by Sam Biddle is a senior writer at Gawker and the former editor of Valleywag.
Silicon Valley Is a Big Fat Lie
We're forever thankful to Silicon Valley for giving us the iPhone, omnipotent search engines, and swipe-simple hookups. But now that America's most vaunted industry has also become its most self-satisfied, Silicon Valley is veering toward fall-of-Rome territory. Which is why it needs to blow up these seven myths about itself before it's too late
I think my life is better because of my iPhone. Yours probably is, too. I’m grateful to live in a time when I can see my baby cousins or experience any album ever without getting out of bed. I’m grateful that I will literally never be lost again, so long as my phone has battery. And I’m grateful that there are so many people so much smarter than I am who devise things like this, which are magical for the first week they show up, then a given in my life a week later.
We live in an era of technical ability that would have nauseated our ancestors with wonder, and so much of it comes from one very small place in California. But all these unimpeachable humanoid upgrades—the smartphones, the Google-gifted knowledge—are increasingly the exception, rather than the rule, of Silicon Valley’s output. What was once a land of upstarts and rebels is now being led by the money-hungry and the unspirited. Which is why we have a start-up that mails your dog curated treats and an app that says "Yo." The brightest minds in tech just lately seem more concerned with silly business ideas and innocuous "disruption," all for the shot at an immense payday. And when our country’s smartest people are working on the dumbest things, we all lose out.
That gap between the Silicon Valley that enriches the world and the Silicon Valley that wastes itself on the trivial is widening daily. And one of the biggest contributing factors is that the Valley has lost touch with reality by subscribing to its own self-congratulatory mythmaking. That these beliefs are mostly baseless, or at least egotistically distorted, is a problem—not just for Silicon Valley but for the rest of us. Which is why we’re here to help the Valley tear down its own myths—these seven in particular.
Myth #1: Silicon Valley Is the Universe’s Only True Meritocracy
Everyone in Silicon Valley has convinced himself he’s helped create a free-market paradise, the software successor to Jefferson’s brotherhood of noble yeomen. "Silicon Valley has this way of finding greatness and supporting it," said a member of Greylock Partners, a major venture-capital firm with over $2 billion under management. "It values meritocracy more than anyplace else." After complaints of the start-up economy’s profound whiteness reached mainstream discussion just last year, companies like Apple, Facebook, and Twitter reluctantly released internal diversity reports. The results were as homogenized as expected: At Twitter, 79 percent of the leadership is male and 72 percent of it is white. At Facebook, senior positions are 77 percent male and 74 percent white. Twitter—a company whose early success can be directly attributed to the pioneering downloads of black smartphone users—hosts an entirely white board of directors. It’s a pounding indictment of Silicon Valley’s corporate psyche that Mark Zuckerberg—a bourgeois white kid from suburban New York who attended Harvard—is considered the Horatio Alger 2.0 paragon. When Paul Graham, the then head of the massive start-up incubator Y Combinator, told The New York Times that he could "be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg," he wasn’t just talking about Zuck’s youth.
If there’s any reassuring news, it’s not that tech’s diversity crisis is getting better, but that in the face of so much dismal news, people are becoming angry enough and brave enough to admit that the state of things is not good. Silicon Valley loves data, after all, and with data readily demonstrating tech’s overwhelming white-guy problem, even the true believers in meritocracy see the circumstances as they actually are.
Earlier this year, Ellen Pao became the most mentioned name in Silicon Valley as her gender-discrimination suit against her former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, played out in court. Although the jury sided with the legendary VC firm, the Pao case was a watershed moment, bringing sunlight and national scrutiny to the issue of unchecked Valley sexism. For every defeated Ellen Pao, we can hope there are a hundred other female technology workers who feel new courage to speak up against wrongdoing, and a thousand male co-workers and employers who’ll reconsider their boys’-club bullshit. But they’ve got their work cut out for them.
Myth #2: Silicon Valley Is Bringing Us Closer Together
Facebook’s stated mission, it reminds us ceaselessly, is to "connect the whole world"—a sappy global village philosophy that dovetails nicely with data mining and targeting ads. As a verb, connect pulls a lot of freight for start-ups every day. There are companies to connect you to other companies, connect you to your neighbors, connect you to the grocery store, and connect you to your increasingly fat ass. There are apps to connect you to your own family.
