Silicon Valley’s monoculture

Jessica Powell, formerly Head of Public Relations at Google, has published a satirical novel about the tech industry. I haven’t read it yet, but noticed that Farad Manjoo of the New York Times had, and was struck by his commentary on it, especially this bit:

Ms. Powell smartly recognizes a truth that many in the industry elide: A lack of diversity is not just one of several issues for Silicon Valley to fix, but is instead the keystone problem — the source of much else that ails tech, from its recklessly expansionist zeal to the ways its brightest companies keep stepping in problems of their own making.

In short, Silicon Valley’s problem is sameness, stupid — and in Ms. Powell’s telling, we are not going to get a better, more responsible tech industry until we get a more intellectually diverse one.

“I don’t think that everyone has an equal voice,” Ms. Powell said in an interview. “Even putting aside broader issues around gender diversity, ethnic diversity or class diversity, there’s also an issue around people’s educational backgrounds. If you have a hierarchy where engineers are at the very top and the people who are interfacing with the outside world are a couple rungs below that, you really miss something when those people don’t have an equal voice at the table.”

She added: “It’s a monoculture of thought, and that’s a real problem.”

It is. I’ve long thought of Silicon Valley as a Reality Distortion Field, inhabited by rich male nerds who think that Palo Alto is the Florence of Renaissance 2.0 and they are the Medici. It’s all baloney, of course, but it’s amazing how sudden wealth insulates people from reality.

Accidental empires

From an interesting (if sometimes chaotic) interview by Kara Swisher with Adam Fisher, author of Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley:

“Silicon Valley still actually makes things, but less and less. We had an economy that was based on making things first, making chips and then computers, and then making bits of software, and then at some point we started getting everything for free; in quotes, “free.” And it stopped being an economy that made things. It became an economy where people made money by extracting things, by mining data.

So it flipped from a making economy to an extraction economy, and we have all the dysfunction that you would see in a mining site in the third world. Mining economies, extraction economies, are kind of corrupt economies because one person or one company ends up controlling everything.”

Fascinating, rambling interview with stories that sometimes bring one up short. Worth reading (or listening to) in full.

So are the Democrats ready to unfriend Facebook?

Nice Observer piece by Thomas Frank, reminding us of how Obama & Co drank the Facebook Kool-Aid:

Seated with a panel of entrepreneurs from around the world, the president [Obama] lobbed his friend Zuckerberg an easy question about Facebook “creating this platform for entrepreneurship around the world”. In batting it out of the park, the Facebook CEO, clad in his humble costume of jeans, T-shirt and sneakers, took pains to inform everyone that what animated him were high-minded ideals. “When I was getting started,” he burbled, “I cared deeply about giving everyone a voice, and giving people the tools to share everything that they cared about, and bringing a community together …”

No rude senator spoke up to interrupt this propaganda. Instead, Zuckerberg went on to describe his efforts to connect everyone to the internet as a sort of wager on human goodness itself.

“It’s this deep belief that you’re trying to make a change, you’re trying to connect people in the world, and I really do believe that if you do something good and if you help people out, then eventually some portion of that good will come back to you. And you may not know up front what it’s going to be, but that’s just been the guiding principle for me in the work that we’ve done …”

That’s how it works, all right. Gigantic corporate investments are acts of generosity, and when making them, kind-hearted CEOs routinely count on Karma to reward them. That’s the “guiding principle”.

Reader, here is what the president could be heard to say as Zuckerberg ended this self-serving homily: “Excellent.”

Read on

High IQ + childlike naiveté = Silicon Valley

Today’s Observer column:

Put simply, what Google and Facebook have built is a pair of amazingly sophisticated, computer-driven engines for extracting users’ personal information and data trails, refining them for sale to advertisers in high-speed data-trading auctions that are entirely unregulated and opaque to everyone except the companies themselves.

The purpose of this infrastructure was to enable companies to target people with carefully customised commercial messages and, as far as we know, they are pretty good at that. (Though some advertisers are beginning to wonder if these systems are quite as good as Google and Facebook claim.) And in doing this, Zuckerberg, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and co wrote themselves licences to print money and build insanely profitable companies.

It never seems to have occurred to them that their advertising engines could also be used to deliver precisely targeted ideological and political messages to voters. Hence the obvious question: how could such smart people be so stupid?

Read on

Sexism in the Valley

This morning’s Observer column:

A few months ago, a Google engineer named James Damore wrote an incendiary internal memo on a 12-hour flight to China. He had just attended a “diversity programme” run by his employer, which had clearly annoyed or disturbed him. “I heard things that I definitely disagreed with,” he later told an interviewer. He said there was a lot of shaming at the programme. “They said ‘No you can’t say that, that’s sexist… You can’t do this…’ There’s just so much hypocrisy in a lot of the things that they’re saying.”

Damore’s 10-page memo – entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber: how bias clouds our thinking about diversity and inclusion” – went viral within Google, and eventually news of it reached the outside world. When it did, it provoked a predictable firestorm…

Read on