Has Silicon Valley Lost Its Soul? The Case For and Against; The Real Question: Whose Deal With the Devil is Better, Hollywood or Silicon Valley?
To see who prevailed in the spirited debate, watch the full discussion below.
John Donvan: Silicon Valley is not just a place, but it’s also an emblem to some of a self-professed ideal. The ideal of super-smart people using those super smarts to create disruption for the betterment of all, or as Steve Jobs once put it, engineers working, quote, “to solve most of humankind’s problems.” He said that more than 20 years ago. There’s been a lot of history since then. There’s been a lot of money made, too, but also there’s been the emergence of certain kinds of problems that are only possible because of technology, like elections hacked by via social media, like algorithms tweaked to be addictive, like customers’ data rendered into a commodity. That’s not what the idealists foresaw, and yet we are as connected now as never before, and innovative solutions are being developed to address challenges with issues like healthcare and employment.
So where does this leave the dream? Is it dead and abandoned, or is it still very much a work in progress? Well, to us, this sounds like it has the makings of a debate, so let’s have it. Yes or no to this statement: Silicon Valley has lost its soul. I’m John Donvan, and I stand between two teams of two who are experts in this topic who will argue for and against that resolution. As always, our debate will go in three rounds, and then our audience here at Techonomy in Half Moon Bay, California will choose the winner. And as always, if all goes well, civil discourse will also win.
Our resolution is: Silicon Valley has lost its soul. Let’s meet our debaters, starting first with the team arguing for that resolution. Please ladies and gentlemen, welcome Noam Cohen.
Noam, welcome to IQ2. You’re a journalist. You’re the author of the book, “The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball.” You wrote for The New York Times where you covered early coverage of Wikipedia and Bitcoin and Twitter, and before that, you worked at inside.com with the late, great David Carr, who has debated with us a long time. So what happened to inside.com?
Noam Cohen: It was another casualty of the internet bubble, and I think it launched a lot of great careers and David Carr being, like, premier of them I would say:
John Donvan: All right. Yes. Well, it’s great to have you with us, so again, Noam Cohen.
And his partner, please let’s welcome Dipayan Ghosh.
Dipayan Ghosh: Thank you.
John Donvan: Dipayan, welcome to IQ2. It’s great to have you. You are the Pozen Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. You work on issues like digital privacy, artificial intelligence, and civil rights. Previously, you were at Facebook working on global privacy, and before that, you were at the Obama White House as a technology policy advisor. You’ve written an academic paper just this year called “Digital Deceit.” A lot of stuff you’ve done particularly on the issue of digital privacy, so what got you interested in that in the first place?
Dipayan Ghosh: Well, I started studying privacy back in graduate school, and I think what I was so interested in is, how do we send information from point A to point B in a secure and private manner? And it’s that last piece that really got me stuck to it.
John Donvan: And you haven’t cracked it yet.
Dipayan Ghosh: [laughs] I don’t think anybody has.
John Donvan: Once again, the team arguing for the motion. And that motion, again, that Silicon Valley has lost its soul, and we have two debaters arguing against it. Please first welcome Leslie Berlin.
Leslie, welcome to IQ2. You are author of “Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age.” You were a prototype columnist for The New York Times. You are the project historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford, and in fact, Eric Schmidt called you a master historian of Silicon Valley.
So tell us, what is your favorite thing in the archives?
Leslie Berlin: Well, we have this little bitty note. In 1976 this guy who ran an advertising agency got a call from Steve Jobs, 21-year-old Steve Jobs, hung up the phone and jotted down a note to give to his colleague, and it begins “This joker is going to call you. There’re two guys operating out of a garage.”
And it ends, “Sounds flaky. Watch it.”
John Donvan: Oh, wow. Terrific story. Thanks very much for sharing that, Leslie, and you have a partner. Please welcome Joshua McKenty.
Joshua, welcome to the debate. You are the vice president at Pivotal. You were the founder and chief architect of NASA Nebula. Earlier in your career you led the development for Netscape 8, and for AOL’s Instant Messenger Toolbar. You also co-founded a few start-ups including OpenStack and Piston. Steve Wozniak was an advisor for you. And you had some interesting conversations with him about how software has evolved. Very briefly, like, what was that about?
