Silicon Valley has fallen
Like you, I’m still processing last week’s meeting between tech leaders and Donald Trump.
I’m still coming to terms with seeing Sheryl “Lean In” Sandberg sitting behind her bottle of Trump water, an arms’ reach from a guy who boasted of sexually assaulting women. I’m still trying to understand Safra Catz -- an Israeli daughter of Jewish parents who has joined Trump’s transition team and has repeatedly refused to rule out helping build a database to monitor Americans based on their religion. Or Tim Cook - a gay man whose company claims it will not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind. Or Jeff Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post, a newspaper which has bet its future on being the most aggressive anti-Trump voice amongst America’s papers of record. Or Larry Page or Elon Musk, or any of the world’s smartest men and women sitting around that table who were supposed to represent the best of Silicon Valley, a place which itself was supposed to represent all the good that America could offer the world.
(Travis Kalanick and Peter Thiel’s embrace of Trump I get, of course. Asshole does as asshole is. )
(Peter Thiel is a Pando investor.)
Regular readers will know I don’t suffer from an abundance of faith in the ethics or morality of Silicon Valley. And yet even I allowed myself to believe that maybe, just maybe, one or more of the tech leaders visiting Trump Tower would use the meeting to tell Trump to his face: Enough. This isn’t who we are. You don’t represent America. I even allowed myself the fantasy that just one of them might say his or her piece and then storm out.
But no. Not only was there no storming out, there was apparently no dissent at all. Just the humiliating normalization of a bigot, a fascist and a tyrant. And for what? The possibility of the possibility of maybe a few H1Bs and help doing business with Trump’s pal Putin. “The way that you influence these issues is to be in the arena,” Cook later said, recalling the powerful influence so many Christians had on so many lions.
Of course, the humiliating photo op shouldn’t really have been a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention over the past few years as Silicon Valley has forged closer and closer bonds with the government. The co-funding of foreign coups, the development of intelligence tools for the benefit of Pax Americana, the failure to resist NSA demands for our data and the revolving door between DC and SV. Just because the White House was led by Obama and the State Department by Clinton doesn’t change the fact that many in the Valley were first seduced by, and then became addicted to, the power and might of the government; an addiction that they’re not willing or able to kick just because the names above the doors have changed.
Surprising or not, the fact is the most powerful people in tech -- the billionaires able to buy and sell Trump many times over, and the companies he relies on to get his message out to his base -- have rolled over without even token resistance. They are working for him now.
The idea that tech leaders huddled in the liberal stronghold of California might provide a firewall against the rise of fascism in America was as much a fantasy as the idea that they might respect our privacy, or stamp out cyberbullying or pay sharing economy workers fairly or only give jobs to people who don’t assault women. All that bullshit about keeping our powder dry for the first meeting was just that -- bullshit, as evidenced by the rush to arrange follow-up meetings and for several in attendance to formalize their partnership with Team Trump. It’s done.
The question is what the hell the rest of us do now.
I’m sure dozens of very smart people are already hard at work building tools and apps that will help resist Trump. The Washington Post (prop. Jeff Bezos) has launched a fact checking plugin to highlight Trump’s lies and we can anticipate a flood of Facebook and Google and Uber alternatives where the only selling point is that they keep user data safe from the Trump administration.
I wish all those endeavors luck, but I also know this: They’re doomed, as are all apps and services where the only USP is a political or privacy one. Most users simply don’t care. They don’t care that Peter Thiel is on the board of Facebook and that Sheryl Sandberg has embraced the dark side -- they just want to share their photos and read fake news that supports their existing (conservative or liberal) view. That’s why all those tech leaders felt so safe meeting Trump so publicly -- they knew you and I don’t really, truly care enough to change our behavior and abandon our favorite toys. Giving up Google, or Facebook? Please. The meeting was all upside, and no risk.
We’ll likely see more nonsense like Shervin “LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME” Pishevar (another Pando investor) who, shortly after gushing about his meeting with Vladimir Putin, announced that he was leading an effort to break California away from Trump’s America. We’ll see new Valley-funded political parties being mooted, and maybe even a few techies running for office.
But it’ll all be for naught, because Silicon Valley -- in the form of its biggest, most powerful leaders - has already capitulated. Those candidates and apps and attempts to break away will suffer from the same fate as any company that tries to meaningfully challenge the real money and power in the Valley. No money for you, no support, invisibility on the platforms you need to succeed. Ask Lyft and Postmates how much fun it is to raise money against the establishment’s preferred competitor. And people actually wanted those things to exist. Just today, my former Pando colleague Erin Griffith wrote a column in Fortune arguing that maybe Silicon Valley should stop worrying and learn to love Trump. Expect countless more "let's be pragmatic about fascism" columns to follow as the business press tracks a similar mood in its readership.
It’s traditional at this point in a column that the author offers a glimmer of hope. A solution to the nightmare scenario laid out in the preceding paragraphs. I’m not sure I have anything that reaches the level of hope, but perhaps I can muster a rallying cry.
Just because resistance seems futile doesn’t mean it actually is futile. Never has Silicon Valley’s real power and influence been so clear as it was last week. Never has the image of the Valley as a buncha klutzy, adorable, ultimately harmless nerds building cool toys - popularized by authors like Douglas Coupland and in TV shows like Silicon Valley - been so nakedly exposed as a lie. These fuckers are not nerds and they’re sure as hell not adorable. At their worst, they’re a gang of self-interested, sociopathic oligarchs who helped get Trump elected, and now they’re lining up to help him make his terrifying campaign promises reality.
Now that we’ve seen the New Power of Silicon Valley for what it is, we can start to decide whether these are companies we want to work for, or want to continue investing in. If that ship has already sailed for Facebook and Oracle then it hasn’t quite for Uber, or Palantir, and whatever the next generation of startups that Zuckerberg and co will need to acquire to stay on top. Users might not be willing to resist in large enough numbers but there are a whole load of other people in the Valley - founders, investors, employees - who by withholding their labor and capital can have as much impact individually as a million users could collectively.
Trump has killed Godwin’s law, so here’s a Nazi analogy for you: Just as the citizens of Vichy France had to decide between the easy path of collaboration and the frightening path of resistance, so the citizens of Silicon Valley have to decide between normalization and radicalization. One difference between modern Silicon Valley and Vichy France, of course, is that the worst thing that might happen to a Valley player who refuses to Come To Satan is that they won’t get funded, or they might lose out on a cushy job working for a sociopath.
Faced with non-lethal stakes like that, if Silicon Valley still doesn’t have the balls to stand and fight then frankly it deserves everything that’s coming to it once Trump takes office.