Even if the tech bubble hasn’t burst, its moral one has. Perhaps no community has had its moral identity as challenged by the election of Donald Trump as Silicon Valley.
Despite years of mockery from HBO’s Silicon Valley, the tech community still imagines itself fundamentally as a meritocracy working to “make the world a better place”.
Yet far beyond the impact of fake news, the tech community has now been forced to confront the reality that for much of America– and much of the world– Silicon Valley’s impact is experienced predominantly through its “disruptions”, especially lost jobs and increased inequality.
Meanwhile, despite efforts to promote diversity, the tech community too often remains exclusionary, a fact highlighted most recently in Uber’s March 2017 Diversity and Inclusion Report.
Throughout it all, there is this profound paradox: even as tech has made us increasingly “connected”, we nevertheless are more polarized and feel more alone.
Silicon Valley now confronts an existential choice: to continue to create a system that at its worst can be the economic equivalent of what Thucydides described as: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Or to reimagine the future as more inclusive, diverse, and sustainable.
Of course, Silicon Valley has made great advances that save and improve lives— and we all hope that it will continue to do so.
To its credit, the tech community is also now grappling with emerging social and economic challenges, including by beginning to develop policy responses to displacement associated with automation.
And the Valley has responded to some of the most egregious oversteps of the Trump Administration with moral courage. When President Trump tried to enact his travel ban, the Valley responded nearly unanimously. Box’s Aaron Levie called it “completely antithetical to the principles of America.” Google co-founder Sergey Brin – a refugee himself – stood in solidarity with those affected at San Francisco International Airport. Airbnb’s Brian Chesky offered free housing to anyone affected by the ban. And on and on.
But it is not enough. The Valley’s responsibility to redress inequality extends beyond income or politics alone. The sharing economy must share the future.
While there is an ongoing debate about whether tech’s largest companies have monopolies over their markets, for many years there has been an underlying assumption from the Valley that they have a monopoly on the ideal future. Yet, that future has been imagined in an environment that has frequently neglected the full range of human backgrounds and perspectives.
As a community– both in the Valley and in the larger country and world– we need to develop a more holistic and inclusive vision of our shared future.
The tech community has a critical role to play in the road ahead. And it can get inspiration by looking to the past. Just look at the true meaning of an overused tech buzzwords: “innovation”. When “innovation” first came into the English language in the 1540s, it meant to “introduce as new”. By the 1590s it also meant “to alter established practices”. Innovation, like revolution, is a circular endeavor involving creation and recreation.
For the past 20 years, the tech community has been engaged primarily in the introduction of the new: innovative communications technologies, consumer applications, and transportation systems. What is needed now, however, is a recreation of the old– a focus on renewal, rather than just rupture.
This will require a new commitment to areas that have too often been left out of the Valley’s focus, such as government and governance, health and education, care and community.
This will require a fundamental re-imagining of what democracy– and the underlying social contract– can be in the Digital Age.
Above all else, this will require not only technical imagination but moral imagination— and an emphasis on the needs of the here and now as much as on the fantastic and futuristic.
Together we must design for solutions on both the social and human levels. This means working to re-invigorate the tech world’s moral center, from the culture of the c-suite to the way products influence end users. And it means proactively bringing in all stakeholders– from designers and engineers to journalists and political leaders, to citizens and families to design a future we can all share.