Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Go easy on the Silicon Valley nerds

At Bloomberg, I become a card-carrying tech industry apologist:
As I write this post, I’m sitting in a café on Valencia Street in San Francisco’s ever-trendy Mission District. Outside, the summer sun is shining on wide, quiet streets and beautiful clean buildings. Around me sit healthy-looking people of every race and national origin, typing away on their laptops, but friendly and eager to talk to a stranger. You could forgive me for thinking I’m sitting in a paradise. 
But no actually, I’m sitting in Mordor. San Francisco, epicenter of the tech industry, is the land from which the new hosts of evil issue forth, under clouds of swirling darkness, to conquer the realms of men. 
Or so you’d think, from the press Silicon Valley has been receiving lately. The hosts of Mordor include venture capitalists who trick bright young people into throwing their lives away on hopeless startups; sexist “brogrammers” who treat objects like women (or is it the other way around?); tech companies that are raising rents for normal folks; plutocrats who are going to replace us with robots and make Thomas Piketty’s nightmare scenarios a reality; age-ist corporations who throw away old workers like used Kleenex; sociopath entrepreneurs who want to profit by destroying the rule of law; and neo-monarchist wackaloons who are plotting to destroy democracy...
Read the whole thing here!


  1. Mordor? Eeeek! Obviously they need an attack of Post Keynesian Gandalfs! Oh, I forgot. The PKs just think that they are Gandalfs... Oooops.

  2. There are two reasons we can't go easy on the Valley nerds:

    1. Their transhuman neolibertarian ideology is absolutely dangerous, and the fact that they have the money to back up these bizarre ideas makes it even more dangerous. Worth a read: http://thebaffler.com/blog/2014/05/mouthbreathing_machiavellis

    2. The stereotypical Valley nerd sees value in programming and nothing else. If we want a culture with more texture, complexity, pleasure, and beauty, we need to resist this.

    1. Do you actually know any software engineers? Your profile claims you are a journalist. I guess since Roger Ailes is also in the news business, we can make all sorts of assumptions about journalists from what his views are! Do you think Obama is secretly a muslim sleeper agent, too?

      As a software engineer, I support racial equality, gender equality, gay equality, income redistribution, cultural institutions, and strong appropriate government regulation. The majority of the people I know support the same. But I guess since there are a few crazy software engineers, we're all uncultured, arrogant, racist people. After all, stereotyping people we don't know is always the best policy.

    2. To answer your question, Kelly, yes, I know many software engineers, including a few startup founders and VCers.

      You are right to say that not all engineers think this way. You are wrong to think it's a tiny and unimportant minority.

    3. Last I checked the valley votes Democrat and the majority of campaign contributions flow the same way. If you have some concrete evidence that the extremist libertarian philosophy is a major force in reality, not in theory, please reveal it.

    4. https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=silicon+valley+libertarianism&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8

  3. Timely post. I just finished watching HBO's "Silicon Valley" and I was wondering whether I could use some excerpts to flesh out my figures and spice up my freshman lectures on innovation and tech policy (something at which we are notoriously bad here in France). reading your post I can't decide however whether the show gives an (un)realistic/positive/negative/balanced representation of the industry

  4. Computers and consumer electronics suck up all manner of minerals (and a surprising amount of water) to make, consume lots of energy over the lifecycle (quick google suggests 5% of world energy consumption on computing), and have acquired plenty of bad press for bad labor practices (Foxconn, children poisoning themselves prying apart e-waste, etc). And it's easy to point to lots of negative externalities (real or imagined) that result from social disruption, from the demise of neighborhood bookstores thanks to Amazon to those damn kids glued to their screens instead of socializing in the real world.

    I think it's a non-obvious empirical question whether consumer electronics and the fruits of Silicon Valley generally produce fewer negative externalities than the services they disrupt. (Obviously there are many, many positive externalities emerging from walking around with the internet in our pockets, but let's not be blind to the downsides!)

  5. Anonymous1:23 PM

    Or, they could little eichmanns who are "just following orders" from the surveillance state.

    They destroy your privacy and personal liberty:

    Just like big tobacco destroys your health, or big oil destroys the environment, or weapons manufacturers destroy human bodies.

  6. Anonymous1:46 PM

    I think it's fair to criticize a population that
    1) advocates a self-serving libertarianism,
    2) addresses any and every problem with an engineering mindset, including those problems that lie outside the scope of programming expertise and resist the reductive process needed to apply engineering solutions,
    3) embodies the pure, limited, and necessarily narrow vision of bright technical undergraduates,
    4) and plagues the world with TED talks.

  7. Anonymous1:49 PM

    You do understand that Bill Gates is deeply and actively engaged in pulling down the remnants of the public school system. Bill "if it can't be standardized tested it shouldn't be taught in high school" Gates? Bill "fund and laud the creation of charter schools that show no statistical improvement over public schools" Gates?

