Friday, June 7, 2013

Silicon Valley and the High Tech Politics

I'm halfway through an interesting article with the following deck (blurb): "CHANGE THE WORLD: Silicon Valley transfers its slogans—and its money—to the realm of politics." It's by George Packer and originally appeared in The New Yorker in late May of this year. Its conceptual starting point is the Valley's more or less naive utopian belief that its business is to change the world and that technology is the way to do that.

Here's some paragraphs from the middle of the article:
In the past fifteen years or so, Andreessen explained, Silicon Valley’s hands-off attitude has changed, as the industry has grown larger and its activities keep colliding with regulations. Technology leaders began to realize that Washington could sometimes be useful to them. “A small number of very high-end Valley people have got involved in politics, but in a way that a lot of us think is relentlessly self-interested,” Andreessen said. The issues that first animated these technology executives were stock options, subsidies, and tax breaks. “They started giving the Valley a bad name in Washington—that the Valley was just another special-interest group.”

In early 2011, Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and other Silicon Valley moguls attended a dinner with President Obama in Wood-side, at the home of John Doerr, a venture capitalist with ties to the Democratic Party. Instead of having a wide-ranging discussion, the tech leaders focussed narrowly on pet issues. John Chambers, of Cisco, kept pushing for a tax holiday on overseas profits that are reinvested in the United States. According to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, while Chambers was lobbying Obama, over cod and lentil salad, Zuckerberg turned to Valerie Jarrett, the President’s adviser, and whispered, “We should be talking about what’s important to the country. Why is he just talking about what’s good for him?” When it was Jobs’s turn, he asked for more H-1B visas for foreign students who earn engineering degrees in the U.S.—a longtime Silicon Valley desire. Obama told him that the issue could be addressed only in the context of broader immigration reforms, such as allowing children who had arrived here illegally with their parents to gain legal status.

Zuckerberg came away from the gathering impressed with Obama but sorely disappointed in his own industry. The most dynamic sector of the American economy had no larger agenda.
Toward the end:
One obstacle in Silicon Valley to thinking about conditions in the rest of the country is the tech world’s belief in itself as a meritocracy. “Not an aspirational meritocracy but an actual one,” Mitch Kapor, who founded the software company Lotus, in the early eighties, told me. In this view, he explained, “it’s the best and the brightest who have succeeded here.” Kapor and his wife, Freada, now run a foundation, in Oakland, that seeks to make the benefits of technology more equally available. Kapor said that asking questions about the lack of racial and gender diversity in tech companies leaves people in Silicon Valley intensely uncomfortable. For example, only eight per cent of venture-backed tech start-ups are owned by women, and, in a region where Hispanics make up nearly a quarter of the working-age population, they constitute less than five per cent of employees in large tech companies; the representation of both Hispanics and blacks is actually declining. People in Silicon Valley may be the only Americans who don’t like to advertise the fact if they come from humble backgrounds. According to Kapor, they would then have to admit that someone helped them along the way, which goes against the Valley’s self-image.

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