Everybody Hates Silicon Valley
Finding scapegoats is an irresistibly pleasing part of being human.
OK, so the headline about everybody hating Silicon Valley might not be totally true…yet. But it does seem like we’re approaching an inflection point in the public’s tolerance for its worst (i.e., most conspicuously obnoxious) behavior. Oh, and we’re talking about the actual place — or the idea of the place — not the clever HBO show satirizing it.
Every week it seems like there’s a new article about how tech companies are “ruining” San Francisco and its pleasant environs, skewing the housing market, gentrifying the hell out of every little last authentic bit of the city, even branding private buses and daring to drive them! The truth is far more complicated than all that (as always). Mismanagement and overregulation by local and state authorities shoulder much of the blame regarding housing prices, and besides, San Franciscans have been decrying ruination by gentrification since at least 1985 (hat tip: Marc Andreessen). Again, much of the criticism is understandable. But it’s not always entirely fair.
Case in point: Yesterday, in what was perhaps his final contribution for Reuters, financial journalist Felix Salmon posted a provocative essay on the futility, irrationality, greed, and misery of founding a Silicon Valley startup. He didn’t exactly pull any punches.
Arguing that the Valley “is gripped by a mass delusion, compounded by a ‘fake it till you make it’ attitude toward success,” Salmon sums up the startup dream as an absurd lottery (remember, in the eyes of economists lotteries are an “idiot tax”) — and asserts that even to win such a lottery would not be worth the effort:
“Financially, starting up a company in Silicon Valley makes very little sense. You have a very high chance (indeed, a certainty) of having to scrape by on a very low income in a very expensive city. At a time of your life when you should be out enjoying life and meeting friends and generally having lots of fun, you will instead be unhappily tethered to your laptop at all times. In return for sacrificing a six-figure salary elsewhere and general enjoyment of life, you’re given a lottery ticket: you get a minuscule chance of making untold millions of dollars. Being that rich is, undoubtedly, nice. But is it so much nicer than the life of a well-paid computer engineer that you’re willing to give up your life, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in foregone income, in order to have a tiny chance of grasping that brass ring?”
It actually doesn’t sound all bad. But Salmon points out other perceived flaws in the current system, which to be fair can seem to be trending towards decadence. His considered conclusion: “The real winners are the happy and well-paid engineers, enjoying their lives and their youth while working for great companies like Google. In the world of startups, the only winning move is not to play.”
I thought the piece was entertainingly written and that it touched on some big truths. I also understand that Salmon was writing a blog post, not a book or academic article. But do you spot the problem here? His advice is to work for Google (or by implication Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, etc.) instead of working to create the next one of those rare behemoths (however unlikely your success might be).
Nothing wrong with playing with the big dogs, of course. It’s just that all those Googles, Facebooks, Twitters, and Amazons don’t simply rain down from the sky. Nor do Apples, Microsofts, Nikes, Fords, or Coca-Colas, for that matter.
Every company was once a “startup.” Every established company once found itself in a relatively unenviable position, being subjected to some analyst knocking its prospects — and every established company likely will find itself in that position again someday. It makes me wonder whether he would have told Larry Page and Sergey Brin to pack it up and go work for IBM instead of building their silly search engine in their dorm room.
Here is the error in thinking: Simply because there are bad actors rabidly chasing — at any cost and for its own sake — the astonishing amounts of venture capital gravitating toward Silicon Valley, it does not automatically follow that all actors seeking venture capital must be bad actors. I understand that Salmon likely was being provocative and quickly using broad strokes to identify real issues that could harm the health of Silicon Valley in the long run, but that major logical fallacy and overreach detract from the good stuff. There are surely brilliant minds out there dedicated to building products, services, and/or new technologies because they genuinely believe they will solve a widespread problem for people. Perhaps some of those folks are inspired by the titans who have “won the lottery” before them, but ambition is not evil; in fact ambition can be healthy and lead to the creation of wonderful things.
A good way to reveal the erroneous thinking here is to point out that it can be applied to virtually any human endeavor, not just the tech world. I’ll pick just one: the music industry.
It’s kind of rare to make it big as a musician. Not everyone can be the Beatles. But that doesn’t mean we should be discouraging musicians or any other artists from making a go at it, if that’s what makes them happy. In the music industry and in the art world at large there are innumerable talented people who will never gain widespread acclaim or make a living doing what they love. There are also fraudsters and people who are in it for the wrong reasons, but of course that doesn’t diminish all music or art — in fact it doesn’t even necessarily diminish their own music or art.
And just like in technology, time and time again, performers and composers of tremendous talent and musical innovation burst onto the scene out of obscurity to become certified cultural phenomena. The music industry is more fragmented now, but this still occurs. And what happens when some original musical force explodes onto the charts? Out come the copycats. Sometimes other artists want a piece of the action and act accordingly, and sometimes record companies assemble and market faux acts to capitalize on the newest opportunity. This happened in the late ’70s with punk, in the ’80s with hair metal bands, in the ’90s with grunge and gangsta rap and alternative rock, and most recently with “Americana” bands — you know, where everyone has a banjo and a mandolin and overalls now.
As with the tech players, even in the midst of a seemingly unstoppable trend, none of these artists are inherently bad just for having embraced a certain musical style. The trick is to discern the artists who offer something real and who would play their style of music regardless (or, to return to the analogy, the founders with solid ideas and sincere passion) from the ones vacantly parroting what’s popular. The funny thing is that unless you’re 12 years old, it’s never really that hard to make the distinction. (OK, I concede that judging music as an Old is much easier than betting millions in VC money for billions in potential payoffs.) But the point is that if you give it enough time, something amazing will always surprise you. Something will surprise us all.
Silicon Valley’s not so bad; San Francisco is changing but it’s not being ruined. It’s just teeming with energy and humans of all the usual sorts, both good and...not so good. On a case-by-case basis, it might sometimes be merciful to take somebody aside and advise them to sit out the next couple plays. But why tell the whole world not to try?
Posted on April 22, 2014.