As we all (should) know the “real” masters of the universe (MOTU) center around He-Man and his supporting cast of characters from the mind of the Mattel media company. In the 80s, we also find masters of the universe on Wall Street — bright young MBAs leading the charge towards the untold wealth (and eventual destruction) mined by investment banks. Ironically, many of the east coast MOTU have since disappeared from public view following the financial meltdown that many of them helped engineer. Now, we seem to be at risk from another group of arrogant MOTU: this time, a select group of high-tech entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley.
From the WSJ:
At a startup conference in the San Francisco Bay area last month, a brash and brilliant young entrepreneur named Balaji Srinivasan took the stage to lay out a case for Silicon Valley’s independence.
According to Mr. Srinivasan, who co-founded a successful genetics startup and is now a popular lecturer at Stanford University, the tech industry is under siege from Wall Street, Washington and Hollywood, which he says he believes are harboring resentment toward Silicon Valley’s efforts to usurp their cultural and economic power.
Balaji Srinivasan, an entrepreneur who proposes an ‘opt-in society,’ run by technology. His idea seems a more expansive version of a call by Google CEO Larry Page for ‘a piece of the world’ to try out controversial new technologies.
On its surface, Mr. Srinivasan’s talk,?called “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit,”?sounded like a battle cry of the libertarian, anti-regulatory sensibility long espoused by some of the tech industry’s leading thinkers. After arguing that the rest of the country wants to put a stop to the Valley’s rise, Mr. Srinivasan floated a plan for techies to build an “opt-in society, outside the U.S., run by technology.”
His idea seemed a more expansive version of Google Chief Executive Larry Page‘s call for setting aside “a piece of the world” to try out controversial new technologies, and investor Peter Thiel’s “Seastead” movement, which aims to launch tech-utopian island nations.
But there was something more significant about Mr. Srinivasan’s talk than simply a rehash of Silicon Valley’s grievances. It was one of several recent episodes in which tech stars have sought to declare the Valley the nation’s leading center of power and to dismiss non-techies as unimportant to the nation’s future.
For instance, on “This Week in Start-Ups,” a popular tech podcast, the venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya recently argued that “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.”
This is Silicon Valley’s superiority complex, and it sure is an ugly thing to behold. As the tech industry has shaken off the memories of the last dot-com bust, its luminaries have become increasingly confident about their capacity to shape the future. And now they seem to have lost all humility about their place in the world.
Sure, they’re correct that whether you measure success financially or culturally, Silicon Valley now seems to be doing better than just about anywhere else. But there is a suggestion bubbling beneath the surface of every San Francisco networking salon that the industry is unstoppable, and that its very success renders it immune to legitimate criticism.
This is a dangerous idea. For Silicon Valley’s own sake, the triumphalist tone needs to be kept in check. Everyone knows that Silicon Valley aims to take over the world. But if they want to succeed, the Valley’s inhabitants would be wise to at least pretend to be more humble in their approach.
I tried to suggest this to Mr. Srinivasan when I met him at a Palo Alto, Calif., cafe a week after his incendiary talk. We spoke for two hours, and I found him to be disarming and charming.
He has a quick, capacious mind, the sort that flits effortlessly from discussions of genetics to economics to politics to history. (He is the kind of person who will refer to the Treaty of Westphalia in conversation.)
Contrary to press reports, Mr. Srinivasan says he wasn’t advocating Silicon Valley’s “secession.” And, in fact, he hadn’t used that word. Instead he was advocating a “peaceful exit,” something similar to what his father did when he emigrated from India to the U.S. in the past century. But when I asked him what harms techies faced that might prompt such a drastic response, he couldn’t offer much evidence.
He pointed to a few headlines in the national press warning that robots might be taking over people’s jobs. These, he said, were evidence of the rising resentment that technology will foster as it alters conditions across the country and why Silicon Valley needs to keep an escape hatch open.
But I found Mr. Srinivasan’s thesis to be naive. According to the industry’s own hype, technologies like robotics, artificial intelligence, data mining and ubiquitous networking are poised to usher in profound changes in how we all work and live. I believe, as Mr. Srinivasan argues, that many of these changes will eventually improve human welfare.
But in the short run, these technologies could cause enormous economic and social hardships for lots of people. And it is bizarre to expect, as Mr. Srinivasan and other techies seem to, that those who are affected wouldn’t criticize or move to stop the industry pushing them.
Tech leaders have a choice in how to deal with the dislocations their innovations cause. They can empathize and even work with stalwarts of the old economy to reduce the shock of new invention in sectors such as Hollywood, the news and publishing industries, the government, and finance—areas that Mr. Srinivasan collectively labels “the paper belt.”
They can continue to disrupt many of these institutions in the marketplace without making preening claims about the superiority of tech culture. (Apple’s executives rarely shill for the Valley, but still sometimes manage to change the world).
Or, tech leaders can adopt an oppositional tone: If you don’t recognize our superiority and the rightness of our ways, we’ll take our ball and go home.
Read the entire article here.
Image courtesy of Silicon Valley.