s vision to reality.

The vision that so many in the Valley have for their ventures should include a much more genuine and clearly articulated connection between technology and practical realities and outcomes that make their work relevant to those who do not live and work within the immediate orbit of Valley luminaries.

Valley companies, and those of the tech community worldwide, have the potential to improve lives, strengthen the fairness of markets and play a crucial role in fostering a new era of economic prosperity. But that message can get lost in a narrowly cast, self-aggrandizing vision for the “disruptive” role that their products can play in society.

Take blockchain technology. It can digitize not just financial transactions, but virtually any contract, in a secure way that makes agreements, modifications to them and the parties to them much more transparent, permanent and enforceable. The dominant portrayal, by contrast, is as an arcane and Randian technology that allows so-called crypto-currencies to flourish as a rebuke to central bankers and the fiat currencies they control.

Similarly, the Internet of Things is generally discussed as a fait accompli, but also as a somewhat creepy networking of household and personal appliances instead of a potentially huge benefit to affordable and preventative medicine.

The hype around virtual reality’s future potential overshadows augmented reality, which has immediate applications for education. And “edtech” itself often gets reduced merely to putting devices in classrooms instead of being portrayed as a way to train people faster, better and cheaper to do new and different jobs.

Recasting Silicon Valley’s own role in society in a similar fashion could resuscitate its connection to all Americans.

At a time of rising uncertainty over the stability of employment in a “gig economy,” among other societal challenges, it is increasingly important for Silicon Valley and its companies to do more than invent, inspire or disrupt. Valley companies need to find space in their culture and ethos for a belief in solving not just the technical challenges of individual experience, like creating online markets that people can use to rent out homes, but recognizing and, where possible, addressing broad phenomena that cause anxiety across wide swaths of society.

That may be setting a high bar. But it shouldn’t be any more challenging to surmount than making cars fly, especially if we live by Andreessen’s words: Imagine the world how it can be and then find a way to make that vision a reality.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, Inc., its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates or its other professionals.