Joshua McKenty: Yeah, so Woz and I both started on the consumer side and then moved gradually farther into enterprise, and I think it’s because we believe that technology is more and more powerful the more invisible it gets, the more the complexity is hidden from the user.
John Donvan: Oh, fascinating. I think this is going to be a fascinating conversation based on what all of you have said, so one more time to our teams arguing for and against the resolution.
So onto round one. Round one are opening statements by each debater in turn. Speaking first in support of the resolution, Silicon Valley has lost its soul, Noam Cohen, journalist and author of “The Know-It-Alls.” Ladies and gentlemen, Noam Cohen.
Noam Cohen: So I wanted everyone to take a moment and think about the first time they used the internet 20, 25 years ago. I’ll think about when I first used it, and it was a chaotic, quirky egalitarian and exciting experience.
I mean I think about, you know, how I knew as much about the websites and the websites knew about me, and I think about how, you know, a site like Yahoo which was hand-curated. It was an index created by people, and you kind of go down various rabbit holes looking at where links would go. I think about peer-to-peer exchanges where friends would talk about music that impacted them a lot or, you know, they really love and they could—it would show up on my computer and vice versa. I think about, you know, inside.com where John asked me where I had worked which was trying to make a different kind of—use the internet to tell news in a different way where you experiment with formats. Some were long. Some were short. We wanted a lot of feedback from our—the audience. We were really looking for the people we wrote about to kind of have a role in what we were doing, and in general, it was a really exciting time, and it’s a very different time than we think about. I also think about inside we didn’t really care about whether we were on a platform. We sort of hung our shingle out and basically, you know, we were hoping people would come see what we were doing.
And we weren’t trying to sort of please another master. Now, think about what it’s like today. All right. The internet is so different. Obviously, websites know so much about us. We know so little about them. You know, you think about how we get recommendation; right? It’s not through friends or people telling us things; it’s algorithms kind of anticipating what they think we’ll like often based on what we’ve liked before. So, it really kind of limits our horizons. Right, it’s not that same kind of serendipity responding to things. And I think about news where, you know, one of the things about these platforms like Google and Facebook, that it’s so flat, right, that all news stories are treated the same. You know, it’s no difference between a click farm, what they create and what you know, a New York Times or Washington Post creates. It’s a real—it’s a real, real terrible situation. I mean you can easily say that the internet has lost its soul in its 25, 30 years. Now, it’s a similar story to tell about the Silicon Valley companies. Right, I mean you can just look at Apple and say here, it was started by these incredibly, you know, idealistic and enterprising people, right, who wanted to bring personal computing to people.
And they wanted to bring the joy of great design and something. They wanted to share what they had with the world. You look at Apple today, and it’s sort of known for global tax avoidance and it has an arm’s length arrangement with how its products are made in China. You say the same story about Microsoft. Right, I mean it was someone who dropped out of Harvard to create software for this new, exciting thing called a personal computer. He wanted it to work better for people. He wanted it to work better for people. You know, look 20 years later and Microsoft became this behemoth that was choking off any kind of competition. And arguably, if the government hadn’t gotten involved, it would’ve—it would’ve stopped companies like Google and Facebook from even getting the chance to emerge. Then we look at Google, right, which was created by these two graduate students at Stanford. So idealistic, they were wanted to make a better search engine, right. They believed search was so important to the internet experience; they had to have a trustworthy way of navigating the web.
And they were worried that basic advertising was corrupting. And they wrote an incredible paper explaining why advertisement had to be kept away from search. It was too important to be corrupted that way. And yet, of course, cut to today, and Facebook is rife with ads. It’s tracking us. It’s trying to get to sell us things and kind of feed us what they think we want. Likewise, Facebook, you could say, started as a kind of idealistic chance to link up students, maybe link up the world. Today it’s synonymous with tracking people, with kind of making us stay outside our own kind of minds and getting very—you know, dividing us. And it’s—you know, it’s replete. We can see that basically the same story has happened, that Silicon Valley has lost its soul. The internet lost its soul. Silicon Valley lost its soul and you kind of think about, what does it mean to lose a soul? Like do you misplace it? Does someone snatch it? Does it like expire? I think it’s pretty clear what happened to the soul here. It was sold. Silicon Valley sold its soul. And I say that you know with respect in a sense that it was very tempting.
