Wednesday, November 6, 2013

"Change the World"

That is the title of a piece in the New Yorker last spring by George Packer. I read it only recently, just before my recent trip to California. I recommend it to everyone engaged with the Silicon Valley utopia, and in particular all my students and alums who are pulled into that alluring vortex. It so energizing and exciting; new ideas spark flames that suddenly burst into bonfires. The conditions of work and life are being optimized for maximum productivity and convenience of the brilliant and talented tech workers. More and more of the workers now live in San Francisco and take the corporate buses to the Valley. Google, Facebook, Apple are building closed campuses, with all the comforts of home, so workers can now live in San Francisco, work in the Valley, and yet never make eye contact with anyone except family members and employees of their firm. The first time I experience free food was decades ago, out on Route 128 at Kendall Square Research; the theory was that it would reduce espionage if the engineers were talking to each other in the lunchroom rather than in Burger King. That line of thinking seems to have been carried to its logical conclusion. Real estate values, a friend told me, are inversely proportional to the distance from the corporate bus stops.

These nouveaux riches and those aiming to be so are young enough to be idealistic about the liberating power of the Internet and the information flows it enables. Trouble is, as the article movingly relates, coveys of idealists living in their bubbles tend to narcissism and disconnection from the grimmer reality of the world around them. Engagement with government is definitely uncool. This is from a puff for the article:
In “Change the World” (p. 44), George Packer travels to the San Francisco Bay Area to talk to members of the tech industry about Silicon Valley’s increasing interest in politics. “Throughout most of Silicon Valley’s history, its executives have displayed a libertarian instinct to stay as far from politics and government as possible,” Packer writes. “The technology industry, by sequestering itself from the community it inhabits, has transformed the Bay Area without being changed by it—in a sense, without getting its hands dirty.” Today, “Silicon Valley is one of the most unequal places in America,” Packer writes. “The technology industry’s newest wealth is swallowing up the San Francisco Peninsula.” But many young Valley residents feel that technology—not government, which “is considered slow, staffed by mediocrities, ridden with obsolete rules and inefficiencies”—can improve the human condition. Sam Lessin, who leads Facebook’s “identity product group,” tells Packer that simply improving communication through social media is “moving the ball forward—making people more efficient with their time and able to effectively live longer lives therefore, you know, and making them happier.” One young entrepreneur says to Packer, of his colleagues, “They actually think that Facebook is going to be the panacea for many of the world’s problems. It isn’t cynicism—it’s arrogance and ignorance.” Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, tells Packer that part of the problem is Silicon Valley’s underdeveloped intellectual culture, which comes from the Valley’s competitiveness, an orientation that requires an unyielding focus on one’s company, and from “that libertarian strain—we’re just all out building stuff, and everything else is kind of extraneous.”
It's a good, moving, thought-provoking piece.

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