The moral demise of Silicon Valley: it’s a mindset problem

It’s pretty clear by now that Silicon Valley has started to seriously lose its shine. For a couple of decades, the Californian tech industry was a synonym of modernity, innovation, disruption and business savvy combined with ultimate coolness. Today, the number of people who still see it that way is rapidly diminishing, as the general view on Silicon Valley slowly but surely shifts to being a bunch of cynical capitalists who aren’t even that modern at all.

The causes of this demise are quite clear: repeated scandals regarding the (lack of) protection of user data but also regarding the morality of this industry and its leaders, combined with increasing weariness towards all-encompassing digital tools that have taken over our lives in ways that are getting uncomfortable for some of us. That can explain why people no longer look at Silicon Valley with a benevolent and admiring gaze, but the deeper question is, why did all that happen?

What’s the emperor wearing exactly?

First of all, we were all easily fooled by the veil of tech magic from the get-go. Digital technologies have that tendency to make things seem more cool and novel than they really are. Airbnb: a radically new way of approaching the hospitality industry, or just a cleverly arranged list of vacation rentals? Twitter: reinventing the functioning of human interactions, or just a convenient way of anonymously making witty remarks and throwing around insults? Amazon: redefining the ancient practice of commerce, or just the cynical squeezing of workers’ rights out of the cost price of merchandise? Snapchat: well, no one ever thought Snapchat was an amazing innovation I suppose…

I’m not saying all these services aren’t useful in their own ways — I booked my entire summer vacation using Airbnb — but their image as amazingly innovative and intrinsically positive businesses was highly exaggerated from the start, if not plain wrong, and more and more people aren’t believing in that image anymore (so why even bother trying to project it any longer, right Google?)

Silicon Valley has started showing the world its true face: that of an industry whose apparent awesomeness actually stems from a severe excess of self-confidence.

So yes, tech companies are misleading and we understand that now. Granted, it truly was a whole new and shiny world in the 2000s, a time where everyone, from entrepreneurs to consumers to governments, was full of enthusiasm and hope. But that was nearly two decades ago; the world has changed, and the way people see the world has changed just as much — and Silicon Valley’s image could only suffer from that shift. Today, Millennials are taking over and even the 40–50 year olds have been living and working with the internet and smartphones long enough to no longer be impressed by digital apps and services, no more than they’re impressed by the fact their car starts when they turn the ignition or that the sun rises in the morning. We’ve come to that defining moment where people are starting to notice that the tech emperor wears no clothes.

As mentioned, the causes to blame are large-scale scandals such as Cambridge Analytica or anything related to how Amazon functions, along with the demise of formerly admired leaders of the tech world who have been consistently turning out to be ordinarily creepy, slightly idiotic or downright deranged characters (you know, guys like Travis Kalanick, Elon Musk and of course Jeff Bezos). You can also blame this industry’s loss of credibility on its mono-racial, mono-gendered lack of diversity that cuts it off from the world and just seems impossibly outdated and wrong in this day and age.

Selling you stuff you don’t want, but awesomely

But at the end of the day, what this industry suffers from above all is its absence of self-perspective. It lacks that proverbial advisor brave enough to tell the emperor his tailor fooled him and that he is in fact naked. This has led Silicon Valley to start showing the world its true face: that of an industry whose apparent awesomeness actually stems from a severe excess of self-confidence.

So the “technology industry” is the one that’s busy creating apps to remind you to get up from your couch and walk? Talk about making yourself more important than you are.

Start with its self-appointed denomination: tech. There are scientists in the world today working on things like restoring limb function for the paralyzed, but the sector that finds it fitting to call itself the “technology industry” is busy focusing on things like finding new ways to get you to constantly check your notifications, or creating an app to remind you to get up from your couch and walk. Ok, so that’s “tech”. Talk about making yourself more important than you are.

Of course, we are all complicit to this blind pretentiousness. Putting companies like Apple or Facebook on god-like pedestals, admiring cunning businessmen as amazing visionaries, giving services such as social networks a disproportionate importance in our lives; all that is just going too far. No other industry has benefitted from such an unreasonably positive public perception before (even ones that would actually deserve it), and that had to come crashing down sooner or later.

Like television before it, this is an industry that shines so bright in our collective eyes that any sense of reality becomes obliterated by its unchecked power, bloated salaries, excessive media attention and reckless influence. But contrary to the old-fashioned TV industry, Silicon Valley doesn’t reign over a country or two, but over the whole world. Its excesses are that much more considerable.

The higher the ivory tower…

When you look at it this way, it’s no surprise Silicon Valley is falling from its pedestal — it’s actually surprising it didn’t fall sooner: this is an industry governed by a bunch of rich white males who pass for humanitarian entrepreneurs wanting to make a change but whose increasingly excessive power is never in check. It produces services whose positive impact (facilitating the Arab Spring and enabling the #MeeToo movement was pretty cool, I’ll grant that) is almost always outweighed by the problems they create (cyber bullying, social media addiction, election tampering, personal data exploitation, echo chambers… need I continue?). It continues to consider itself as intrinsically progressive and world-bettering in spite of compelling evidence to the contrary.

The delusions of Silicon Valley have been freewheeling out of control for too long, and the erosion of the public’s faith has triggered their collapse.

When you work in the tobacco or the arms industry, or even in advertising, no one is going to let you believe you’re participating in the betterment of humankind through groundbreaking innovations. You just do your job and try not to think about the rest too much. The delusions of Silicon Valley have been freewheeling out of control for too long, and the erosion of the public’s faith has triggered their collapse. And of course, the higher the ivory tower, the higher the fall. Silicon Valley is balancing off the edge by the tip of its toes by now, about to crash down to its true status: that of an industry like so many others that generates lots of cash by coming up with new services, much of which we could do without.

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Patrick H.

Patrick H.

French-American citizen of the world based in Paris. Former music journalist turned editorial content creator and concerned dweller of Earth.