That there were people who were who were clamoring to get involved and invest in these companies. And I think what they did, when I think about why did they sell their soul, I think they sort of saw their mission as more important than their soul. Like their soul could be used to fund their mission. So, these companies all have grandiose missions. You can say Microsoft wanted to create an operating system where everyone could use the same operating system and communicate well. Same with Facebook; they want to link up the world. Google wants to, you know, organize the world’s information. These are incredibly great, you know, missions. And I think they saw selling their soul, like allowing people to be tracked, keeping all of their data, as sort of part of what could finance these very expensive missions. I know that this is true because I think about how it’s a famous kind of comment of Larry Page and Sergey Brin was talking about Nicola Tesla, the Serbian-American brilliant inventor, was a real inspiration. Also, cautionary tale for them, right.
He was this brilliant inventor who would better inventions to everyone that agrees. But he was beaten out by Thomas Edison who understood how business worked right. And that was—I think they wanted not make that mistake again. They didn’t want to have be the brilliant ones who were not actually going to change the world because they were so brilliant; they didn’t want to dare deal with business. And I think what they didn’t realize is that if Nicola Tesla had been good at business, he wouldn’t be Nicola Tesla. And like you can’t be you can’t aspire to be him and not follow his path. I think they really lost the thread of what it means to be a soulful, brilliant, innovative person. And I think that Silicon Valley, in the process, has lost its soul. And that’s what we tend to argue. Thank you.
John Donvan: Thank you, Noam Cohen. And exhibitor will be speaking against that resolution, Silicon Valley has lost its soul. Leslie Berlin, Silicon Valley historian at Stanford University and author of “Trouble Makers.” Ladies and gentlemen, Leslie Berlin.
Leslie Berlin: Hi. Thank you all for coming.
Our side is going to split this in the following way. Since I’m the academic and the historian, I am actually going to use hard facts—
—to show you that Silicon Valley has not lost its soul. And then my partner Josh is going to speak from the perspective as the only entrepreneur among this group. Now you’re being asked to decide whether Silicon Valley has lost its soul, and I’ve heard this claim a lot recently. Actually, very much like what we just heard and what I know has been discussed today. Once there was a time where Silicon Valley worked on hard problems, like inventing the microchip, inventing the internet. It was all for the good of humanity, and now Silicon Valley works on stupid, frivolous things like time-wasting or addictive apps, or else social networks for dogs, or else really dangerous things that, you know, undermine our privacy and our democracy.
As a historian who’s been studying this place for 25 years and living here for 25 years, I can tell you that the motivations and the dreams and the endeavors of people that—in Silicon Valley today, that soul of Silicon Valley is the same as it was in 1988, in 1968. And given that consistency, there is no way that Silicon Valley has lost its soul. I mean, let’s look at why people are here today, and that’s hard to say, right. There’s probably about 6,000 start-ups in Silicon Valley. And some of the people are here because they want to make money. And they’re here because this is the hot place to be. And it’s always been that way. Let me remind you that, at the home grew computer club where Apple got started, they—everyone in that room wanted to sell their stuff. Everyone. Bill Gates wrote a famous memo chastising everyone there for stealing software, for sharing software. That was not the name of the game.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin started Google under federal contract at Stanford University. So, this idealism and the commercialism have always gone absolutely hand-in-hand. And right now, there are people in Silicon Valley who are working to do things like obviate the need for the internal combustion engine and improve our environmental efficiency. And the biggest VC funding in 2017 went to a company that is using AI and big data to try to detect cancer early. And there’s some people who have left tech companies and now are trying to work on the challenges that the tech companies themselves have created and are facing. And this was the exact same situation we had, for example, in the 1980s. If you look at the last quarter of 1980, you had these huge IPOs: Genentech in October and Apple in December.
And these companies have changed our lives for the better. And—but—do you know what came on their heels? I mean, literally the year after. And actually, more or less at the exact same time, the Genentech is figuring out how to build insulin using recombinant DNA techniques so that we don’t have to squeeze it out of the pancreases of pigs, which is how people used to get insulin. The IPO—one of the biggest IPOs the next year was Chuck E. Cheese. And that is just the way things work in Silicon Valley, you know.
