Serious times call for serious people, people!
In high school, I was assigned to read the classic Jean-Paul Sartre play, “No Exit,” about three lost souls doomed to spend eternity driving each other nuts over the petty and ugly details of their previous lives. It’s a slog to read as a teenager, but it did yield on phrase that went on to fame: “Hell is other people.”
It’s a line that has often been misunderstood, as Sartre himself pointed out. Rather than a condemnation of the inevitable “poisoning” of all relationships, he explained: “We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves.
In simplest terms, that means that we are forever impacted by what others think of us. And here’s what the election of Donald Trump in 2016 said about Silicon Valley: They hate us, they really hate us.
This is not anything shocking really, since the electorate that chose Trump — I know it’s not even close to a majority, but they won by the rules all the same, Russian interference notwithstanding — hates a whole truckload of stuff, from professional politicians to globalists to cultural arbiters to, well, the list just goes on and on into the really-pissed-off horizon. The Trump movement has been fueled by bottomless rage of all kinds, including against the machine.
And that’s where tech comes in, because for decades now, it has been that machine, forever peddling the happy shiny future in which we are all happier and shinier due to the miracles of modernity. With the exhausting motto that we should be disrupting everything that can be disrupted, it has largely ignored what was once quaintly referred to as consequences and the fact that disruption eventually boomerangs back around on the thrower.
More than boomerangs, in fact, because what the Trump movement represents is not just disruption, but a sense that what is needed is a full-scale destruction of the power structure. That makes sense, in many ways, since what the smarties have created has resulted in pain for a lot more people than has been clear to those in Silicon Valley.
While you cannot blame tech for the death of manufacturing in the U.S., you can still draw a very bright line between the benefits of being able to make all sorts of great devices invented abroad and on the cheap to nearly every part of the sector.
Did Silicon Valley, which has reaped the rewards of this system by amassing startlingly enormous piles of wealth, imagine that all this would not eventually have to be paid for by someone?
Or as Trump’s main digital guru, investor Peter Thiel has written: “In a world of scarce resources, globalization without new technology is unsustainable.”
As most regular readers know, Thiel is not someone I agree with often, given his disturbingly cavalier attitude toward a lot of values and standards I think are inviolate. (Don’t sue a publisher out of business secretly for personal reasons and then brag that you love journalism. Check!)
But in this, Thiel is correct that the results of tech have been and will continue to be devastating to too many in the general populace. So it would be nice if Silicon Valley could take that sentiment to heart as the days and years that stretch ahead look ever more serious and more fraught by all the technologies that have been created over the last two decades.
And, more to the point, things that technology is creating now are certain to result in even more unrest as they intensify. The questions that need to be asked are many and include:
What happens to all the many jobs that will be impacted by self-driving technologies, given so much of our population makes its living driving and transporting? While it may be for the best in terms of energy savings and the ending of needless human-caused accidents, is anyone developing in this arena thinking about its repercussions on existing jobs or scoping out what new jobs can be created?
It’s the same thing with a slate of on-demand or home rental tech, the impact of which are too often shrugged off as “negative externalities,” which is a great euphemism for terrible things. Something can be both promising and also devastating at the same time, so try hard to take both things in.
What about acceleration of robotic technologies in factories and through the system from restaurants to retailers to banks to healthcare and more? While it is entirely clear these changes have a myriad of advantages, who in Silicon Valley is thinking about the job loss and what to do about this?
And, of course, who is assessing that will happen with leaps in artificial intelligence and the potential for replacement of many service jobs from legal work to accounting to, yes, journalism? Will, as Elon Musk, told me in an interview, humanity become mere “house cats” of the technologies? (Even if the food is good and litter fresh as a house cat, do we want to become house cats?)
I am not heartened that anyone in the high echelons of tech is thinking about any of this in a consistent and systematic way, largely from the reaction so far.
Calls for California to secede from the U.S. — fyi, we’ll need a lot more firepower than what comes from servers to do that — come only because figuring out what’s next is really hard.
Murmurs that Silicon Valley companies might place a token manufacturing facility in the U.S. to shut Trump up seems not really profound enough to make a true difference.
Memos and quotes saying techies will not create appalling things like Muslim registries are great, but do not address what they will do in cooperation with an administration bent on destroying many, many more core values of this industry.
And tramping up to Trump Tower en masse to talk about a variety of the expected topics, while saying nothing in order to get things for the present seems very short-sighted indeed. (Kudos for Facebook’s Sheryl Sandler for bringing up women and minorities, but only Alphabet’s Larry Page had a truly unusual idea about changing the electrical grid — more on that soon.)
It all reminds of the vision that tech continues to reflect about itself as a place of fresh ideas and newness at all times. To my mind, which I often say — hat tip to investor Pejman Nozad — Silicon Valley is still a place of big minds chasing small ideas.
It’s often referred to as a Peter Pan mentality, in which its denizens are trying to remain forever young in a land of perpetual boyhood, making things like photo apps and social media and new ways to play old video games.
Personally, I think there is a far more sinister comparison to another fairy tale, that of Pinocchio’s transformation into a jackass on Pleasure Island. It’s a place where boys are indulged with endless fun until it’s clear that there is actually a price for all that indulgence.
It also reminds me of another thing Sartre wrote: “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”
Well, Silicon Valley, it’s finally time to pay up and admit that you are not forever young. More importantly. you need to stop acting like you aren’t powerful or that you don’t have huge businesses and, most of all, that you just can’t fix big problems because it’s super-duper hard. You’ve been part of creating this mess and you should absolutely be part of fixing it.
Now, get to work.