On Silicon Valley’s Intrinsic Altruism and Other Lies it Tells Itself

Nicholas Hune-Brown is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who has written for Toronto Life, The Walrus, Reader’s Digest, The...

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Late last week, as a strike by the transit rail service BART slowed down Bay Area commuters, Marketplace published a piece about the “philosophical divide” between Bay Area residents.

“If I had more friends who were BART drivers, I would probably be very sympathetic to their cause, and if they had more friends who were building companies they would probably realize we’re not all millionaires, and we’re actually working pretty hard to build something,” said Sarah Lacy, founder of the San Francisco-based tech news site Pando Daily. “People in the tech industry feel like life is a meritocracy. You work really hard, you build something and you create something, which is sort of directly opposite to unions.”

The quote pinged around Twitter, producing the kind of incredulous reactions you’d expect when a startup founder starts condescendingly lecturing train operators about work ethic.

The idea that life is somehow a meritocracy is, of course, a self-serving delusion that justifies any number of unfair policies. It’s the trump card for any complaint about inequality or injustice. After all, the cream rises to the top! Before his superior intellect led him to riches, Mark Zuckerberg was just like you and me—a lowly Ivy League undergraduate naively believing that a mere million dollars was cool. If Silicon Valley just happens to favour white men over women or blacks, so be it: that’s a meritocracy! If those train operators wanted a bigger slice of the Pie of American Opportunity, why didn’t they design an app?

The quote was tone deaf, sure, but it caught on because it seemed to illuminate a particular flavour of Silicon Valley thought—a vague libertarianism mixed with a healthy sense of self-regard served over a bed of shockingly unabashed insularity. I mean, you may not be friends with a BART driver, but surely you can imagine that there might be economic or structural divides, not just a philosophical one, separating San Francisco workers from the tech paradise Lacy and her extremely hard-working colleagues are constructing?

A little while ago, the New Yorker published a fascinating feature by George Packer about Silicon Valley and politics. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but the crux of it is that in a country that is quickly becoming more and more unequal, the divide between the rich and the poor is perhaps greatest in the Bay Area. While the average house in Palo Alto sells for more than $2 million, homelessness has risen by twenty-percent over the last two years. As more and more wealth rushes into the great tech campuses of Silicon Valley, millionaire developers drive up prices, leaving middle-class residents like, say, train drivers, struggling to keep up.

The piece was part of a growing chorus of prominent voices that have, belatedly, begun to question the tech-utopianism so many of us have more or less accepted. Silicon Valley startups have long held, as an article of faith, that working in the tech industry is necessarily more virtuous than working at a bank or oil company because of, err, promoting “openness,” I guess, and how information wants to be free and something about social media disrupting old power structures and, also, the Egyptian revolution. It’s a wonderfully convenient system of belief: your personally enriching startup is simultaneously solving the world’s problems.

Packer listens to enthusiastic, wealthy young developers talk about the brave new world of frictionless convenience the tech boom is creating, a paradise where you can stay in cool new apartments via Airbnb or hire a sweet car through Uber. “It suddenly occurred to me that the hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up,” he writes.

The honeymoon phase, in which Google’s “don’t be evil” motto was taken at face value, is over. We’ve passed the “what’s good for Tumblr is good for America!” period. Tech companies, Packer argues, are just another special interest. It should surprise no one that they want to maximize profit, work as many tax loopholes as possible, and gripe about the inconvenience of organized labour. We should just end the delusion that creating a hot new app is somehow intrinsically altruistic. A bunch of wealthy, powerful people trying to rig the system to serve their best interests is par for the course. It’s what this continent was built on. A bunch of wealthy, powerful people who have convinced both themselves and the rest of the world of their essential beneficence is something else entirely.

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Image: Michael Dunn via Flickr