Facebook, Uber and the outsider’s harsh perspective on Silicon Valley

Two companies based in the Silicon Valley (which not geographically but culturally includes San Francisco) have been making headlines over the past days: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published his globalization manifesto and Uber was confronted with the extensive, high-profile revelations of a former female engineer about the company’s systematic ignorance of sexism and generally hostile work culture.

Both stories have led to widespread criticism. In the case of Uber, it’s obvious why. But even Facebook’s manifesto, despite having been an active PR effort, was not received too well in the media. When the leader of the arguably most powerful company in the world outlines how he wants to use that power to shape the world, few are getting enthusiastic. Two of the negative responses to these stories stuck out though: They didn’t come from the usual suspects who professionally cover or comment on technology but from representatives of other firms. They also didn’t only focus on the specific matter, but used the occasion for a direct attack on the Silicon Valley way of doing things.

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One of these two responses was published by Andrew Torba, the founder of a Twitter-like service called Gab. Gab enjoys a certain popularity among the American right-wing and essentially acts as a refuge for everyone who has been banned from Twitter for trolling, harassment or hate speech. In a highly political comment, Torba responded to the Zuckerberg manifesto, connecting the “morally superior idealism” of the “monopoly of Silicon Valley giants” to perceived threats against Western civilization, free speech and national sovereignty. The author ends the post with a promise to “refuse to pander to morally superior billionaires who think they know best”. The company has its headquarter in San Mateo not far from the giants that his founder seems to despise, but the sentiment presented is one of an “outsider” talking, and that’s to my understanding also how Gab is considered within the industry. It’s worth noting though that there was a time when Torba tried to be on the inside, before he was kicked out of the renowned San Francisco-based startup accelerator Y Combinator for violating the accelerator’s harassment policy.

The same day, David Heinemeier Hansson (also known as DHH), the Danish-born, outspoken founder and CTO of Chicago-headquartered software company Basecamp, wrote a passionate rant about Uber’s long list of misconduct and the major cause for why nothing seems to be changing: The Silicon Valley’s “sacred belief” that in order to “keep the engine of growth firing at 110 %”, whatever has to be done needs to be done. In Heinemeier Hansson’s view, Uber’s modus operandi is directly encouraged by the broader Silicon Valley culture. “It’s completely expectable and predictable behavior.”

Ideologically, Heinemeier Hansson and Torba probably don’t have a lot in common. But what unites them in this very moment is their criticism of Silicon Valley norms (even if they come from different angles), expressed as outsiders benefiting from little fear of alienating allies in the Valley.

And this occurrence reveals a secret to the success of the Silicon Valley – but also a risk for its future: In the monotonous office building landscapes between San Francisco, Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Cupertino, everyone is part of a self-perpetuating system that inevitably leads to results such as Zuckerberg’s world shaping ambitions and Uber’s hyper growth-fueled acceptance of collateral damage. Everyone involved benefits from this system’s and culture’s success – if not in direct financial terms, then more indirectly through an overall prosperity of their large, well-connected networks. And so, the widely-lauded “can do” attitude of the Valley comes with a lack of a self-correction mechanism – because until now, for the protagonists of the Silicon Valley, there has been little reward for being party poppers, but a huge upside for following the unwritten rules and norms of the “clique”.

This state of things is slowly causing an alienation between those inside the Valley and the rest of the population. The cracks in the wall are getting noticeable: Y Combinator President Sam Altman, who at least in his public persona is one the industry’s more self-critical figures, did the laudable effort to talk to 100 Trump voters, both online and in person during trips to parts of the United States. He documented their thoughts, worries and motivations in a blog post. Almost none of them wanted him to use their names though, for one reason, as explained by Altman: “Even people from very red states were worried about getting ‘targeted by those people in Silicon Valley if they knew I voted for him'”.

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