But the marketing line that most precisely captures the Valley’s social attitude isn’t Facebook’s—it’s GrubHub’s. A recent tag for the food-delivery firm reads "Everything great about eating, combined with everything great about not talking to people." A New York subway ad for Seamless (which merged with GrubHub) reads "Your favorite part of having a smartphone is never having to call anyone."
The real undercurrent of start-up strategizing isn’t socialization—rather, it’s the opposite: Social anxiety is the primary economic force in California today. The tech economy is pushed forward not by a desire to meet new people but by a desire to avoid human contact at all costs—unless it’s to-your-doorstep on demand. Uber excuses you from the subway, Seamless obviates a phone call, and Tinder lets you navigate the faces you might’ve met at a bar if you’d had the motivation to leave your apartment. Uber and Lyft have brought thousands of new people from our communities into our lives—but only as our chauffeurs. The brightest and buzziest apps aren’t about connecting me to you, but rather about never forcing us to acknowledge that anyone else exists in real life as anything but the help.
What new human contact these start-ups actually do foster is barely human contact at all—everything is mediated through an algorithm, a button, a swipe, or a GPS beacon. The Uber is here, we’ll say, pointing at a person in a car. A TaskRabbit might help you set up your furniture, a person synonymous with the corporate brand. Even apps like Instagram, meant to be used between pals, have turned into a sluice box for likes and affirmation. When even our genuine friendships are being quantified, what hope can we possibly have for treating labor as more than a pack of pils?
Myth #3: Younger Is Smarter, Safer, and Inarguably Better
Silicon Valley speaks constantly of "the Next Mark Zuckerberg," by which people mean "the Next Almighty Child-God." Mark Zuckerberg was, of course, only 19 years old when he flipped the switch on TheFacebook.com in his Harvard dorm. That’s impressive! Only a few years later, he became the world’s youngest billionaire.
He was also among the first to acknowledge—and credit—his own youthfulness as Facebook began to skyrocket. "I want to stress the importance of being young and technical," he proclaimed before an audience of start-up kids in a Stanford auditorium. "Young people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30? I don’t know." It’s true: Zuckerberg probably doesn’t know why most chess masters are under 30. But his point here is clear: Hire or invest in anyone older than I am and you’re probably wasting your time.
This doctrine has been furthered by the Silicon Valley establishment—most notoriously by Paul Graham, who said he was a sucker for a kid who looks like Zuck. (Graham’s habit of confirming his own proclivities for younger people in tech caught up with him when he named 28-year-old Sam Altman, the firm’s second-youngest partner, as his successor.)
Zuck, though, is the prototypical once-in-a-generation outlier prodigy. And the fallacy of youth fails to bear out in Silicon Valley all the time. For every Snapchat and Box, there’s a Rap Genius, a Canvas, and, well, a Tumblr. There’s been no bigger industry humiliation and repudiation of the youth myth than the case of Clinkle, a personal-finance app that somehow managed to be an even greater disaster than its name. In 2013, a cadre of ostensibly sane investors gave Lucas Duplan, a 22-year-old Stanford graduate who moonlights as your friend’s annoying little brother, more than $25 million in venture backing. These investors weren’t crackpots: They included big names like Richard Branson, who posed eagerly next to Duplan’s smooth, childish face in photos. They both grinned wide, but Branson grinned widest: I’ve found my Next Zuckerberg, you sons of bitches.
Clinkle, with Duplan at the controls, was unable to deliver a single scrap of software to the public in more than a year. Instead, Duplan fired swaths of staffers while planning his corner office in a new building; other underlings quit in disgust. Company morale bottomed out at around the same time Clinkle was hacked, revealing a selfie of Duplan holding a large handful of cash. When Clinkle launched its app (far more modest than he’d described years before), it landed with a thud.
Painful as it is to watch a corporate car crash with a baby at the wheel, these disasters might be the only way the industry will learn; that, and watching actual adults succeed. Zuckerberg, to his credit, was pretty quick to cede big-boy managerial duties to business-savvy adults and stick to his strength as the social-media prophet-in-chief. But what would be more useful than studying a wave of cautionary tales is to pay attention to grand-slam exceptions—success stories worth emulating, like that of Jan Koum and Brian Acton, who flipped their instant-messaging company WhatsApp to Facebook for almost $20 billion. The duo are 39 and 43, respectively, almost octogenarian by founder standards, yet responsible for one of the greatest software successes (and investor returns) in Silicon Valley’s history. And there’s a reason most people had never heard their names before their gigantic fortune: All along they’d acted like grown-ups.
