That's the final sentence in the New Yorker piece linked in Nov. 30's "The Big Questions We'd Better Figure Out, Part 2: Algorithmic Discrimination and Empathy"."...come 2020, Silicon Valley will have become an even bigger villain in the popular imagination, much like its East Coast counterpart, Wall Street."
From The Outline:
In February 2012, after Facebook announced what was in time to become the largest IPO in the history of internet firms, The Economist put a parody of Mark Zuckerberg’s profile page on its cover. Next to an insipid, beaming profile picture of the young CEO, there was a status update: “VENI VIDI VICI!!! Am I richer than Bill yet? lol.” They were not the first magazine to draw the comparison. In October 2010, Vanity Fair beat them to it, declaring Zuckerberg the No. 1 most influential person in the United States and calling him “our new Caesar.”
Zuckerberg, of course, had not conquered Gaul. He had not scattered the German armies nor subjugated Britain, nor crossed the Rubicon and become first consul. He had not visited death and terror upon a continent, nor brought an end to an old republic, setting off a chain of intrigues that would birth the mightiest empire in the history of the world. No. Mark Zuckerberg had made a shit ton of money.
By April of this year, Facebook stock was worth more than $116 a share, up from its initial offering of $38. The social network had made its early investors even richer than they had ever anticipated. That same month, The Economist put Zuckerberg on its cover for the second time but now without detectable irony. His face appeared on a marble statue of Augustus, seated in cape and laurel crown beside a tiny globe. “IMPERIAL AMBITIONS” roared the headline. Mark’s outstretched arm gave the imperial thumbs-up. He liked it.
The press enjoys excitedly praising tech titans by comparing them to fantastical and mythical figures. Zuckerberg is Caesar. Elon Musk, a wizard. Peter Thiel, who believes that he lives in the moral universe of Lord of the Rings, is a vampire. I do not know if these men believe that they have the supernatural powers the media claims. Maybe they do. I do know that they do not mind the perception, or at least have done nothing to combat it, even among those critics who believe that they’re cartoon villains.
The press enjoys excitedly praising tech titans by comparing them to fantastical and mythical figures.
This might not be so bad if the phenomenon were limited to daft profiles by fawning magazine writers. But this Hegelian fan fiction is nowhere more potent than from the mouths of the Disruptors themselves. Mark Zuckerberg speaks in the voice of God. Shane Smith, by his own account, is the Stalin of Vice. Silicon Valley investor Carl Icahn was called “evil Captain Kirk” by fellow billionaire Marc Andreessen, before he was himself dubbed Dr. Evil by Rod Dreher, who has evidently not absorbed a cultural reference since 1999. When Elon Musk worries that Larry Page is hurtling toward AI without a sufficient appreciation of the risks, he calls it “summoning the demon.” Seamless CEO Jonathan Zabusky, a typical case, says his food delivery application for depressed millennials is “disrupting the paradigm” by showing people that “the era of the paper menu” is over. AirBnB’s mission statement laments “the mechanization and Industrial Revolution of the last century,” which “displaced” “feelings of trust and belonging”; their mission is to turn the world back into the “village” of simpler eras by encouraging longstanding residents of gentrifying areas to rent out their homes to monied travelers. Some firms are more modest: HubSpot, a marketing and sales platform, is merely on a mission to make the whole world “more inbound,” which is to say, more reliant on their blogging tips for small businesses.HT: FT Alphaville's Further Reading post.
Even President Obama speaks of Silicon Valley as if it were an industry for madcap geniuses alone, a land of such earth-changing potential that it’s somewhere he might find himself once he’s left the Oval Office. When he chides citizens of the Valley, he chides them like a Dr. Frankenstein warning his monster about hubris: “Sometime we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense that we just have to blow up the system or create this parallel society,” he told the Frontiers Conference last October. The president believes that sense is wrong, of course, but where did he get the idea that tech CEOs were capable of these feats in the first place?
Let us state the obvious: None of these men are Roman Emperors, and they haven’t got the wherewithal to “blow up” anything but a stock market bubble. They are not Lex Luthors or Gandalfs or Stalins. Their products do not bring about revolutions. They are simply robber barons, JP Morgans and Andrew Mellons in mediocre T-shirts. I have no doubt that many are preternaturally intelligent, hardworking people, and it is a shame that they have dedicated these talents to the mundane accumulation of capital. But there is nothing remarkable about these men. The Pirates of Silicon Valley do not have imperial ambitions. They have financial ones.
The vast majority of Silicon Valley startups, the sort that project lofty missions and managed improbably lucrative IPOs despite never having graced the cover of The Economist or the frontal cortex of the president, work precisely like any other kind of mundane sales operation in search of a product: Underpaid cold-callers receive low wages and less job security in exchange for a foosball table and the burden of growing a company as quickly as possible so that it can reach a liquidation event. Owners and investors get rich. Managers stay comfortable. The employees get hosed. None of this is particularly original. At least the real robber barons built the railroads....MORE