[laughter, applause, cheers]
So, Silicon Valley has been dealing with a range of problems, from the existential to the frivolous forever. And sometimes the frivolous turn existential. I mean, Facebook was not designed to become the existential problem that, right now, a lot of people feel, rightfully, that it’s causing big problems. It’s hard to tell what’s frivolous and what is absolutely essential.
And there’ve been concerns that Silicon Valley is going to destroy the world as we know it forever. I can tell you, in 1975, there were congressional hearings. When the—when Congress found out about the Arpanet, which was the precursor to the internet, which of course, they funded through the Department of Defense. But they found out about it in 1975. And Senator Tunny talked about—from California. I want to quote him. “Our concern that powerful new technologies, reminiscent of those described almost 50 years ago by George Orwell, will destroy the Constitution’s delicate balance between the powers of the state and the rights of individuals.” I can show you pictures from the 1974 National Academy of Science’s meeting in which people unfurled a banner quoting Hitler and swearing that biotechnology was going to lead directly to eugenics. And there’ve been organizations like the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility for example, that have been for a long time pushing to understand and make Silicon Valley better.
And these people do not run contrary to Silicon Valley, so these people are an essential part of Silicon Valley’s soul. Silicon Valley has pushed passed received wisdom and then had to figure out how to do it better. Let me say one more thing. We need to debate, can Silicon Valley be better? Yes, it can, absolutely, 100 percent, can be better. I have to say, however, that while that debate is happening in a lot of places, that is not the debate we’re having tonight. The question tonight is whether Silicon Valley has lost its soul. It’s not, can Silicon Valley be better? And the answer to that is obviously no. Silicon Valley has the same messy mix of idealism and commercialism and optimism and opportunism and dreams that has kept it going through ups and downs for the last 60 years.
Silicon Valley has not lost its soul. Vote no against the resolution.
John Donvan: Thank you, Leslie Berlin.
You’ve heard the first two opening statements and now on to the third. Debating for the resolution, Silicon Valley has lost its soul, here is Dipayan Ghosh, Pozen fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. Ladies and gentlemen, Dipayan Ghosh.
Dipayan Ghosh: Thank you. Thanks so much for listening to all of us today. And I appreciate those excellent comments. I want to start off by thinking about this proposition. The proposition is, has Silicon Valley has lost its soul? And I want to take apart the two key terms there. Let me—let me think first about “soul.” As my partner and I were thinking about what a soul is, what we wanted to ask is, well, how do we define this in a way that’s sensible in the context of this debate?
And when we think about a soul, at least I think about having a moral compass, having a moral nature. And that’s how it’s defined. That’s what a soul is. It is a—it’s something that a human being has who is thinking about a moral nature, in other words, taking actions, or a company exhibiting and exercising operations that are executed with a moral compass, that are done in a way that is, quote, unquote, “right.” “Silicon Valley,” that’s the other key term in the proposition. And very simply, we wanted to think about this in the same way that an average American might. An average American thinks about Silicon Valley as the American tech industry. From the big tech companies to the venture capital community to startups, that is, at least in my opinion, what an American might think is Silicon Valley.
It’s behind that term. So moving to the question of, has this—has this community lost its soul, what I would say is that—Noam has argued already, eloquently, that there are these business leaders that started with a soul and then had to sell it. And what I would like to talk about is how this industry is currently operating in a way that it doesn’t have that soul. It is operating, in Leslie’s words, with pure commercialism in its head. Let me ask, would an industry have a soul if it treads all over common conceptions of human rights? Take Apple as an example.
Last year, the Chinese government said, “If you want to do business in China, then you’re going to have to build a data center in China. If you want to collect information on Chinese individuals, you need to localize a data center here.” What that means, of course, is that any company, any foreign company, that localizes a data center in China has to also give access to that—to any data that it has in that data center to the Chinese government, which is a surveillance state. What does Apple do? The very next month, Apple turns around and says, “Sure, we’ll do it.” And why did they do it? They did it because if they didn’t do it, the Chinese government would pressure China—Apple’s consumer market, existing consumer market in China, which is tremendous—it’s one of its biggest markets for its devices—and because Apple has its manufacturing base in China.
