We have to understand the people behind big tech in order to fix it
|Azeem Azhar||43 min|| 81|
I’m here with a special Sunday essay for this week’s Exponential View. Katy Cook, a long-time reader, recently published a book, The Psychology of Silicon Valley. As I am busy kicking off the new podcast series, I asked her to step in this week. In her work, she has explored the psychological underpinnings of the culture of Silicon Valley and how it is reflected in the products and companies of today.
Please enjoy Katy’s Exponential View and take a moment to thank her on Twitter or hitting the heart button above.
I am Katy Cook, author of The Psychology of Silicon Valley: Ethical Threats and Emotional Unintelligence in the Tech Industry, and the founder of the nonprofit Centre for Technology Awareness. As a social psychologist, my interest in technology tends to focus on the culture and psychology of the industry itself, as well as the social experiences and economic changes we’re living through as a result of technology. In my work, I take a step back from looking at the symptoms of the technology, and try to see how deeply every issue was influenced by the industry’s cultural and psychological landscape.
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As a space, Silicon Valley is nondescript. Even walking down the Sand Hill Road, a stretch of several blocks that is home to some of the biggest venture firms in the Bay Area and the world, is in no way ostensibly interesting. What makes the Valley what it is are its many intangibles: its people, ideas, and unique ways of thinking about the world, which have converged to produce the most profitable, fastest-growing, and influential industry in the history of humankind.
Tech journalist Leslie Hook explained the Valley as not a place at all, but an abstraction of the tech industry itself. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman famously observed, ‘Silicon Valley is a mindset, not a location,’ In other words, Silicon Valley stands for a way of thinking: it is defined by its psychology.
Where problems emerge, however, is at the misalignment of the perceived identity and the actual identity of the industry: a distortion that holds the industry back from acknowledging its flaws and moving forward to fix itself.
The distortion of this real vs. imagined identity is particularly acute when we look at three facets of Silicon Valley: one, the values on which it was founded; two, its history as a place of opportunity; and three, the prominent images and attitudes that are valued in the technology community.
Central to the counterculture narrative of the 70’s and 80’s that influenced the Valley strongly, was the promise of individual empowerment, primarily through the tools we use (as exemplified by Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue). In the spirit of freedom, openness, and creativity, the Valley began shaping the internet with a collective expectation of human flourishing. While the road to the internet was paved with good intentions, it has not weathered the corporate onslaught against its original values very well. As Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote for the World Wide Web Foundation:
The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today. What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.
The competition-blocking practices, startup acquisition, and monopolization of talent by internet giants has led Berners-Lee to forecast not only that the next two decades will see a decline in innovation, but also that the internet, if left in its current form, will exacerbate the problems of global inequality. The future became less a thing we create through our present-day choices than a predestined scenario we bet on with our venture capital but arrive at passively.
The meeting of the modern, corporate objectives and the rebellious counterculture of underdogs has created a tension that strikes to the heart of the industry’s confusion about what it truly is today.
A more honest appraisal of the industry’s values, an appreciation of how these have changed, and a willingness to re-envision the principles of Silicon Valley may help the industry as a whole synthesize two competing (though perhaps incompatible) elements of its character.
The land of opportunity
Central to the Bay Area’s historical identity are its sheer number of financial success stories. Since the Gold Rush of the mid-nineteenth century, Northern California has been unequivocally associated with economic prosperity. The dot com and silicon booms of the 90’s and 2000’s built on top of the history of the gold and metal fortunes of the 1850s and the railway companies of the early twentieth-century. They continue the narrative of risk-taking, entrepreneurialism and affluence which is hardwired into the identity of the Valley. Tom Goodwin describes the wealth that is enjoyed in tech not as something wholly negative in and of itself, but as a key ingredient that drives its confused sense of identity:
If you live in Silicon Valley, your impression of the world is that most people get Ubers everywhere, that Tesla is a really popular car, that a salary is a way to keep yourself alive while your stock options potentially boom into something that allows you to get a million dollars. They think that all this extreme behavior is actually quite normal.
To honestly explore the identity of Silicon Valley is to acknowledge that the extreme wealth of the region is offset by extreme economic inequality and financial hardship for many living on the periphery of the tech industry’s success. Rising levels of homelessness, a bifurcating, two-class job market, and the exodus of the middle class from the Bay Area are just some of the problems underlying the growth of big tech, which has raised housing and living costs to unprecedented levels while failing to provide a living wage for those who are not part of the tech boom. In 2018, the Edelman Trust Barometer reported that 49 per cent of Bay Area residents were considering moving, a number that jumped to 58 per cent amongst millennials.
