When I flew into San Francisco last Sunday, the haze shrouding the city was not the usual charming fog, and there was an acrid smell, like a barbecue on steroids. California was on fire.
In the past week, towns have been burned out of existence, people have fled the raging flames, and ashes have been falling from a tangerine sky.
The conflagration is airborne via the smoke, creating a “weather of catastrophe,” which is the phrase Joan Didion once used to describe the hot Santa Anas blowing into Los Angeles. “The wind shows us how close to the edge we are,” she wrote.
As 2018 comes to a close, that edge — a sense that the end times are near — has never been more obvious to those in California’s tech business. And while that feeling is nowhere near comparable to the suffering of those fleeing and battling the fires that are burning away the Western landscape, the toxic smoke is a bleak backdrop and an apt metaphor for where Silicon Valley now finds itself.
Much of the mess, of course, has been emanating from one company: Facebook. The realization of how much the social media giant has screwed up has dropped slowly, but now we know.
This week, a New York Times investigation into who knew what about the Russian manipulation of Facebook’s platform painted a devastating picture of a company if not out of control, then driving directly and with great alacrity into what were clearly avoidable walls.
In addition to showing how Facebook’s leaders failed to deal forthrightly with the situation, the piece has numerous examples of what I can only call dirty tricks to hurt rival companies and deflect public attention. And that is on Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief executive and chief operating officer, as well as a panoply of top executives.
One is Facebook’s man in Washington, Joel Kaplan, who could not seem to make any decision that was not a perplexing misjudgment. This was a practice he continued by sitting behind Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearings as his chief cheerleader. Conflict of interest much? Very much.
But the frightening news from Silicon Valley goes beyond one company. Tech leaders made screens so addictive that they won’t let their own children use them; they operate in a monoculture that reflects only itself and turns a blind eye to sexual harassment and diversity; and they accept dirty money from unsavory investors like the Saudis.
The overall sense of this year is that the brilliant digital minds who told us they were changing the world for the better might have miscalculated.
Dan Lyons, a longtime tech observer and author of the new book “Lab Rats: How Silicon Valley Made Work Miserable for the Rest of Us,” recently tweeted: “Nobody in Silicon Valley can solve homelessness or figure out how to hire with diversity, but 11 electric scooter companies have raised VC funding. Oh, and a company that uses robots to make pizza. You wonder why there’s a tech backlash.”
Actually no one wonders that anymore, which is why it’s probably time to think about where the industry goes from here. While I can be hard on tech, I still have hope that it can regain its innovation, inspiration and sunny approach to the future.
To do this, I have five suggestions:
As seen in the Facebook mess, the biggest error of all is the slow dribbling out, and outright covering up, of bad news. There is no greater threat to innovation than this kind of behavior, which suggests a company that wants to hold on to its power rather than be honest about its faults. Google has also failed to be transparent enough in regard to its creation of a search engine in China, its payoffs to men accused of sexual harassment and its work with the Defense Department. At Twitter, it is still unclear how it makes decisions about the removal of hateful content on its platform. And it sure would be nice if Uber would release the full Eric Holder report on how that company behaved or, more precisely, misbehaved.
The fact that no one seems to get fired for anything at these companies is really quite breathtaking. Techies are fond of the obviously false bromide that failure is O.K. If it is so fine, one wonders why no one is being held publicly responsible for anything, aside from the tiresome apology tours that are on replay in Silicon Valley. Privacy breaches at Yahoo and Facebook and Google and everywhere? So sorry. Payoffs to alleged sexual harassers all over the system? So sorry. Questionable financing? So sorry. Yeah, I am sorry that they are so sorry, too, but actions should follow words.
In early 2017 at an event in Germany, I asked Elliot Schrage, then Facebook’s top policy and communications executive — who also stars in the Times article — if there were any “irritants” among the company’s managers. By this, I was asking if there was a consistent effort to bring out the concerns and worries of staff members and to introduce doubt about the company’s products and efforts. He never answered and I knew the answer anyway: Facebook’s ruling class pushed cohesion over disagreement and chastised those who went against the grain. Witness the experience of Alex Stamos, the company’s security chief, who was apparently yelled at for how he moved forward with exploring his early worries about Russian interference, rather than celebrated for what he unearthed.
Tech companies’ record on diversity is just abysmal and has not budged in years, despite all the promises. They need to increase diversity because it is the right thing to do. But numerous studies have also proven that a heterogeneous staff — including differences in age, gender, race and background — is the best thing for businesses in the long term. Does it happen? It does not. As I have said time and again: Silicon Valley thinks it is a meritocracy, but it is a mirrortocracy.
That man in the mirror is typically a man, and a young, white, privileged one, whose capacity for self-reflection is about as big as Donald Trump’s ability to stop hate-tweeting. But self-reflection is the hallmark of maturity and good decision-making. Of all the interviews I have done in Silicon Valley, I keep coming back to the one I did with Mr. Zuckerberg this summer, in which I pressed him to reflect on how his invention had caused deaths in places like India and Myanmar.
After trying several times to get an answer from him, I got frustrated: “What kind of responsibility do you feel?” I said I would feel sick to my stomach to know that people died possibly “because of something I invented. What does that make you feel like? What do you do when you see that? What do you do yourself? What’s your emotion?”
Mr. Zuckerberg’s answer left me cold. And also more than a little worried for the future of his company. It’s bad enough not to be able to anticipate disaster; it’s worse, after disaster strikes, to not be able to reflect on how it happened.
“I mean, my emotion is feeling a deep sense of responsibility to try to fix the problem,” he said. “I don’t know, that’s a … that’s the most productive stance.”
But it’s not the most productive stance. As with those California fires, putting out the flames is important. But understanding how they got started in the first place, to stop it from happening again, is what actually keeps us from hurtling over the edge.