And look at Google. A couple months ago, Google had a—there was news about Google with the CEO considering whether or not Google should enter China with a censored product, a censored search service. What would be censored? The things that the company was considering and potentially in conversation with the Chinese government about, was censoring content having to do with democracy, with human rights, with religious content, stuff that we couldn’t even imagine in the United States. Let me ask also, would an industry that has a soul throw feet at the fire of the American democracy and other democracies around the world? Well, consider Twitter, consider Facebook. These companies, again, as Leslie puts it, they are—they are concerned about raw commercialism. They’re concerned about engaging the user.
And as such, their interests are aligned with the interests of any advertiser, including any disinformation operator or hate speech propagator or entity that’s trying to push discriminatory content to try to make their point, try to persuade the individual using the special media platform. And that’s how these companies operate. It’s in their interest to draw the consumer to the platform, keep them there for as long as possible to increase their ad space and increase their engagement, collect more data about them, develop behavioral advertising profiles on them, and eventually make more money in that way. And it’s because they haven’t been able to break that alignment. It’s because they have left aside their commitment to doing what’s right, to being moral, to having a soul that we’ve landed in this situation. I just want to point out that you can’t have idealism and commercialism in the same breath, as Leslie was trying to say, that companies can have both.
That can’t happen. As we all know, an objective function can have one objective. You can’t—you can’t prioritize two things when they contradict each other directly. I will leave it there, and thank you. Thanks for listening to us.
John Donvan: Thank you, Dipayan Ghosh. The resolution again, Silicon Valley has lost its soul. And here making his opening statement against this resolution is Joshua McKenty, vice president at Pivotal. Ladies and gentlemen, Joshua McKenty.
Joshua McKenty: Thank you very much. As my partner Leslie pointed out, Silicon Valley has been entirely consistent, but also, it’s more than simply a small handful of very large companies. Let’s treat Silicon Valley as an ecosystem; 6,000 startups on average in any given year, 39 of the Fortune 1,000 companies, numbers of nonprofits, of government agencies, of academic institutions like Stanford.
There have always been a complex and synergistic relationship between those organizations. Now, ecosystems are composed of carnivores and herbivores and tasty fruits. And in any batch of apples, there are a few bad apples. But if we’re talking about judging the morality of an entire ecosystem, let’s do it with fair measures. Let’s do it by judging the characters not the column inches of outrage. So let’s think about, for a second, why everyone is so angry with Silicon Valley, right? What are these injustices we are so upset about? And I think they’re all legitimate concerns. Sexism, racism, gross inequality in terms of income, the political influence whether or not it’s justly wielded, and most particularly, whether or not the users are being turned into products.
But, none of these are new concerns, and none of them are concerns that apply only to Silicon Valley. In fact, these are human struggles. These are struggles of all of society today. It’s how many thousands of years ago did we come up with the term, “caveat emptor,” right, the buyer beware. When you click-wrap through Facebook terms of service, caveat emptor applies. We don’t like it as a society. We struggle with that moral idea; is this just, is it fair to put the onus of responsibility onto a consumer who really doesn’t understand what they agreed to? But that’s not unique to Silicon Valley. Frankly, I would say, if being soulful means being right and righteous and just, then none of us have souls because we all fall down, and we all make mistakes. So I would posit that being soulful means grappling with these questions of good and evil. If the original sin is actually society’s struggle, Silicon Valley is being asked to stand on the cross for those sins, so to speak.
Let’s think about the potential hypocrisy. That’s really what I think we’re angry about. We’re saying, Silicon Valley only says they’re better. They say they can do more. They say they’re different from other organizations or other parts of the world, right? Larry Ellison is famous for saying, “We see things as if they’re in the present even if they’re actually in the future.” But Robert Browning put it—says, “Your reach should exceed your grasp.” That’s what gives us hope. That sense of possibility, that is the God of Silicon Valley. If we’re talking about religious tolerance, Silicon Valley’s God is possibility. They have never turned away from God. And actually, if you think of excommunication or the only cases in which you could really be said to have lost your soul, they’re always about turning away from God. So this is really less a question about a loss of soul and more a question about religious tolerance. Do we tolerate the God that Silicon Valley worships?
