The coming angst of Silicon Valley: Just because we can doesn't mean we should

By Sarah Lacy , written on December 19, 2013

From The News Desk

Hacking has long been sport in Silicon Valley. Not just in terms of code but in all kinds of radical problem solving. Outsmarting the system. Not bending to the rules of the real world. And as the world's obsession with the collision of technology and the real world gathers steam, that hacker mentality is being unleashed on every industry imaginable. Suddenly everything is measurable, trackable, tweakable and -- of course -- disruptable.

The phenomenon has given us a torrent of buzzwords: Big data, the Internet of Things, mobile, local, the cloud. And it's being funded by a slog of venture capitalists who've spent the latter part of 2013 talking up the trend and jumping on the bandwagon.

Bitcoin is on everyone's lips: cash, disrupted! And even industries like clean tech and healthcare that had a bad rap with VCs are now getting a "software-eating-the-world" facelift.

Max Levchin would tell you Glow is more of a software big data company than a healthcare app.

Is Nest a company that makes thermostats or part of the "Internet of things"?

Is Uber a transportation company or a city-wide mobile logistics play? And what of the endless food delivery and meal planning companies? The economics of grocery stores and restaurants alike have long been woeful. But new entrants tells us they're going to change all that with the power of software.

But as we increasingly find ways to apply software and measurement to everything imaginable, I worry that a hyper-quantified world won't necessarily be a better world.

This isn't so much an argument for privacy as it is an argument about human nature. As the growth of "quantified self" tools like Fitbit and Fuelband have proved, we love to be measured. When given the option, we'll opt for the safety of probabilities over the chance of happenstance, serendipity, and possibility.

To pick a wonky example, this is the reason that partial liquidations became so popular in the last ten years of Silicon Valley: It was human nature to take the 100 percent chance of making a few million dollars over the remote chance of becoming a billionaire. The Valley hacked that with creative financing and the result is a Snapchat: Where the founders can safely turn down $3 billion, in part because they know they have the option of cashing out shares well before that valuation has to be realized.

Is that good? In many senses, yes. Big companies disproportionately create more value. But in a zeal to align the founder with investors by making it safe for them to turn down buyout offers, the founder loses alignment with employees. And loses skin in the game. Holding out becomes rational, not contrarian.

Similarly, I've long railed against how the obsession with metrics in new media has hurt journalism. Show me a newsroom where reporters are rewarded on specific metrics and I'll show you a group of wily reporters who have learned to game that metric, frequently to the detriment of readers.

The MIT Technology Review has an even more personal example in an excellent article today on the advances in Prenatal DNA Sequencing and whether as a society we're ready for them. (H/t mediaredef.) It's worth reading, not just for the issues it raises about prenatal testing, but the sober red flags it raises amid a zeal towards software eating everything it can.

I know a lot of people in the Valley who have suggested in all seriousness that the real genetic testing they want goes beyond knowing whether their unborn children are healthy. They want to know what their child will look like and be good at. This horrifies me every time I hear it. The best part of my day is watching my kids emerge bit-by-bit into their own unique individuals unlike anyone else who has ever walked the earth. Knowing what they are likely to be good at, would no doubt change the opportunities we put before them.

But beyond that, it's the ultimate spoiler alert. What would happen to the joy, the serendipity, the pride, the challenge of discovery and overcoming obstacles, if I knew they'd before birth they'd be great athletes? More importantly, as the recent scandals around 23andme have shown, a small amount of data, presented in the vacuum, can sometimes do more harm than good.

In 2014 we're going to see the Internet of things, quantified self and the rest continue to go mainstream.  But I still have confidence -- perhaps hope? -- that some things will be allowed retain the quirkiness of atoms, no matter how much the tech world tries to turn them into bits.

[Illustration by Patrick Kyle for Pandodaily]