Silicon Valley is suffering from an Icarus complex

I believe I can fly.
I believe I can fly.
Image: AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin
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Daedalus, one of the great innovators of Greek Antiquity, is most famous for creating the labyrinth that contained the Taurus of Minos, the Minotaur. But after betraying King Minos, he was himself imprisoned within its walls. Seeking to escape Crete, he invented two pairs of wings that he and his son, Icarus, could use to fly.

Donning the wings, which were crafted from wax and feathers, Daedalus warned his son not to fly too high or too low. If he flew too high, the sun would melt his wings of wax, sending him plummeting into the sea. If he flew too low, the sea spray would dampen the feathers and cause him to lose lift. But overcome with the joy of flight, Icarus became emboldened. Failing to heed his father’s warnings, he arrogantly climbed higher and higher. Ultimately, the sun melted his wings, and he plummeted into the sea that now bears his name.

Daedalus’s advice served as a cautionary tale against hubris—that great feature of Greek tragedy where the Gods smite those who try to defy them. Silicon Valley could use the same advice.

If Daedalus and Icarus were reimagined today, we would think of them as an idealistic father-son duo that engineered a disruptive innovation in their garage. Rather than warn of their arrogance in trying to imitate human flight, we would commend their boldness. Investors would have chased them to Burning Man in hopes of planting an early-stage investment, and their gritty team of early employees would have secretly done the math on their stock millions. Their pitch deck would have included the prospective market size for wings, and most certainly would make reference to “disruption.”

As Icarus realized, “Cleverness is not wisdom.” This quote, penned by fellow Greek luminary Euripides in Bacchae, applied to the two of them in different ways: Daedalus knew he was clever, but he was wise in that he knew the boundary of his cleverness; he was a gifted inventor, but he also knew the limits of his own craft. Icarus, however, lacked the consciousness of his own limitations, and the humility necessary to achieve true wisdom.

A modern-day Euripides—popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson—recently tweeted a similar statement. This tweet engendered a flurry of over 30,000 retweets and many one-line retorts, like “Literally, the Humanities.”

The Greeks distinguished between craftsmanship, known as technae, and knowledge, known as espisteme. But today we conflate doing with knowing: We believe that doers are wise, when perhaps they are only clever. Silicon Valley is so obsessed with crafting new wings—to harness the power of the Gods and tame the heavens—that it has overlooked the notion that cleverness is not necessarily wisdom. The ability to harness technology alone may be clever, but it isn’t wise unless it is contextualized within a greater human need.

For example, someone might design the cleverest new system to optimize ad delivery—but few of us would call such an entrepreneur sagacious or wise. We might justly lionize them for their capitalistic prowess or for their ability to abstract value from the ever-tightening mechanics of how pixels are dangled before us like candy—but we wouldn’t call them a “genius.” We require great technologists and clever doers, but we require those who question, probe, and seek to contextualize our advances in equal measure.

Not all wings are made of wax. While entrepreneurs continually push the envelope of what is considered possible, how can we distinguish between the intergalactic dreams of Elon Musk and the oversold therapeutic promise of Theranos? Nearly all prototypes under-deliver, and most good entrepreneurs are known to have oversold their vision once or twice.

But in light of the culturally tone-deaf attempts to reinvent every human process with something mechanistic—to replace corner-store communities with lobby Bodegas and elderly-care professionals with wide-eyed plastic robots—we might take a step back to consider the limits of technology, and the perils of our own hubris.

We might still laud cleverness, but remember its difference from wisdom. As we can learn from Icarus, true wisdom is in knowing the limits of our newest tools.