And I think we have to. Now let’s think more about whether or not they’re grappling enough. What is the fair measure of the morality we expect from Silicon Valley? And we look at the direct philanthropy. So how many of these entrepreneurs turn around and turn into the largest philanthropist the world has ever seen? The giving pledges is rounding up basically every major tech billionaire in the world, say, “Yeah, I’ll give at least half.” How many of us would go ahead and say, “Yeah, we’ll give at least half of what we make?” It’s more common in Silicon Valley than anywhere else. There are more millionaires and billionaires per capita in that small strip of land. And by the way, we’re looking at 3 1/2 million people, of whom only a quarter million of them work directly in technology. So the region as a whole is still disproportionately generous. Then we look at the changes in even the kind of philanthropy. We see Omidyar Network. We see Impact Investing. We see Benioff’s 1 percent pledge. We see all of these ways in which they have redefined what it means to participate in corporate social responsibility.
Yeah, are there challenges? Absolutely. Should we be doing better? Definitely. Are the pioneers on the edge of what it means to be doing better actually Silicon Valley as well? In almost every category, yes. We not only see the founders pivoting towards philanthropy; we see new kinds of companies with philanthropic ideals at their heart. We see social entrepreneurship. We see Change.org. We see Kiva. We see, you know, just Pymetrics. We see every one of these categories where society is struggling. We see Silicon Valley trying to address those as well. So we can’t simply focus just on a few massive companies that have really gone off the rails. A lot of the problems we’re blaming technology for are actually problems of media. Media has been rife with this question of, what drives clicks, what drives ad balls, what drives attention? And again, that problem has been around since the printing press. You know, I’m struck that if we were having this conversation five years ago or 10 years ago or 15 years ago, we’d still be talking about the unintended consequences of technology.
But we’d be talking about warez, we’d be about spam, we’d be talking about phishing attacks. And if you look at all of those challenges, Silicon Valley addressed them. The same companies that had those unintended consequences turned around and said, “Yeah, these are hard problems.” Spam will take us five years. It’s not going to happen overnight. So it’s very easy to play armchair quarterback and say, “Facebook should be solving this problem faster. We are unsatisfied with how seriously you’re taking this problem.” But it’s a lot more real to say, actually, you know, election hacking is a real concern. This is a hard problem to fix, and we’re going to get there. Thank you very much. You must vote no.
John Donvan: Thank you, Joshua McKenty. And that concludes round one of this Intelligence Squared U.S. debate where our resolution is, Silicon Valley has lost its soul. In round two, the debaters address one another directly, and they take questions from me and as well from you.
Our team arguing for the resolution, Noam Cohen and Dipayan Ghosh, have told us their basic argument is that Silicon Valley is a place that started with idealism; that its original founders, its original denizens, wanted to do good and to do well, but that they ended up selling their soul, that they set aside a commitment to do what is right. They had positions in the beginning, for example, of shunning the whole idea of advertising, but they gave in, and companies became bullies; they became exploitative. They’re also arguing that what we’re talking about really is whether or not these companies have a moral compass or not and that they are not, in fact, acting soulfully but rather soullessly by trying to mix commercialism, pure commercialism, in with their idealism when commercialism is really its driving force. It’s like an O. Henry story that they’re describing where, in order to do good, they ended up selling out. And when they got the money that they needed and came back to do good, that they lost sight of what was good.
The team arguing against the motion, Leslie Berlin and Joshua McKenty, first of all, they concede there are problems. There are companies that have made mistakes. There are real issues. Silicon Valley can do better. But they say that their opponents are expressing nostalgia for a time and reality that never existed; that Silicon Valley today is as it has always been; that making money was always part of the soul of Silicon Valley; that idealism and commercialism always went hand in hand. They point out that the frivolous can be existential and essential. You just never know where things are going to go. They really argue, powerfully, that Silicon Valley is a complex ecosystem, and if you cherry-pick the companies that have done things wrong, you’re being unfair to the larger culture; that the flaws of Silicon Valley are, in fact, flaws of human behavior throughout history and that Silicon Valley is still trying, more than anywhere else, to do good as far as it can. So there was more to the arguments than that, but I think that that comes—that sort of breaks down the basic distinctions.
