Yes, the Valley can be vacuous – but it's more complicated than the New Yorker would have us believe
George Packer has a long story in this week’s New Yorker about Silicon Valley’s newfound zeal for politics. (The piece is so far available online only to subscribers.) In the wide-ranging piece, which is well worth a read, Packer examines the Valley’s libertarian streak, its historically uneasy, and at times disinterested, relationship with government, and the rise of the advocacy group FWD.us, for which the group’s president, Joe Green, grants Packer a rare interview.
There’s much to chew over in Packer’s piece, which is mostly fair in pointing out that the entrepreneurial “change the world” ethos doesn’t necessarily translate to acting in the interests of the public good, but one particular contention stands out. In the article, Packer argues broadly that the entrepreneurs and startups of Silicon Valley and San Francisco tend to be inward-looking, not curious about the world outside their companies, and intellectually lacking. Packer paraphrases LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman in describing Silicon Valley’s intellectual culture as “underdeveloped.” (Disclosure: Hoffman's Greylock Discovery Fund is an investor in PandoDaily.)
Just as disdainfully, Packer describes one “aha” moment in his research while interviewing Path founder Dave Morin, who, with his daytime and nighttime iPhones is fast becoming the whipping boy for people looking to fingerpoint the Valley self-unaware. Morin has just finished explaining to Packer the perks of being able to book a room via Airbnb, hire a luxury car through Uber, reserve a table at a restaurant through an app, or get a bike messenger to deliver food to his door using Postmates, when the writer has his realization.
“It suddenly occurred to me,” writes Packer, “that the hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up.”To an extent, Packer is right: there is some bias towards solving rich white-boy problems in Silicon Valley, which might be why the likes of Airbnb, Uber, Postmates, Lyft, Exec, TaskRabbit, TripIt, and HotelTonight get well funded (although it might also have something to do with their business potential). But to dismiss all the “hottest tech start-ups” in such terms is to ignore the work being done by serious entrepreneurs tackling serious problems. In that sense, Packer falls into the same trap – or, depending on how you look at it, deploys the same cynical rhetorical artillery – as Evgeny Morozov, artful academic master of the straw-man take-down.
It’s easy to point to the likes of Uber and Exec, which lets you book cleaners for your home through an app at exorbitant prices without having to actually talk to them, and scream “First world problems!” It’s unreasonable, though, to use them as evidence for an argument that “Silicon Valley” in general is intellectually narrow and uninterested in the problems that ail the rest of the world. To do so, one must consciously ignore the many Silicon Valley-based entrepreneurs, and founders from other parts of the country, who are starting companies that, all going well, can have a deep and meaningful effect on the way the world does business.
If Packer wanted to write an article that extolled the efforts of entrepreneurs who are turning to startups to tackle important but difficult world problems, he would have found ample material. He could have touched on startups working in healthcare, for instance, such as electronic medical records company Practice Fusion, or expert medical advice network ConsultingMD (which today announced it has raised $10 million in Series B funding), or, if he were willing to expand the scope to Wisconsin, Asthmapolis, which is using data and hardware to help even the poorest people get their asthma under control.
Packer might also have looked at charitable giving, where Bright Funds is hoping to make an impact by making it easy for small and medium-sized businesses to incorporate donations to charities into their payrolls. He could have looked at how startups like Zenefits are looking to untangle the mess of buying and maintaining health insurance plans, or at the other startups hoping to take advantage of the Obamacare reforms. He could have looked at how TurboVote and Popvox are trying to add transparency to the political process, while Causes offers tools for political organizing. You’d think that he might have spent at least some time discussing Tesla, or SolarCity, or Sunrun, all of whom are trying to end our dependency on fossil fuels.
The truth is, however, that those companies, and the entrepreneurs behind them, don’t fit neatly into Packer’s narrative about the startuppers of Silicon Valley being an intellectually hobbled, self-interested lot whose rhetoric about changing the world ultimately rings hollow. Packer’s argument, then, is really only half an argument, its well-reasoned points giving way to a blindspot that not only does a disservice to the do-gooders of the Valley, but also detracts from the article’s important point that progress in the tech sector does not necessarily amount to progress in the wider economic, social, or political spheres.
Silicon Valley, after all, is more complicated than Dave Morin’s two iPhones would have us believe.