The Irredeemable Silicon Valley
Five years ago I wished the tech industry would get interesting again. That'll teach me.
Precisely five years ago, I explained to TechCrunch readers that I had grown bored with San Francisco -- by which, of course, I really meant I had grown bored with Silicon Valley.
As I surveyed the tech industry landscape circa March 2011, I saw a financial boom but a creativity bust. The star companies of that year – the Instagrams and Quoras and Paths – might have been worth hundreds of millions (or even billions) but they offered almost nothing in terms of innovation or revolution. In fact, the entire tech industry seemed to have lost its courage; its revolutionary zeal.
It’s an old Chinese curse to wish your enemy might “live in interesting times”. But interesting times also tend to be the mother of invention and revolution. And it’s in that spirit that I wish the Valley’s times were a little bit less charmed right now, and a little bit more interesting.
Shortly after writing that column, I left San Francisco to spend a month in Vegas, where I met Tony Hsieh and his Downtown Project. Long time Pando readers will know what happened next: TechCrunch imploded, I quit in a blaze of glory and raised close to a million dollars, much of it from Tony, for NSFWCORP. Fast forward those five years and that million dollars and here I am back in Silicon Valley, once again considering the landscape.
A curse is a curse for a reason.
You read Pando. You have eyes. You don't need me to tell you what I see: The cult of rule breaking, the gutless enabling from “founder friendly” investors, the unicorns, the fake news, the assaults, sexual harassment, and Pete and Dave's rape apologist handbook.
In those five short years since I complained about Silicon Valley's lack of excitement, the industry may not have any better ideas, but it certainly has regained its zeal. Unfortunately the zeal is for disruption all costs, giving us the horrors of Uber, Theranos, Zenefits, and (Pando investor) Peter Thiel in the White House.
Looking further still, the obvious question is what happens next? If five short years have taken the tech industry from Dave “Two Phones” Morin to Travis “Just Imagine What We'll Learn In Discovery” Kalanick, where will another five years – this time under a Trump administration - take it?
It's possible, I suppose, that Uber's current legal and cultural woes will cause that company to straighten itself out. It's possible too that other Valley founders will learn from Travis Kalanick's mistakes or heed the concerns of workers and actively work to foil Donald Trump's most invasive, destructive policies. Perhaps the next five years will see a period of recovery and resitance; or introspection and innovation.
This is Silicon Valley, after all. Anything is possible.
Here, based on all available evidence, is what's probable: Five years of state-sponsored censorship, fake news, and cyberbullying, aided and abetted by the likes of Peter Thiel, Mark Zuckeberg and Jack Dorsey. More fake news and pressure from the White House for tech companies to breach the privacy of immigrants, political rivals, reporters and pretty much everyone else. Five years of microphones in every home and camera in every hotel room. Five years of whatever fresh awfulness is served up new breed entrepreneur bros inspired by Travis Kalanick.
In other words: Come back boring Silicon Valley, all is forgiven.
And it gets worse still. Unlike five years ago when the cure for boredom was to go explore other cities and other industries, his time there's no escape. No state or national borders are able to restrict the kind of tech-powered awfulness the next five years will likely bring.
And speaking of borders, thanks to Thiel's pal Donald Trump, we can all look forward to the prospect of border guards seizing and searching our phones and demanding our online account logins every time we come and go. We are entering an age where even the most innocuous of technologies will be weaponized against us.
So what to do?
When I first wrote about the awfulness of Uber, back in 2012, Sarah pointed out the hypocrisy of continuing to use a service I considered so irredeemable. She was right and I deleted my account the same day, and have never returned.
For the past couple of weeks, as I've reached these entirely new levels of despair at the state of the tech industry, Sarah's words have haunted me. Unlike back in 2011, the problem today isn't limited to a single company but to an entire ecosystem. It's represented not just by assholes like Travis Kalanick but also by “good guys” like Jack Dorsey who allow Donald Trump to use their platforms as a literal bully pulpit. In the middle are an awful lot of people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who save the planet and support journalism in the morning and then gladhand Donald Trump in the afternoon.
If I really consider the Valley to be irredeemable – at least for the next half decade – then why would I continue to use Facebook, or Twitter, or Google, or Amazon, or any other part of that increasingly toxic ecosystem?
Wouldn't it be immeasurable hypocrisy on my part to complain that the tech industry has become a swamp, but then continue to use its wonderful toys?
Yeah, I think it would.
But then again, isn't part of the problem with Silicon Valley that it has become practically impossible to live without those toys? That, without a Facebook or Amazon or Google login (at least), we're doomed to spend eternity rolling around in the dirt at the base of Maslow's pyramid? No social media, no cloud = exclusion from the world, particularly here in the Bay Area.
Or is that the even bigger lie?
There really is only one way to find out.
This past weekend, I screwed my courage to the sticking place and set about deleting my accounts on... pretty much everything. On Twitter, on Facebook, on Google, on Apple, on Microsoft, on Amazon, on Dropbox, on Comet on Cupid on Donder and Blitzen. Everything, in fact, except for my Pando login and work email (because I'm not quitting my job), my online bank accounts, and a personal email address hosted in some Norwegian nuclear bunker somewhere (because I'm not quitting my friends).
The entire progress took far, far longer than I expected and involved far too many actual phone calls. It was also far more emotionally traumatic – especially given the lengths companies now take to dissuade you from abandoning their servers. Special mention on that front goes to Facebook for showing me a list of my friends who would “miss me” if I left, and to Apple who insisted on reading me a ten minute list of things I'd lose if I quit.
Apple was the hardest service to delete, logistically. I had to call a real person who, apparently, had been trained to lie and say Apple accounts could never be deleted. Only when I insisted on speaking to a supervisor did I grudgingly find someone who admitted that, yeah, actually there was a delete key to press. Emotionally hardest was Amazon: Evil CIA-ties or no, god I love ordering books for same day delivery. Bezos' loss is Dog Eared's gain, I suppose.
But, by Sunday evening, it was done and could not be undone, to quote Lady Macbeth for a second time.
An hour later I was hit with unbearable quitter's remorse. My data! My precious data! I forced myself away from my laptop and went for a walk.
24 hours later, I remembered a couple of accounts I'd forgotten, and deleted those too.
Two full days later, the sun is shining and the birds are singing. I'm feeling a sense of freedom akin to the one I felt getting on that plane to Vegas five years ago. I checked my email maybe twice yesterday, and that's it.
Will I ever come back to the services I've left behind? Maybe. Probably. Eventually. After all I eventually booked my return flight to San Francisco, albeit several years older and on my own terms. Perhaps, if my five year prediction is wrong and Silicon Valley drains its swamp, I'll start signing up for things again in a year or so.
For now, though, aside from my weekly pieces on Pando, the wider tech industry will just have to muddle on without my ever-so-valuable data, or content, or whatever I am to those fuckers. I suspect it'll do just fine, just like San Francisco somehow survived a couple of big earthquakes and my departure for Sin City.
But the survival will be mutual. I have a book to finish writing and a new offline project that I'm very excited about (and that might appeal to you too, if any of the above resonates with you.) First, though, I'm going to hit publish on this post and take my flip phone for a walk in the park.