The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is Silicon Valley only interested in the problems of twentysomethings?

All of the dollars. (bigstockphoto)

In his fascinating New Yorker piece on the political culture of Silicon Valley, George Packer relays an irksome conversation with Dave Morin, founder of Path, that underscores the yawning distance between the concerns of the tech elite and the concerns of pretty much everyone else on earth.

[Morin] described San Francisco as a place where people already live in the future. They can hang out with their friends even when they're alone. They inhabit a "sharing economy": they can book a weeklong stay in a cool apartment through Airbnb, which has disrupted the hotel industry, or hire a luxury car anywhere in the city through the mobile app Uber, which has disrupted the taxi industry. "SanFrancisco is a place where we can go downstairs and get in an Uber and go to dinner at a place that I got a restaurant reservation for halfway there," Morin said. "And, if not, we could go to my place, and on the way there I could order takeout food from my favorite restaurants on Postmates, and a bike messenger will go and pick it up for me. We'll watch it happen on the phone. These things are crazy ideas."
It suddenly occurred to me that the hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that's who thinks them up.

Airbnb and Uber certainly get a lot of press. But are they really representative of the problems Silicon Valley is most interested in solving? Or are they just companies that get an inordinate amount of press -- in part because they're solving the problems of journalists who live in cities and travel a lot, and those are the people who decide which companies get a lot of press?

In January, published its list of 2013's "top 17 IPO candidates." It's as good a place as any to get a sense of where Silicon Valley thinks Silicon Valley is headed. The answer isn't necessarily towards "saving the world." But it's not limos and lofts for twentysomethings, either.

There's Box, which is a business-focused, cloud storage solution. Wayfair sells home goods. I don't totally understand what Palantir does,  but it appears to be some kind of highly secure data-analysis platform with a "let's-save-the-world-with-numbers" web site and a reputation for actually being a defense contractor. Square is trying to revolutionize how we pay for things. Survey Monkey speeds the customer feedback process. Marin Software manages advertising campaigns. SugarCRM helps companies "gain and retain customers by providing greater efficiency and control over the sales pipeline." It more or less goes on like that.

In other words, many of the hottest tech start-ups are solving the problems of being a business, because that's where all the money is.

This doesn't take away from Packer's larger points about the Valley's economic inequality, cultural insularity, and irritating self-regard. He's clearly onto something in the way the experience of continuously solving seemingly insoluble technical problems can lead the technocracy to dismiss the challenges of actual societies or, worse, decide they're simply above them.

But if Silicon Valley errs by thinking itself overly special, the press often errs by buying into that self-serving exceptionalism -- even if the agreement comes wrapped in disappointment that our tech overlords aren't living up to their limitless potential. We're much more interested in the tech sector when it's claiming to change the world or disrupt some new industry than when it's just developing better software for managing branding campaigns or tracking customer-service complaints. But that's an enormous amount of what goes on in Silicon Valley, and it pans out more reliably than the messianic rhetoric does.

Imagine how odd it would be to read an article saying that the people who work for manufacturing firms are really just out to make money, or that they don't seem interested enough in current events. It is only because Silicon Valley has done such an extraordinary job branding itself that articles about their social conscience, or lack thereof, seem completely reasonable. But the tech sector is, on the whole, much more like other sectors of the economy than it likes to believe, or than it likes anyone else to believe.