  8. Anonymous2:07 PM

    Shorter Noah: the fact that I am currently right now sitting in San Francisco serves as an adequate excuse to skim some clicks from the latest Sillicon Valley media brouhaha, even though I don't really have anything intelligent to say about it.

    1. Anonymous9:01 PM

      That is wrong and cruel, Noah clearly explains his thinking process in the last paragraph, as further evidenced by his twitter lovein with Marc Anderseen on twitter:
      1. Noah was deeply hurt by bullies in high school, his soft supple flesh and sophisticated, physics inclined mind made him a perfect target for jocks and even when he escaped to Stanford he couldnt escape the landmines already planted in his psyche by their brutal verbal and possibly physical abuse
      2. After mouthing off to too many Republican favored economist, Noah was forced to take a job on Long Island, slowly but surely growing even more depressed at his hopeless location since no Jock will ever be impressed by being a professor, especially one at a second tier university without a football team

      In comes Anderseen, a few friendly articles, a few bro-downs in SF and Anderseen offers him to make partner and off our wonderful hero goes to the paradise where there is no race of gender discrimination and the dollars pour into his pockets. And in the meantime hell outsource a couple million jobs, hopefully impoverishing the bullies who abused him.

      So dont judge poor Noah too harshly, after bravely standing up to so many GOP luminaries in the economics game our intrepid hero has to get some dirty money somehow, and if this is the price the rest of us have to, to cram down warmed over SV worship then so be it. You get that dirty money Noah, and the nightmares will finally end.

    2. Shadow_Nirvana5:22 PM

      "his soft supple flesh and sophisticated, physics inclined mind"

      I am twelve and what is this?

  9. The problem is that Silicon Valley is irrelevant nowadays. Silicon Valley is 20 miles south of San Francisco, and it used to create jobs. Those jobs have long been outsourced to China and the businesses that are left are no longer producing anything particularly innovative. (I'll make an exception for Apple, but Apple is basically about following Moore's Law to bring us the 1970s. That counts as serious innovation nowadays.)
    I think the nerds are great, but I don't think there are as many nerds in Silicon Valley as there used to be. The bright ones have gone to Wall Street to scam investors with clever risk hiding schemes and short term arbitrage hacks. It's easy to tell.
    The real nerds of Silicon Valley lived in god damned Silicon Valley. The only good thing there was Hyatt Ricky's, and that's long gone now. The heart of Silicon Valley was Camino Real which inspired those video games where the scenery repeats itself every nine yards. The new pseudo-nerds live in San Francisco, and I don't blame them, but it's a whole different ethos, and you aren't going to see the same levels of real innovation.

  10. Anonymous10:20 PM

    So what part of what Krugman said...
    " Specifically, many of the “upstarts” were actually long-established firms, and more often than not the big payoffs went not to disruptive innovators but to firms that focused on incremental change and ordinary forms of efficiency and quality "


    "Andrew Leonard reports that Silicon Valley types are not pleased. You can understand why. But their annoyance also tells you why the whole disruptive innovation thing took off: it glamorizes business, it lets nerdy guys come across as bold heroes."
    ...did you disagree with ?

  11. As I see it, plutocracy is a huge problem. Silicon Valley is producing the new generation of plutocrats. Even worse, they tend to be libertarian Jacobins.

    If your problem is monarchy, you should not applaud the birth of princes and popular support of royal families. If your problem is plutocracy, you should not applaud development of huge, heritable fortunes and the crowds of sycophants that support them. Entrepreneurs will struggle just as valiantly to earn a million dollars as to earn a billion dollars: there is no reason to support the latter.

    1. Sounds like a liberal response. These plutocrats create economic value though their apps, technologies and websites - why don't they deserve more, or decide what to do with their wealth?

    2. Did they create that value singlehandedly? No: they relied on social infrastructure and numerous employees. So the question is how to divide up the gains between plutocrats, paying back for social infrastructure and employee compensation. There's no need to just give away the store to the plutocrats, forcing others to pay for the infrastructure and penalizing employees.

    3. Anonymous10:19 PM

      Not singlehandedly, but Silicon Valley employees are well compensated for their voluntary contribution, and the infrastructure exists whether new products are invented or not. Unlike the investor and entrepreneur, neither lose anything if the venture fails, so they are not owed anything. Successful entrepreneurs who have taken risks and dealt honestly along the way do not "owe" anything to "society". Society was paid upfront.

  12. Anonymous2:43 PM

    Smith has discovered that life is nicer, social tensions fewer, where the median income is at or above six figures. Truly extraordinary powers of observation, fit for an economist.