Myth #4: School Is for Suckers, Just Drop Out
Every year, PayPal co-founder, investor-guru, and rabid libertarian Peter Thiel awards a small group of college-age students the Thiel Fellowship, a paid offer to either drop out or forgo college entirely. In exchange, the students receive money, mentorship, and networking opportunities from Thiel as they pursue a start-up of their choice. We’re frequently reminded of the tech titans of industry who never got a degree—Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg are the most cited, though the fact that they’re statistical exceptions is an aside at best. To be young in Silicon Valley is great; to be a young dropout is golden.
The virtuous dropout hasn’t just made college seem optional for many aspiring barons—formal education is now excoriated in Silicon Valley as an obsolete system dreamed up by people who’d never heard of photo filters or Snapchat. Mix this cynicism with the libertarian streak many tech entrepreneurs carry already and you’ve got yourself a legit anti-education movement.
And for what? There’s no evidence that avoiding a conventional education today grants business success tomorrow. The gifted few who end up dropping out and changing tech history would have probably changed tech history anyway—you can’t learn start-up greatness by refusing to learn in a college classroom. And given that most start-ups fail, do we want an appreciable segment of bright young people gambling so heavily on being the next Zuck? More important, do we want an economy of CEOs who never had to learn to get along with their dorm-mates? Who never had the opportunity to grow up and figure out how to be a human being functioning in society? Who went straight from a bedroom in their parents’ house to an incubator that paid for their meals? It’s no wonder tech has an antisocial rep.
Myth #5: Coding Is the Key to the Kingdom
It’s a dictate, a mantra. You hear it when you lift your Fitbit-ed wrist to your head and cup your hand to your ear: Go west, young man, and learn to code. It’s only natural that Silicon Valley’s thought sherpas have come to fetishize the skills of the coder. For those inside the Silicon bubble, knowing a computer language is as much a lifestyle as it is a LinkedIn bullet point—and moreover, it’s salvation. (Just one illustrative anecdote: Last summer, a "compassionate entrepreneur"/aspiring Henry Higgins launched a campaign to teach coding skills in an effort to eradicate the homelessness problem in San Francisco. That’s how entrenched the belief is.)
According to Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of Netscape, "Learning to code is the single best thing anyone can do to get the most out of the amazing future in front of us." That’s one hell of a statement at a time when more than 30 million American adults can’t read well. Deep-pocketed technologists are pushing for coding to become not just part of career training but a core curriculum item, alongside history and biology. Code.org, a nonprofit supported by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, has racked up millions in donations from the infamously philanthropy-averse denizens of the Valley.
Myth #6: San Francisco Is the (Moral, Cultural, Financial) Center of the Universe
Boomtown San Francisco has an ego that makes New York and Los Angeles blush. The Bay Area—at least for those who consider skyrocketing rents a point of pride—isn’t just the best place to be, but the only place to be. It’s a simple argument: Technological innovation is the only innovation worth a damn today, and all of it is happening in or around San Francisco.
In 2014, Y Combinator czar Sam Altman said, "All the growth in the economy right now is in tech, and the only thing that is working is tech." This claim has been thoroughly debunked, but it underscored a greater belief in what matters in America and what doesn’t. The previous year, Chamath Palihapitiya, a major start-up investor and part owner of the Golden State Warriors, made his SF-centrism explicit:
"The center of power is here, make no mistake.... It’s becoming excruciatingly, obviously clear to everyone else that where value is created is no longer in New York, it’s no longer in Washington, it’s no longer in L.A. It’s in San Francisco and the Bay Area.... Because markets value meaningful events, markets discount meaningless events. And so the functional value of the government is effectively discounted to zero."
In other words, why haven’t we just replaced Congress with an app? What if the same minds that brought you Instagram were trusted with HealthCare.gov? Value in this case doesn’t just mean dollars; this is a declaration that all human activity of worth is transpiring within one segment of one industry in a single geographic sliver of the country.
Balaji Srinivasan, an Andreessen Horowitz ecutive (who’s also basically a secessionist-movement leader), famously calls everything outside Silicon Valley the "Paper Belt." It’s a powerful rhetorical weapon for the delusional barons who live there; if we criticize them, it’s because we’re from the Paper Belt, it’s because we don’t "get" tech. If we undermine them, we’re undermining the country’s last remaining font of Value.
