I’ve lived in Silicon Valley for the last 20 years, and recent political and economic events have had me thinking about how Silicon Valley relates to the rest of the country — or rather how it doesn’t. With CEOs boldly proclaiming their primary goal is to beat a rival CEO to $10 billion in revenue, leading innovators talking about sending tourists to the moon, and Uber’s “win at all costs” mentality miring them in multiple scandals, I’ve been wondering if Silicon Valley has lost touch.
Long before boarding the Silicon Valley roller coaster, I grew up in Northern California’s other valley. One of the world’s largest agrarian economies in the world, the Central Valley was (and in many locations still is) a vast world of rice farms and almond orchards mixed with Sacramento’s state politics. Even as Silicon Valley’s influence expands, the Central Valley remains mostly blue-collar and conservative — a place I still consider home.
To be clear, Silicon Valley has a lot going for it. It’s the model that many industries around the world would like to emulate: one that embraces big ideas, innovation, and hard work being rewarded. The aspiration is greatness — not just in making money, but also in making the world a better place. The idea that you can “dream big” and find the right partners and innovators to bring those ideas to reality is our own modern and geeky version of the “American dream.”
However, due to a variety of factors, we have succumbed to Silicon Valley elitism. And that attitude is causing us to miss our chance to connect with Middle America and the rest of the world. Here’s why:
Silicon Valley has become too much like Wall Street
The mind-boggling cost of living, a lack of diversity in leadership positions, and men behaving badly makes more mainstream news these days than the latest and greatest products. Even worse, it seems there are no consequences for these actions. We aren’t learning from our mistakes. Tech culture has become too much like the Wall Street of the 1980s — a lucrative club for the well-connected elite. The win-at-all-cost mentality, where you will screw over your partners and even your colleagues to climb the ladder, has become too prevalent. Uber is just the latest example; before that Zenefits, Github, and many others have been publicly shamed. And, keep in mind, those are just the ones whose scandals have been made public. For every Uber PR nightmare, many more have been swept under the rug in the name of capitalism, and that’s a black eye for all of us.
Late last year, Silicon Valley legend Om Malik wrote that by 2020, “Silicon Valley will have become an even bigger villain in the popular imagination, much like its East Coast counterpart, Wall Street.”
Forget 2020. We are already there.
It’s also gone Hollywood
Let’s look at HBO’s “Silicon Valley” TV show. I tune in, like many others. It’s good to poke fun at yourself, but sometimes it hits a little too close to home. The episode where the guy falls off the cliff and the characters are more concerned with the quality of their viral video than the poor guy’s welfare should cause all of us to reevaluate just a little bit.
Furthermore, I worry about the message we are sending to the rest of the country when tech executives start acting like celebrities. Everyone wants to be a VC. Everyone wants their bling. But, we must guard against our infatuation with celebrity culture.
We make products because we can, not because they’re needed
“Bloatware” — that is, offering (and charging) customers for features that they don’t want, haven’t asked for, and don’t use — runs rampant in Silicon Valley. We forget to listen to customers and go deeper on the select few features they want out of a technology platform. According to one VC, it affects innovation: Recently, Lightspeed Venture Partners’ Jeremy Liew said, “Silicon Valley is such an isolated bubble. Our reality is not the reality of a normal American in normal America. And that is what is preventing as much insight and therefore innovation happening here.”
I’d argue that we are still innovating, but who is the intended audience? Is Silicon Valley, as a whole, listening to its customers who live outside this bubble? Are regular people really looking forward to artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and self-driving cars as much as we think they are? Probably not. Rather, consider the 1.7 million truck drivers and 1.7 million professional taxi, bus, and delivery drivers around the country who think they may lose their jobs to this type of automation. Has Waymo, Uber or anyone else in the space even bothered to try to assuage these fears or explain the benefits of their self-driving projects?
Granted, bleeding-edge technology is often met with skepticism because it’s so new. However, Silicon Valley needs to do a better job listening to folks outside the bubble about the products they want, and educating about the societal value of new products.
Silicon Valley is losing sight of ‘real’ worries
Success is measured much differently here than in Middle America. Here, we measure success by valuations, funding, and IPOs. In Middle America, success is defined by maintaining a middle-class job. And let’s not even get started on the insanity of the housing market. The Mercury News recently reported that a down payment on a home in Silicon Valley is equal to the price of a home elsewhere in the United States. And while owning a home is much more of a possibility (and therefore, a goal) in most of the country, the problems in the rest of the country are also real and urgent. In my home town of Sacramento, people are worried about holding onto their jobs. In Silicon Valley, it’s more about “Should I jump to the next job or stick it out here?”
The relevance of our work matters. I urge Silicon Valley leaders and regular employees alike to not only think about how their products affect the rest of the country but how their attitudes do as well.