Silicon Valley’s halo gets a little tarnished
The tech industry has long enjoyed an enviable reputation in the business world. Most sectors, particularly those dominated by large multinational corporations, usually struggle with some kind of bad reputation. They might be perceived as corrupt (Wall Street) archaic (cars, especially gas powered ones), etc. But tech is new and exciting, consumer electronics get lots of buzz, and they are generally assumed to not have a big environmental footprint – even when they do.
They are helped by a largely friendly tech press. In an environment where the greatest value is placed on getting exclusive previews of hot new items and scoops from well placed insiders, there is not much ROI in hard hitting journalism. Add to that the ease with which players like Michael Arrington move between media and industry, and you get a clubby atmosphere where your interview subject could easily be your next employer.
So executives are generally lionized and the industry celebrated as the last true meritocracy: the place where an offbeat genius with a powerful idea can make a new world out of some wildly creative tinkering in a garage. It’s an intoxicating fable, but it’s just that – a fable. Tech is just like any other industry, subject to the same human foibles and biases, driven by the same motives and subject to the same constraints.
Arrington himself showed just how true that was last week when details of an upcoming CNN interview became public. Asked about diversity, he said some things that were at best poorly considered. Tech writer – not singer! – Hank Williams pointed out the ways Arrington was contributing to the very problem he was speaking against.
Many others weighed in over the next few days (including Arrington). But then, interestingly, it faded. That may have partly been by design; as Violet Blue wrote, “Not surprisingly, Arrington is eager to get the spotlight off of him and with comments closed on his post about the matter, is exuding a palpable ‘move along, nothing to see here’ vibe.” The cozy tech press largely went along. No need to poison the well, after all. The problem, of course, hasn’t moved on. It ought to keep being considered over time, but instead it already seems as though it had never happened.
Similarly, there seems to be very little coverage of some of the abysmal conditions for tech workers. This is particularly true overseas, where there are factories that would have to substantially improve to qualify as Dickensian. Part of the reason our lovely little gadgets are relatively inexpensive is because the workers making them are doing so under terrible conditions.
Part of the reason is also frequently an exploited environment. We are starting to see increased attention to the appalling environmental records of some of the biggest IT companies, but because (as with labor) it’s been offshored, we do not pay much attention. Hell, if West Virginia is too remote for big media outlets to sustain focus on, China may as well be on the dark side of the moon.
Despite all of that, coverage of the industry has been overwhelmingly positive, even on the left. It is the one area of big business where people have largely bought into the myth of the Galtian colossus bestriding the earth. Steve Jobs was probably the most prominent example of this, and he is so revered that even this revelation has failed to make much of an impact:
Jobs also criticized America’s education system, saying it was “crippled by union work rules,” noted Isaacson. “Until the teachers’ unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform.”
He wasn’t some brand new 21st century global visionary, he was an archetype as old as capitalism itself: A greedy and indifferent boss, a garden variety cheap labor conservative (via). His politics, when he acknowledged them in a candid, private moment, were as antediluvian as the most reactionary right winger. The policies he emphatically endorsed are currently being implemented by Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio, and huge numbers of ordinary citizens are desperately fighting them. Yet somehow his reputation is unscathed.
And he was entirely representative of that culture. Business culture that is, not some revolutionary new one. Silicon Valley firms have so far been able to remain largely aloof from the workaday concerns of less exciting companies. Outside that rarefied air you get sued for systematic discrimination or despoiling the environment, but so far those inside it have remained immune. That isn’t because they have conducted themselves better, though. They certainly haven’t earned their fawning media coverage or the presumption of awesomeness. They have somehow convinced many they have, however. With each new scandal, though, the illusion becomes less vibrant and less convincing.
Cross posted from Pruning Shears.