It has been said that Silicon Valley, or the 50 or so square-mile area extending from San Francisco to the base of the peninsula, has overseen the creation of more wealth than any place in the history of mankind. It’s made people richer than the oil industry; it has created more money than the Gold Rush. Silicon chips, lines of code, and rectangular screens have even minted more wealth than religious wars.
Wealthy societies, indeed, have their own complicated incentive structures and mores. But they do often tend, as any technological entrepreneur will be quick to remind you, to distribute value across numerous income levels, in a scaled capacity. The Ford line, for instance, may have eventually minted some serious millionaires in Detroit, but it also made transportation cheaper, helped drive down prices on countless consumer goods, and facilitated new trade routes and commercial opportunities. Smartphones, or any number of inventive modern apps or other software products, are no different. Sure, they throw off a lot of money to the geniuses who came up with them, and the people who got in at the ground floor. But they also make possible innumerable other opportunities, financial and otherwise, for their millions of consumers.
Silicon Valley is, in its own right, a dynasty. Instead of warriors or military heroes, it has nerds and people in half-zip sweaters. But it is becoming increasingly likely that the Valley might go down in history not only for its wealth, but also for creating more tone deaf people than any other ecosystem in the history of the world.
In just the past month, the Valley has seemed like it’s happily living in some sort of sadomasochistic bubble worthy of a bad Hollywood satire. Uber has endured a slate of scandals that would have seriously wounded a less culturally popular company (or a public one, for that matter). There was one former employee’s allegation of sexual harassment (which the company reportedly investigated); a report of driver manipulation; an unpleasant video depicting C.E.O. Travis Kalanick [furiously berating] an Uber driver; a story about secret software that could subvert regulators; a report of cocaine use and groping at holiday parties (an offending manager was fired within hours of the scandal); a lawsuit for potentially buying stolen software from a competitor; more groping; a slew of corporate exits; and a driverless car crash. (The shit will really hit the fan if it turns out that Uber’s self-driving technology was misappropriated from Alphabet’s Waymo; Uber has called the lawsuit “baseless.”)
Then there was Facebook, which held its developer conference while the Facebook Killer was on the loose. As Mat Honan of BuzzFeed put it so eloquently: “People used to talk about Steve Jobs and Apple’s reality distortion field. But Facebook, it sometimes feels, exists in a reality hole. The company doesn’t distort reality—but it often seems to lack the ability to recognize it.”
And we ended the week with the ultimate tone-deaf statement from the C.E.O. of Juicero, the maker of a $700 dollar-soon-reduced-to-$400 dollar juicer that has $120 million in venture backing. After Bloomberg News discovered that you didn’t even need the $700 $400 juicer to make juice (there are, apparently, these things called hands) the company’s chief executive, Jeff Dunn, offered a response on Medium insinuating that he gets up every day to make the world a better place.
Of course, not everyone who makes the pilgrimage out West is, or becomes, a jerk. Some people arrive in the Valley with a philosophy of how to act as an adult. But here’s the problem with that group: most of them don’t vociferously articulate how unsettled they are by the bad actors. Even when journalists manage to cover these atrocious activities, the powers of Silicon Valley try to ridicule them, often in public. Take, for example, the 2015 TechCrunch Disrupt conference, when a reporter asked billionaire investor Vinod Kholsa—who evidently believes that public beaches should belong to rich people—about some of the ethical controversy surrounding the mayonnaise-disruption startup Hampton Creek (I can’t believe I just wrote the words “mayonnaise-disruption”). Khosla responded with a trite and rude retort that the company was fine. When the reporter pressed Khosla, he shut him down by saying, “I know a lot more about how they’re doing, excuse me, than you do.” A year later and the Justice Department opened a criminal investigation into whether the company defrauded investors when employees secretly purchased the company’s own mayonnaise from grocery stores. (The Justice Department has since dropped its investigation.)
When you zoom out of that 50-square-mile area of Silicon Valley, it becomes obvious that big businesses can get shamed into doing the right thing. When it was discovered that Volkswagen lied about emissions outputs, the company’s C.E.O. was forced to resign. The same was true for the chief of Wells Fargo, who was embroiled in a financial scandal. In the wake of it’s recent public scandal, United recently knocked its C.E.O. down a peg. Even Fox News, one of the most bizarrely unrepentant media outlet in America, pushed out two of the most important people at the network over allegations of sexual harassment. (Bill O’Reilly has said that claims against him are “unfounded”; Roger Ailes has vociferously denied allegations of sexual harassment.) Even Wall Street can (sometimes) be forced to be more ethical. Yet Elizabeth Holmes is still C.E.O. of Theranos. Travis Kalanick is still going to make billions of dollars as the chief of Uber when the company eventually goes public. The list goes on and on.
In many respects, this is simply the D.N.A. of Silicon Valley. The tech bubble of the mid-90s was inflated by lies that sent the NASDAQ on a vertiginous downward spike that eviscerated the life savings of thousands of retirees and Americans who believed in the hype. This time around, it seems that some of these business may be real, but the people running them are still as tone deaf regarding how their actions affect other people. Silicon Valley has indeed created some amazing things. One can only hope these people don’t erase it with their hubris.