The real world is undermining Silicon Valley’s apolitical fantasyland

August 20
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Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg (deerkoski)

Like Hollywood, Silicon Valley has an idea of how politics works. And that idea is generally wrong.

But most tech startups would probably agree that being proven wrong is an important step toward getting things right. Some, like Uber, are finding that they can't get ahead without grappling with bureaucrats and lobbyists — a dirty, petty business that reminds us more of the fading 20th century than the sleek, futuristic promise of the 21st.

Now Uber has acknowledged that it needs more political firepower to better confront that reality. The hiring of former Obama adviser David Plouffe is a tacit admission that a policy of disruption carries consequences that must be carefully managed, lest the fallout come back to haunt the ride-share app's business. Plouffe's role as the firm's premier policy strategist is a sign of Uber's ambitious agenda. But it portends ripple effects for other tech entrepreneurs, too — the ones that are smart enough to understand the political system and their place within it.

Most of the time, tech companies would simply rather disengage from the squabbling that's characteristic of Congress and city hall. George Mason University researcher Adam Thierer calls this the principle of "permissionless innovation": When businesses don't have to justify their experiments to anyone, they can simply focus on building the next great tool or platform. This is the bedrock of startup culture, in which low barriers to entry allow the best ideas to bubble to the top whether you're a college dropout or have a Ph.D hanging on your wall.

A belief in permissionless innovation is what gives the tech industry its libertarian streak. Some in politics have sought to capitalize on that, with conservatives attempting to co-opt those who believe in Uber's market-promoting, regulation-busting approach. For the GOP, it's all part of an effort to close a problematic youth gap: Gallup polling shows just 35 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds support the right, compared to 53 percent who lean Democratic.

But until Tuesday, Uber had given little indication that it was receptive to either political party. Like many of its Silicon Valley peers, it carried an air of what I'll call solutionism: Transportation needs fixing, so here's something everyone should be able to get behind. Everyone who's a consumer, at any rate. Move fast and break things. Use technology to change the world. (Update: I've since learned that the technology critic Evgeny Morozov coined the term "solutionism" in a recent book of his.)

This attitude — bordering on ideology — is pervasive in the tech industry. It goes hand-in-hand with a certain kind of frustration with politicians (which is entirely deserved), as well as with partisanship more generally. For some, such as investors Marc Andreessen or Chamath Palihapitiya, the growing fecklessness of politics is a sign that Silicon Valley's time has come.

"It's becoming excruciatingly, obviously clear to everyone else that where value is created is no longer in New York, it's no longer in Washington, it's no longer in L.A.," said Palihapitiya last year in an interview with entrepreneur Jason Calacanis. "It's in San Francisco and the Bay Area."

As New York Magazine's Kevin Roose points out, however, this is a minority view, even if we accept that many (or even most) people in Silicon Valley think this way. So long as entrepreneurs keep telling themselves this story about Bay Area exceptionalism and technology's capacity to rescue us all, they will remain incongruously out of step with the rest of the country.

If what the country needed was simply a potent mix of money and solutionism, perhaps we'd see some paradigm-shattering breakthroughs. So far, however, even the issues Silicon Valley cares most about haven't been solved, to say nothing of the country's thorniest social and economic challenges. And it's not for lack of trying: Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg alone has thrown $100 million at the New Jersey school system in an effort to promote bureaucracy-slashing charter schools, and his side project, FWD.us, has spent upwards of $780,000 since 2013 in an effort to break the immigration logjam. Neither push has produced very much.

There's a bit of an old money/new money divide at work here, too. The new money — Zuckerberg's, for example — sees opportunities for progress outside of the typical political structure. Older tech money — say, from less trendy companies like Microsoft — is used more to work within the system. (FWD.us, it should be said, takes a middle-ground approach that courts liberal and conservative lawmakers.)

As a lot of Washington reporters are fond of pointing out, the smart companies are the ones that learn to engage bureaucrats rather than circumvent them. Whether that's really true is an open question, but the evidence certainly seems to point in that direction. Google has famously become one of the country's biggest corporate lobbyists, yes, but it's funding think tank research, nonprofits and advocacy groups, too. Netflix, sensing a threat to its business in the debate over net neutrality, has proven remarkably active on that issue. And of course, there are companies like Uber, Aereo and Airbnb, which have all staked their future on battling laws that restrict their activities. Beneath all that is an even more obscure parlor game inside regulatory agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, where corporate battles play out in court arguments, comment filings and even attempts to change how these various offices operate.

What these companies have in common is that, at some point in their growth, they realized that policies being designed at all levels of government had direct or indirect effects on their businesses, which made it impossible to ignore the people who were doing the policymaking. Small startups lacking the scale to trigger these questions can afford to pursue permissionless innovation and adopt the attitude that government can be ignored. Larger companies — or perhaps more accurately, companies with larger ambitions — can't.

Silicon Valley is in the throes of another tech bubble. Only this time, instead of ballooning stock prices, the bubble is one of political culture. Insulated from the challenges facing more established companies, the Bay Area's youngest have been socialized to believe that most problems can be fixed with enough money and engineering. As some companies are discovering, the reality is less straightforward.

Have more to say about this topic? Join us Friday for our weekly live chat, Switchback. We'll kick things off at 11 a.m. Eastern time. The comment box is open, so you can submit questions now.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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