A little over a year ago, I moved to San Francisco from Massachusetts and started looking for a job. As I sifted through job descriptions, I noticed something striking about Silicon Valley prose.
Bento Box wasn’t just a startup that delivered Asian food to your door—it was “building the restaurant of the future.” GetAround, a car sharing service, was “uniting people through transport and tech” and declared that, “the future of driving is community-driven.” Instagram doesn’t just let you share pictures; its services “inspire creativity around the world.”
The tech industry’s absurdly high-minded language has by now been skewered everywhere from Dan Lyons’ startup tell-all Disrupted to the HBO television series Silicon Valley. But what stood out to me wasn’t just how overblown these descriptions were; it was how heavily they relied upon language once associated with the 1960s counterculture revolution.
A half-century after my parents participated in protests and sit-ins in San Francisco, the northern California city is again filled with optimism about a better future. Words like “revolution,” “disruption,” and “openness,” once the stuff of folk songs and idealistic dorm-room discussions, are required buzzwords in the average startup’s mission statement. Yet the San Francisco of today is also strikingly different from the one my parents knew—and not just because I can’t find a single good burger under $10. While the terminology may draw on the language of change, the tech industry’s purpose and goals in 2016 demonstrate its commitment to doing things the same old way.
The 1960s counterculture saw technology as a tool of the Cold War—inextricably tied up with the conformism of the military-industrial complex. The counterculture movement prized creativity as a way to combat these homogenizing and seemingly dangerous forces. Back-to-the-landers eschewed the rise of suburbia and modern dishwashers, moving to remote areas to build their own houses, sew their own clothes, and grow their own food. Students at Berkeley protested the perceived dehumanizing influence of computers by marching with punch cards hung around their necks emblazoned with the phrase, “do not fold, spindle, or mutilate.”
But today, the tech industry markets itself as our most creative and socially conscious economic sector. The thousands of startups that pepper the Bay Area extol the importance of fostering communality through the sharing economy. (Incubators and services like WeLive, which runs dorm-like apartment buildings, even function as kinds of modern-day communes.) The tech industry imagines a world divorced from the old ways of doing things; one that’s more open with information, distributes resources more equally, and is ultimately better than any reality we’ve ever known. Like the hippies of yesteryear, they want to reevaluate all of American society’s existing structures and question the familiar. According to Soylent’s devotees, even mealtime is on the chopping block.
As one of the biggest and most successful startups, Facebook exemplifies the ambition of our 21st-century revolution. Facebook’s “Five Core Values” make it clear that this is not just a company centered around helping people browse through pictures of their exes and their classmates’ babies. No, Facebook is on a mission to “make the world more open and connected.” As Mark Zuckerberg remarked earlier this summer, “entrepreneurship is about creating change, not just creating companies.”
The Core Values exhort workers to be bold, to “focus on impact,” and “be good at finding the biggest problems to work on.” Employees are not expected to regard the company as a place where they just clock in and clock out. Like the counterculture of the 1960s, the vision is to gather people who are committed to a certain way of life and a philosophy driven by a personal desire to change the world. As Facebook’s fifth Core Value promises, they expect “everyone at Facebook to focus every day on how to build real value for the world in everything they do.”
There’s no doubt that many Facebook employees, like their brethren throughout Silicon Valley, are true believers who think that they are rebuilding the universe in crucial ways. But what impact is this revolution really having on openness, equality, and creativity?
In the years since Facebook was made open to the public in 2006, inequality in America has continued to grow. Data from the Urban Institute show that by 2013 white families had, on average, “seven times the wealth of African American families and six times the wealth of Hispanic families.” Women still earn, on average, 79% of what men make, and income inequality in America is so steep that the top 20% of US households own 84% of our national wealth. The tech industry is not solely responsible for these imbalances. It is, however, intricately tied up in the economic structures that created and continue to perpetuate wealth disparities in America.
Tech companies are repeatedly embroiled in scandals over social justice issues, from the lack of employee diversity at Facebook and Google to recent revelations of racism on platforms like Airbnb and Nextdoor. While tech start-ups may really want to promote communal values, foster creative environments, and rebuild our society, at the end of the day their most important mission is a traditional one. Making a profit still comes first.
There’s nothing inherently sinister about this goal, and certainly nothing unusual. But there is a danger in an industry narrative that attempts to pass off capitalism as revolutionary.
As the customers upon whose dollars tech companies rely, we have to remember that the industry—despite its language of revolution—is quite conservative, ruled by IPOs and venture capitalists, dependent on the fluctuations of the market, on advertisers, and on short-term growth. Silicon Valley thus far has designed itself in such a way that it is subject to the same economic forces, inputs, and requirements as any other industry. If the rest of us want a future that is more open, inclusive, and fair, then we have to get serious about creativity and demand real change from industry that—from its funding system to its hiring practices—is still a very conventional one.