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From Gentlemen's Quarterly:
We're forever thankful to Silicon Valley for giving us the iPhone, omnipotent search engines, and swipe-simple hookups. But now that America's most vaunted industry has also become its most self-satisfied, Silicon Valley is veering toward fall-of-Rome territory. Which is why it needs to blow up these seven myths about itself before it's too late
I think my life is better because of my iPhone. Yours probably is, too. I'm grateful to live in a time when I can see my baby cousins or experience any album ever without getting out of bed. I'm grateful that I will literally never be lost again, so long as my phone has battery. And I'm grateful that there are so many people so much smarter than I am who devise things like this, which are magical for the first week they show up, then a given in my life a week later.
We live in an era of technical ability that would have nauseated our ancestors with wonder, and so much of it comes from one very small place in California. But all these unimpeachable humanoid upgrades—the smartphones, the Google-gifted knowledge—are increasingly the exception, rather than the rule, of Silicon Valley's output. What was once a land of upstarts and rebels is now being led by the money-hungry and the unspirited. Which is why we have a start-up that mails your dog curated treats and an app that says "Yo." The brightest minds in tech just lately seem more concerned with silly business ideas and innocuous "disruption," all for the shot at an immense payday. And when our country's smartest people are working on the dumbest things, we all lose out.
That gap between the Silicon Valley that enriches the world and the Silicon Valley that wastes itself on the trivial is widening daily. And one of the biggest contributing factors is that the Valley has lost touch with reality by subscribing to its own self-congratulatory mythmaking. That these beliefs are mostly baseless, or at least egotistically distorted, is a problem—not just for Silicon Valley but for the rest of us. Which is why we're here to help the Valley tear down its own myths—these seven in particular.
Myth #1: Silicon Valley Is the Universe's Only True Meritocracy
Everyone in Silicon Valley has convinced himself he's helped create a free-market paradise, the software successor to Jefferson's brotherhood of noble yeomen. "Silicon Valley has this way of finding greatness and supporting it," said a member of Greylock Partners, a major venture-capital firm with over $2 billion under management. "It values meritocracy more than anyplace else." After complaints of the start-up economy's profound whiteness reached mainstream discussion just last year, companies like Apple, Facebook, and Twitter reluctantly released internal diversity reports. The results were as homogenized as expected: At Twitter, 79 percent of the leadership is male and 72 percent of it is white. At Facebook, senior positions are 77 percent male and 74 percent white. Twitter—a company whose early success can be directly attributed to the pioneering downloads of black smartphone users—hosts an entirely white board of directors. It's a pounding indictment of Silicon Valley's corporate psyche that Mark Zuckerberg—a bourgeois white kid from suburban New York who attended Harvard—is considered the Horatio Alger 2.0 paragon. When Paul Graham, the then head of the massive start-up incubator Y Combinator, told The New York Times that he could "be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg," he wasn't just talking about Zuck's youth.
If there's any reassuring news, it's not that tech's diversity crisis is getting better, but that in the face of so much dismal news, people are becoming angry enough and brave enough to admit that the state of things is not good. Silicon Valley loves data, after all, and with data readily demonstrating tech's overwhelming white-guy problem, even the true believers in meritocracy see the circumstances as they actually are.
Earlier this year, Ellen Pao became the most mentioned name in Silicon Valley as her gender-discrimination suit against her former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, played out in court. Although the jury sided with the legendary VC firm, the Pao case was a watershed moment, bringing sunlight and national scrutiny to the issue of unchecked Valley sexism. For every defeated Ellen Pao, we can hope there are a hundred other female technology workers who feel new courage to speak up against wrongdoing, and a thousand male co-workers and employers who'll reconsider their boys'-club bullshit. But they've got their work cut out for them.
Myth #2: Silicon Valley Is Bringing Us Closer Together
Facebook's stated mission, it reminds us ceaselessly, is to "connect the whole world"—a sappy global village philosophy that dovetails nicely with data mining and targeting ads. As a verb, connect pulls a lot of freight for start-ups every day. There are companies to connect you to other companies, connect you to your neighbors, connect you to the grocery store, and connect you to your increasingly fat ass. There are apps to connect you to your own family.
But the marketing line that most precisely captures the Valley's social attitude isn't Facebook's—it's GrubHub's. A recent tag for the food-delivery firm reads "Everything great about eating, combined with everything great about not talking to people." A New York subway ad for Seamless (which merged with GrubHub) reads "Your favorite part of having a smartphone is never having to call anyone."
The real undercurrent of start-up strategizing isn't socialization—rather, it's the opposite: Social anxiety is the primary economic force in California today. The tech economy is pushed forward not by a desire to meet new people but by a desire to avoid human contact at all costs—unless it's to-your-doorstep on demand. Uber excuses you from the subway, Seamless obviates a phone call, and Tinder lets you navigate the faces you might've met at a bar if you'd had the motivation to leave your apartment. Uber and Lyft have brought thousands of new people from our communities into our lives—but only as our chauffeurs. The brightest and buzziest apps aren't about connecting me to you, but rather about never forcing us to acknowledge that anyone else exists in real life as anything but the help.
What new human contact these start-ups actually do foster is barely human contact at all—everything is mediated through an algorithm, a button, a swipe, or a GPS beacon. The Uber is here, we'll say, pointing at a person in a car. A TaskRabbit might help you set up your furniture, a person synonymous with the corporate brand. Even apps like Instagram, meant to be used between pals, have turned into a sluice box for likes and affirmation. When even our genuine friendships are being quantified, what hope can we possibly have for treating labor as more than a pack of pixels?
Myth #3: Younger Is Smarter, Safer, and Inarguably Better
Silicon Valley speaks constantly of "the Next Mark Zuckerberg," by which people mean "the Next Almighty Child-God." Mark Zuckerberg was, of course, only 19 years old when he flipped the switch on TheFacebook.com in his Harvard dorm. That's impressive! Only a few years later, he became the world's youngest billionaire....MORE