Admitting we are in some way accountable for something is neither a welcome nor an easy task. Psychologically, it takes a great deal of awareness and maturity to accept that our identity is marked by both positive and negative traits. When told we are complicit or culpable of something, particularly when it is framed as blame, our knee-jerk reaction is often defensiveness, reactivity, and an inability to be open to alternative points of view.
Philosopher Thomas Davidson once wrote that ‘what you are will show in what you do.’ Who we are, in other words, invariably weaves itself, however subtly and delicately, into the work, relationships, and world we create around us. If we want to understand how Silicon Valley got into this mess, Davidson might argue, we need look no further than the people who shaped it.
Two of the most salient values found in the Valley are a dedication to problem-solving and infatuation with big ideas. Solving big problems most often comes in the form of technical solutions. Figuring out whom to hire as efficient and focused engineers proved tricky for technology companies at the birth of the tech industry in the 60’s, as Birgitta Böckeler writes:
They needed programmers to be really good, because they were panicking about errors. At the same time, they had no specific idea of the necessary skill set. How do you recruit people for a profession like that, when at the same time the demand increases rapidly?
The companies began using aptitude tests. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, upwards of 80 per cent of tech companies used measures such as the IBM Programmer Aptitude Test to screen millions of applicants and identify those they believed would be the most skilled. Psychologists, William Cannon and Dallis Perry, were hired to build a ‘vocational interest scale,’ which would profile computer engineers and assess them for common skills and interests. Their seminal 1966 paper advised tech companies to focus on hiring engineers who ‘liked puzzles’ but ‘disliked people.’
As Nathan Ensmenger laments in The Computer Boys Take Over, Cannon and Perry’s measures were used to select engineers for decades, setting the stage for the industry’s prioritization of analytical thinking and its lack of social intelligence. By prioritizing an analytical, rather than a relational type of thinking, the industry has ring-fenced itself in a variety of ways. Low emotional and social intelligence, coupled with financial success helped create a bubble; in this case a hubris bubble.
One of the many people I spoke to while researching for my book, explained that the industry’s growing arrogance is stemming from a belief that no problem exists that tech could not solve. Such conceit becomes problematic, they explained, when lessons that could be learned from other industries, the past, or the experiences of others are ignored, which might potentially make the products and services of the industry better, safer, or more ethically informed. In addition to speaking to those who worked at tech companies, I also spent time with psychotherapists in the Bay Area, each of whom had clients who worked in tech.
The arrogance exhibited by these clients was one of the more pronounced themes the therapists reported. One therapist, who worked in-house at a large tech company, described the attitude as one of ‘unaware exceptionalism’: the perception of doing something new and radical was often accompanied by a sense of hubris and, in extreme cases, almost an expectation of worship. Positive feedback loop reinforces this: companies, the media, and the public exalts these individuals, further encouraging others in the industry to mimic the behaviour.
Where to next?
I agree with Wired’s Jessi Hempel when she argues that one of the greatest dangers the tech community faces is that it ‘cling[s] to an outdated’ identity of itself, which is no longer accurate or helpful. Silicon Valley does not understand itself in a variety of important ways. As we outline regulatory guidelines, adopt ethical frameworks for development, and reimagine the standards and values we want to instill in future technologies, it is important we understand both the conscious and the unacknowledged aspects of the industry’s identity.
Better self-awareness and emotional intelligence will help steer some companies in a more ethical direction, but in the meantime, government and policymakers must continue to increase their digital acumen in order to effectively govern, propose meaningful legislation, and guard against what are fast becoming some of the most serious issues of the 21st century: misinformation, polarization, job displacement, wealth and income inequality, and the erosion of democracy.
Amending computer science education will be equally critical, particularly the inclusion of more interdisciplinary, humanities-based curriculum that includes subjects such as ethics, sociology, and psychology. Encouraging divergent thinking and training engineers in basic soft skills will prepare students to more effectively manage the ethical issues they will inevitably face in their careers.
What underpins all of the above is a commitment to collaboration between policymakers, academics, and the private sector. Thankfully, if studying human beings has taught me anything, it’s that our continued social progress is a direct result of our capacity to work together. As Mark Vonnegut, the son of the writer Kurt Vonnegut, beautifully wrote, ‘[w]e are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.’
What a special Sunday! Two bursts of EV. I hope it gave you some food for thought, feel free to add your perspective in the comments below.