What everyone forgets, though, is what Paul Graham, of all people, made very clear back in 2006: Silicon Valley could’ve happened anywhere. There’s nothing particularly special about the Bay Area, its adjacent regions, or anyone who lives there. "I think you only need two kinds of people to create a technology hub," Graham explained: "rich people and nerds." The Silicon Valley nexus isn’t Rome, or even Atlantic City. It’s just a place that hosts a glut of coders and people with enough money to fund even the worst ideas—most of which rely on the fundamental conviction that technology’s greatest power is that it can put us anywhere virtually, without the need to be there physically. Without the need to all gather in one blessed metropolitan area.
Thankfully, start-up incubators in other American cities are gaining ground. Cities like Baltimore—former industrial powerhouses now left with vast tracts of abandoned real estate and a low cost of living—are ripe for a techno rebirth. Groups like ETC and Betamore (in Baltimore) are helping founders get started in cities that need them rather than loathe them.
Myth #7: Silicon Valley Is Saving the World
Two years ago, an online list of "57 start-up lessons" made its way through the coder community, bolstered by a co-sign from Paul Graham. "Wow, is this list good," he commented. "It has the kind of resonance you only get when you’re writing from a lot of hard experience." Among the platitudinous menagerie was this gem: "If it doesn’t augment the human condition for a huge number of people in a meaningful way, it’s not worth doing." In a mission statement published on Andreessen Horowitz’s website, Marc Andreessen claimed he was "looking for the companies who are going to be the big winners because they are going to cause a fundamental change in the world." The firm’s portfolio includes Ringly (maker of rings that light up when your phone does something), Teespring (custom T-shirts), DogVacay (pet-sitters on demand), and Hem (the zombified corpse of the furniture store Fab.com). Last year, wealthy Facebook alum Justin Rosenstein told a packed audience at TechCrunch Disrupt, "We in this room, we in technology, have a greater capacity to change the world than the kings and presidents of even a hundred years ago." No one laughed, even though Rosenstein’s company, Asana, sells instant-messaging software.
This isn’t just a matter of preening guys in fleece vests building giant companies predicated on their own personal annoyances. It’s wasteful and genuinely harmful to have so many people working on such trivial projects (Clinkle and fucking Yo) under the auspices of world-historical greatness. At one point recently, there were four separate on-demand laundry services operating in San Francisco, each no doubt staffed by smart young people who thought they were carving out a place of small software greatness. And yet for every laundry app, there are smart people doing smart, valuable things: Among the most recent batch of Y Combinator start-ups featured during March’s "Demo Day" were Diassess (twenty-minute HIV tests), Standard Cyborg (3D-printed limbs), and Atomwise (using supercomputing to develop new medical compounds). Those start-ups just happen to be sharing desk space at the incubator with "world changers" like Lumi (easy logo printing) and Underground Cellar ("curated, limited-edition wines with a twist").
What makes the pervading mythologies so frustrating is the smug certainty of Silicon Valley that its contributions to society are more important than every other industry’s. It’s not that we can’t deal with assholes in our national midst (there’s no innovating our way out of that); it’s that no prior cohort of rich pricks have fooled themselves, and the rest of us, so thoroughly. And what a drag. At its best, Silicon Valley creates things we can’t fathom living without, the toys that become staples that become culture itself. Businesses like Uber and Airbnb that might’ve seemed like fads a decade ago are now powerhouse companies* that provide thousands with stable, high-paying jobs.
The reason we’re calling out Silicon Valley’s lies is a selfish one: We’re tired of feeling conflicted about the moral implications of summoning an on-demand cab, or wondering if our social network of choice is run by a suite of guys who look like Mr. Monopoly. We just want these places to act like the capitalist free-market solutions they are, not humanity’s saviors. Palo Alto just isn’t Renaissance Florence, and that’s perfectly fine. Wall Street is easily more villainous than the Valley, but it harbors no delusions of heroism. Our national contempt for finance and banking acts as a sort of check on Wall Street’s actions—a way of keeping J.P. Morgan from literally torching small towns and selling the ashes. And that’s all we need with Silicon Valley: a watchful eye and an intelligent wariness of any self-satisfied bullshit. This is a start.