Yesterday, I watched a pretty interesting conversation/debate between Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel. Naturally — at least for a talk starring two tech billionaires — tech, politics and Silicon Valley were all prominent topics of discussion.
To people even mildly familiar with Silicon Valley, it is clear that this discussion was a microcosm of the much larger real-life clash between Silicon Valley orthodoxy (Reid Hoffman) and the inconvenient contrarians (Peter Thiel). I say inconvenient because, were it not for his wealth and prior reputation, Peter would have been ousted from the Valley a long time ago. As lawsuits like the one by James Damore demonstrate, anyone who is considered “non-diverse” enough (or god forbid, conservative-leaning) is to keep silent at the workplace unless they want to know how it felt to be seen a witch back in the day.
This unspoken reality of the US tech scene is what makes it impossible to maintain the illusion that Silicon Valley is dedicated to tech, first and foremost. The result: you can love tech today and still essentially be denied or basically driven out of it if you are found guilty of wrongthink. What is worse, sometimes you don’t even have to think wrong to become an undesirable. It’s enough to look wrong too (for then you lack the life-serum of “diversity”).
The truth is: unless you share the most extreme form of liberal politics, the one where even fellow liberals might at times disagree with, you cannot be free in tech. You cannot speak up freely nor can you be who you authentically are.
All of this is deeply ironic for an industry built on (in its own words) disruption, reinvention, diversity, novelty. The disruptors, it seems, have embraced a philosophy which no one is allowed to disrupt. The novelty-seekers are now enforcing and institutionalizing the same old views. The diversity is only external (race, gender, etc.), but justified internally (if you look different, you probably see the world differently). Miraculously, however, everyone just ends up believing the same political viewpoints, voting for the same candidates, taking the same talking points, policing everyone who disagrees with the thus established orthodoxy. For a place which values diversity, that’s far from a great track record.
Still, one could still try to give the tech establishment the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps many people truly believe tech and diversity are inherently linked. But then how does one explain (away) the members of minority groups who nonetheless get ostracized for their political views? Peter Thiel himself is gay, after all. By the usual narrative, he must be in support of all diversity efforts, be a liberal and hate conservatives. Yet, he spoke at the Republican National Convention, donated to the Trump campaign and literally wrote a book against diversity decades ago! Peter might be special, but he’s likely far from exceptional in disagreeing with the Silicon Valley liberal groupthink. A narrative of diversity that, whenever the opportunity arises, only serves to enforce political homogeneity and conformity is a narrative not worth taking seriously and at face value.
The point here is not to argue politics. Rather, it is to argue freedom of thought and expression. And today, the censorship engulfing the tech scene is coming from one direction and one direction only. And Peter Thiel knew it. In an act whose symbolism he couldn’t have missed, Peter voluntarily chose to be the scapegoat for the pent-up rage against anyone in tech who doesn’t share the US-liberal form of politics.
And in case it needs saying: such rage is dangerous. Not because half of the US strongly disagrees with the politics of Silicon Valley (for disagreement itself is hardly a problem). But rather because the open hostility of Silicon Valley against heterodoxy is leading to further polarization and destabilization of American society. It’s simply foolish to think that products built by people all conceptualizing the world the same way will be able to speak to everyone (again, ironic, if diversity is supposed to be the keyword here). Albeit unofficial, Silicon Valley’s response to similar concerns (if one spends some time on Medium, or watches podcasts and videos by investors and entrepreneurs, which will go unnamed) has either been dismissive (i.e. not a problem), authoritarian (a problem to be fixed by forcing others into conformity) or recognized in words only (yes, it’s a problem in words; nothing done in action).
But the products and the narrative coming out of Silicon Valley is far from the only way American (and the global) society gets polarized. One of the questions Peter Thiel and Reid Hoffman centered their discussion around was that of rising inequality.
Now, as far as tech is concerned, the industry has always generated a lot of inequality just by virtue of being highly innovative and disruptive. And although this alone might not be a reason to worry (the most successful in society will naturally accumulate wealth), what has always been a concern is the insider-club vibe to Silicon Valley. For someone like me, without connections or rich friends, living far away from America, Silicon Valley has always seemed an unlikely place to look for success. I can imagine something similar is true even for Americans born in the flyover states, born on a farm or in a small town. People with ambition and skills but without the connections (or the thousands of dollars of rent money to even exist in San Francisco, for example) fast learn that Silicon Valley might be many things (both good and bad), but it sure is not a meritocracy.
Of course, the well-connected insiders will naturally have no problems with that system. It’s the outsiders who suffer. And increasingly, a large number of outsiders are being discouraged from their tech dreams (and the promise of creating wealth by doing what you love) not simply by the need to make the right connections (maybe you could argue outsiders need to have it hard so they could prove themselves keen enough?) but also the virtual ideological test one has to pass on the way up.
To anyone who’s concerned about the coming political problems for tech, that should spell trouble. Even in the Thiel/Hoffman talk, there was an open discussion about regulation of the tech space. Silicon Valley folks seem to think the dangers lie mostly in Fake News and self-driving cars, but they forget the damaging effect of making half the country lose trust in you as a fair player. People can live with inequality when it’s due to competence. But they cannot when it’s down to ideology.
And all of this is especially annoying and unfair to people all around the world who love tech, but whose politics is not the trendy in San Francisco. I come from Eastern Europe. We don’t carry good memories of communism or ideologies taking equality as the highest good around here. To us, right-wing is not a dirty word. It is not synonymous with nazism or extreme nationalism. Rather, it is quite often the symbol for the politics of freedom that was denied to us for decades of communist rule. What happens when somebody from a country like mine applies for a job at a Silicon Valley company? Even better, what happens when a Silicon Valley entrepreneur/investor partners up with a local venture capital firm and starts imposing ideological tests here, today? (**)
In any case, asking these questions does not require a reference to communism. Take England, for example. The country’s politics have always leaned right. Taking a San Francisco lens to it is certainly going to alienate everyone who happens to love tech but also supports the current Tory government, say. What happens when such a person comes in contact with his/her superiors in San Francisco? Would he/she get a fair hearing regardless of politics? Would they be promoted if their work was of high-enough standard? Today, probably no. Which begs the question: why should tech be so political and so ideological?
There is no good answer.
Neither in the empty narratives of Silicon Valley, nor in its actual behavior.
The upshot is this, if Silicon Valley truly stands for diversity, novelty and meritocracy, then it should welcome contrarian thinking and it should promote people based on their understanding and love of tech rather than their ideological bent. And lest that be misconstrued, none of this implies giving up on diversity, per se. Instead, it implies doing to diversity the very thing Silicon Valley prides itself on — reinventing and reimagining so that, ultimately, more people could partake.
Equally as valid (or rather, equally as understandable) is the love of everything left-wing in former right-wing dictatorships in Latin America. My point is that if Silicon Valley is to stand in for tech on a global scale, it must be able to communicate with people all over the world and meet them in their cultural and historical contexts without the ideological barriers erected by the toxic US politics of today. At the end of the day, Silicon Valley should be about making cool new tech, not polarizing the world further along political and ideological lines.
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