To Silicon Valley’s surprise, Donald Trump has made it uncool to be a sociopath
“What does President Trump mean for Silicon Valley?”
That was the question posed by an audience member at John Battelles's recent “NewCo Shift” tech conference in San Francisco. The event was held under Chatham House Rules so I can’t name the prominent venture capitalist to whom the question was addressed, but I can paraphrase his answer: Silicon Valley thrives on chaos, so the tech industry will profit from the anarchy of a Trump administration.
If you’ve ever needed a reason to hate the tech industry, answers like that will get you there in a heartbeat, especially when spouted by an unspeakably rich white dude in a conference room at the St Regis. Precisely how privileged does an industry have to be to watch millions of people threatened with deportation, millions more at risk of losing their health care, never mind the looming threat of World War Three, and still send one of its moneymen to sit on stage and gush about how anarchy will be great for his billionaire buddies? Privileged and delusional: All those dollars will be bugger-all use when the nukes start flying. “No one will have the endurance, to collect on his insurance,” as Tom Lehrer rightly sang, “Lloyd's of London will be loaded when they go.”
And yet, during my travels through Silicon Valley in the weeks before the election, I heard countless variations on the “Trump will be good for tech” argument. Trump will be good because the Valley thrives on chaos. Trump will be good because he’ll reduce regulation. Trump will be good because he’ll force repatriation of overseas cash which will be spent acquiring startups. I heard it from big name CEOs and I heard it from rank-and-file tech workers, all spoken in a whisper because no one -- except someone as enthusiastically awful as Peter Thiel -- wanted to be thought of as an actual Trump supporter.
But why shouldn’t tech support Trump? Consider Uber's latest sexual harrassment scandal, or how appallingly treats its poorest workers, or how that same company threatened journalists or hired former CIA spooks to secretly smear its critics. Recall how a tech CEO videotaped himself savagely beating his girlfriend 117 times and still found a cushy new job; how women generally are talked about by Valley wunderkinds, how Theranos duped its way to $400m in funding, how dozens of tech giants were caught operating a massive global wage-fixing cartel, how Secret raised $35m for an app that drove teenagers to consider suicide, how Peter Thiel secretly spent millions to bankrupt a media organization, how tech investors love palling around with Putin and other divisive leaders. How exactly does Silicon Valley look at a self-interested, misogynist, amoral, greedy, fraudster like Donald Trump and claim moral superiority?
(Indeed, I might ask myself that same question: I’m editor of a website whose minor investors include odious Gawker-slaughterer Peter Thiel and Putin pal-arounder Shervin Pishevar.)
You can blame a generation of young founders, raised under the cult of Steve Jobs (“he was a successful asshole, ergo I must be an asshole to succeed”), or just the naturally corrosive properties of sudden grotesque wealth. Whatever the proximal cause, by the start of 2017 Silicon Valley had reached an all-time moral low. The tech industry had degenerated to the point where even the most predatory and disgusting behavior would be excused or forgiven as long as the cash kept flowing. And keep flowing it certainly would, especially in Trump’s America: The much-anticipated “bubble” has still failed to pop and, with Peter Thiel now dictating Trump’s tech and anti-trust policy, wallets on Sand Hill Road could only get fatter. No wonder so many techies were untroubled by the idea of President Trump, and why tech moguls from Jeff “savior of journalism” Bezos to Sheryl “Lean In” Sandberg ran slathering to Trump Tower to sip their Trump branded waters and yuk it up with the new boss. Business as usual!
Except of course it wasn’t. As we now know, the smartest people in the world had made a horrible miscalculation. The day after Trump’s inauguration, millions of protesters took to the streets in what Time magazine called “perhaps the largest protest in U.S. history.” And that was before the President began issuing executive orders attacking immigrants, Muslims, and anyone who relies on affordable healthcare. With the growing anti-Trump movement styling itself as “the resistance,” all those chummy tech CEOs quickly became, by definition, collaborators. It wasn’t long before protests became boycotts, culminating in the #deleteuber campaign which, reportedly, saw more than 200,000 Uber users uninstalling the app.
Faced with mounting public anger and pressure from its own employees (many of whom are, of course, immigrants), something miraculous happened in Silicon Valley, almost overnight: Amorality became bad for business. As if by magic, Google’s Sergey Brin popped up to protest the immigration ban at SFO, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg (belatedly) proclaimed her support for the Women’s March and Mark Zuckerberg spoke out against Trump’s immigration policy. Even Travis Kalanick -- the king of Silicon Valley assholes -- decided to step down from Trump’s economic advisory group in the hope of reversing the backlash against his company.
Across the Valley, CEOs huddled with their PR people to decide exactly how much they should donate to the ACLU, and whether a firm anti-Trump statement would be enough to quell employee rebellion (note to Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey: Nope.) All but three of the companies represented at Trump’s cozy tech meeting how now joined lawsuits opposing him.
And then, just this past weekend, Uber - for the first time in the company's history - actually announced a wide-ranging, independent inquiry into the company's toxic culture. That's how terrified Kalanick is of another #deleteuber tsunami.
Oh brave new Silicon Valley!
Sure there are a few hold-outs - including that lonely on-stage VC who still thinks Trump will be good for business. But with every passing day, those voices become less representative of the wider tech industry.
Will the change stick? Will Uber's harrassment inquiry actually result in a single person losing his job? Has the reign of the sociopathic tech bro really come to an end? A lot of that depends on users and employees keeping up the pressure on Zuckerberg, Kalanick et al to practise what they suddenly preach. Here’s what’s certain: In less than two months, President Trump has managed what the non-bursting of the non-bubble had failed to do. At least for now, he has halted Silicon Valley’s previously inexorable descent into unapologetic assholedom.
Good old Donald! Now let’s hurry up and impeach the fucker.