Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.
They disrupted the old ways. They scoffed at the old certainties.
Theirs, you see, was the new certainty: that computers, data, algorithms and robots wouldn’t merely solve the world’s problems, but also change humans for the better.
This wasn’t just a championing of science. It was a belief that the Valley was a fountain of goodness.
The trouble is that the lords of tech still believe it.
Recently, former senior Facebook executive Sam Lessin took to Twitter to offer his thoughts on 2017: “2016 was a pretty rough year for tech, my 2017 prediction is that it will be a fight to regain the moral high ground.”
Did real people in real places truly look upon the tech industry and croon: “There go the morally upstanding citizens of my day. I want a poster of them on my wall”?
Or did they rather wonder: “Who are these snot-nosed kids going to Harvard and Stanford and making billions out of apps that show videos?”?
The mere idea that there was something moral about companies that took your private data, owned it, sold it and refused to let you know to whom they sold it makes eyebrows touch hairlines.
Was there really any moral high ground when tech companies went around moving fast and breaking things, while workers in the parts of America few paid attention to lost their jobs and had their lives broken?
The Valley moralists didn’t seem to care too much about dividing the country then.
And goodness how they found mendacious ways to inflate the prices of their stock.
Was there also any moral high ground when executives at companies such as Uber seemed to look at laws and mutter: “Do you see a law, Travis? I don’t.”?
I’m moved to such optimism by a profile of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick in the New York Times. He sounds exactly like the image he’s projected over time.
The Times says Kalanick tried to hoodwink Apple so that he could track iPhones — even after their owners had deleted the Uber app.
This news emerged not long after he was caught on video berating one of his own drivers.
He seems not to care about anything but (what he defines as) winning. Morality has no place at his existential table.
“Travis’s biggest strength is that he will run through a wall to accomplish his goals,” Mark Cuban told the Times. “Travis’s biggest weakness is that he will run through a wall to accomplish his goals.”
Those walls, though, often represent human values and lives.
Once self-driving cars are common, for example, Kalanick’s human drivers will be as dispensable as his cab-ride politesse.
Aiding him in this quest to be the market capo di tutti market capi are board members and investors all too prepared, it seems, to witness any sort of behavior from him and others at the company. Just because he’s the wunderkind behind a new way for people to get a taxi.
Kalanick’s behavior is oddly uplifting, though. It might be sleazy, but at least it feels honest.
This is who he is really is and how he sees the world. So this is how he’s going to behave.
He is, in his touchingly untwisted way, a breath of fresh air when compared to so many Silicon Valley executives who emit the caring, sharing, world-better-place-making tones of Northern California, while leaving morality at the curbside trying to thumb a lift.
Please just look at the wording of a statement issued by Unroll.me CEO Jojo Hedaya, after reports emerged that his email-cleansing company had been tracking email receipts from Lyft and selling them to — oh, look — Uber.
“It was heartbreaking to see that some of our users were upset to learn about how we monetize our free service,” wrote Hedaya on his company blog.
The extreme unctuousness cuddled with the treacle-coated insincerity and left a curdled sensation in your nostrils.
Hark at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his sudden embrace of “community.” He’s been doing a lot of homework about emotional intelligence, you see. So Facebook is now going to be the spirit-mother of the world.
How odd that this might coincide with Facebook’s need to know what everyone everywhere is doing and thinking. You can’t wait till Facebook starts enveloping you with Artificial Intelligence, can you?
Apple CEO Tim Cook tries to fight against willful disregard of (what used to be) moral basics.
He’s spoken forcefully about how privacy is an issue of morality.
Yet when Kalanick reportedly flouted Apple’s rules — and, some would say, very basic human rules, too — what did Cook do?
Oh, I’m sure he expressed his annoyance, but the Uber app is still available on the iPhone.
Which of these men, then, is a truer representation of current Valley values?
Which of them carries the banner for this supposed moral high ground that apparently was occupied by the everyone in the Valley until a careless slippage in 2016?
Which of them best represents the future of tech, as it swallows the old industrial world whole and emits a hearty belch?
Or is it time for those in the Valley who are quiet and still in touch with their consciences to utter a loud word or two — and perhaps do a little more than that?
The timing seems good, given what has happened recently with United Airlines, Fox News, Wells Fargo and other old-world companies that stepped on morality’s throat and claimed it was fine because they were only wearing socks.
I know we’re just talking business here and business is sometimes ugly and, yes, immoral.
The problem is that the Valley insisted that it existed for the good of the world. These were the Dalai Lamas of technology, there to bring enlightenment to our minds and souls.
Might it be a time for Silicon Valley to enhance its juice cleanse with a moral one? A Kalanick Irrigation, anyone?