Okay, Silicon Valley can deliver on its promise to save the world now

The ghost of Steve Jobs is looming.
The ghost of Steve Jobs is looming.
Image: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
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Updated | Silicon Valley’s best branding move has always been its promise to change the world, to worship the new gods of disruption and free expression over the old gods of greed and money for money’s sake. It is in part because of Silicon Valley that those new gods have been adopted by society at large. Yes, we all want faster internet and cooler phones, but we also want to support companies that want to support the collective good.

The specter of socially conscious capitalism is what attracted so many to Silicon Valley’s gilded gates in the first place—people who wanted to risk it all for a dream, instead of sweating it out on Wall Street (which never claimed to have a soul in the first place). Now this self-professed moral imperative is facing perhaps its first true test, in the form of US president Donald Trump.

In his first week in office, Trump has done or vowed to do a lot of things that should raise eyebrows in the Valley, including making it harder for Americans to get health care, targeting cities that refuse to turn over illegal immigrants, muffling (and promising to drastically reduce funding for) the Environmental Protection Agency, and issuing temporary or indefinite bans on refugees and immigrants from certain countries.

To companies that care about the role of compassion in American democracy, these are fighting words. And yet responses from the tech community are for the most part nonexistent. Trump champion Peter Thiel remains on Facebook’s board and a partner at Y Combinator. Elon Musk expressed support for Trump’s pick for secretary of state, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. Apple CEO Tim Cook may not be thrilled, but has explained to his employees the importance of having a seat at the Trump table.

There are some outliers. PayPal co-founder Max Levchin is an empathetic bright spot among his peers, and former SpaceX exec Dex Torricke-Barton had the courage to quit his job to fight Trump. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who perplexed her nearly 2 million Facebook followers when she didn’t publicly support the Women’s March on Jan. 21, on Thursday threw her support behind reversing an executive action signed by Trump that restricts funds to NGOs that provide abortion services. “Women’s rights are human rights,” Sandberg wrote, “and there is no more basic right than health care.” One day later, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote his own impassioned post, saying the United States “is a nation of immigrants, and we should be proud of that.” Also on Friday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai decried the immigration policy in a note to employees.

For the most part, though, the Valley has not used the first few days of a Trump administration to fight policies that violate their professed social mores. Nor has tech done much self-reflection on the fact that its political ambivalence helped empower an authoritarian leader whose policies will significantly affect those far more vulnerable than the millionaires in San Francisco and San Jose. Worse still, many techies have quietly established backup plans by securing citizenship abroad, or taking up survivalism in far-flung locales. Silicon Valley’s playful rhetoric around risk never included much talk of insurance and backup plans before.

No one has taken up the mantle of calling out this hypocrisy more emphatically than longtime tech reporter Kara Swisher, who recently evoked the ghost of Steve Jobs in wondering why no Silicon Valley leaders have stood up to the president. “Where has that once-celebrated [pirates of Silicon Valley] sentiment gone?” she wrote. “Pirates. Break things. Disrupt. Resist. Win by being smarter and better. Believe in and embrace the future. Gone, it seems, with the election of one loud-mouthed politician…

“I sure would like to know what [Steve Jobs would] say about all this, even if I am probably being willfully nostalgic that it would be something stronger than what we are hearing today.”

Values are nothing unless defended when it’s inconvenient. That’s what makes them values. Embracing risk when there are real stakes is the definition of risk. Committing to uncomfortable action, even if it might affect shareholder value, or earn the ire of a vindictive commander in chief, is what it really means to believe in changing the world. Few global developments have created such a need for actual disruptors with actual backbones.

Many liberals hoped that the opening days of a Trump administration would be an “emperor’s new clothes” moment, that Americans would see the hot air behind the bluster. Instead, the emperor is Silicon Valley. Underneath the hoodies and behind the contrarian ethos is a traditional power system driven by the same incentives that guide Wall Street.

Update: On Saturday, Apple’s Tim Cook, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, Lyft CEO Logan Green, and Y Combinator president Sam Altman issued statements condemning the executive order targeting refugees and immigrants from Muslim-majority countries.