And what I find really fascinating—we’ll go through some of this—is this notion of what Silicon Valley was at its founding. Was it—was it a pure and innocent time, relatively speaking? I know we’re not speaking in extremes here. But, Noam Cohen, Leslie Berlin really challenged your notion that, at the beginning, commercialism was not really part of the formulation.
Noam Cohen: Yeah. I really—I was listening carefully to what Leslie said. I think that what’s really up to decide as an audience is like, is it really credible to say that nothing has changed? I mean, I felt like their argument on the other side was for stasis, that this was nothing—you think—it seems like they’re—well, she did a lot of the “Facebook as an existential issue” for us. When I hear the word “existential,” pause for a second. That’s a pretty serious thing. And, I mean, the question is whether you think that things are hunky dory, going the way it’s always been, or whether something has happened where these companies have become so much more important that that’s what—that’s what’s triggering our concern and why we’re debating it as. I feel like if the argument is going to fall down, are we in a very static time, not much has changed, it’s all been the same.
It’s just going along the way it always has; I would vote for our side because I think it’s very clear something is very wrong and something has changed. It might just merely be success and having more people offering to buy them out, right, but I do think that it’s clear we’re in a different mode, and I don’t think the other side is –
John Donvan: Okay.
Noam Cohen: —acknowledging that.
John Donvan: Let’s let Leslie respond to that.
Leslie Berlin: Yeah. Thanks for bringing that up. I think that things have changed, and I would not—I would say that it is not Silicon Valley that has changed. And to my point earlier, we are not—what we’re trying to prove here is that Silicon Valley has changed, particularly that it has lost its soul. What has changed is the scope of Silicon Valley’s impact on our lives, as far as we’re aware of it. You know, it used to be Silicon Valley built the chips that controlled your antilock brakes, and now they are building the phones that hold all of your deepest secrets.
That has changed. And our just general attention being paid has changed. I’m not arguing that things have been static. In fact, what I’m arguing is that the soul has been dynamic and driving Silicon Valley, which has really been at the heart of the success of our economy and, I would argue, has made an enormous difference in improving the quality of our lives.
John Donvan: Dipayan?
Dipayan Ghosh: I appreciate that, Leslie. Yes, technology has changed. Technology—where Silicon Valley was very represented by, let’s say, Intel, HP, chip manufacturers in the past, it’s now much more diverse. There are consumer device manufacturers, there are internet companies, and there are still the chip makers and so on. What I’d argue is that—and first of all, let’s be clear. When I say that Silicon Valley—the way that we should define it is in the way that an American should think of—or would think about it, I think that necessarily suggests these big names of big companies, also the VC industry, also startups, and less so government and nonprofits in the region.
Yes, the industry has changed. What I’d suggest is that with that technological change, the technologies themselves have become more dialogical with the consumer. Social media dialogical with the individual. A cell phone is dialogical with the consumer.
Leslie Berlin: Sorry, I have to ask you to define dialogical.
Noam Cohen: You got what? Yeah. You said dialogical.
Dipayan Ghosh: Dialogical in the sense that the technology itself engages in a dialogue with the consumer. Whereas, a chip made by Intel, or a chip made by HP, or a laptop made by—or a mainframe—did not in that way.
And with that change, what I’d suggest is that as these technologies have become more dialogical, the interaction with the consumer has become exacerbated.
John Donvan: Okay. Let’s stop there and let Joshua take that on.
Joshua McKenty: I think we’re conflating a change in any individual company with a change in the Valley itself, or the ethos of the Valley. So if we look at Facebook, has Facebook changed over time? Yes. Did Google? Yes. We also can’t carve off the nonprofits that are the children of those companies. We can’t look at Microsoft and not consider the Gates Foundation. We can’t look at HP and not consider the Hewlett Foundation, the Packard Foundation. Those are logically extensions of the ethos of the people who started them. So when we say, “Hey. Has the Valley changed?” We still see 6,000 new startups; we still see immigrants pouring in there, myself included, saying, “Hey, let’s go to that place where we can raise money. We can have an idea and we can try and change the world.” That hasn’t changed. Every company goes through its own lifecycle; that’s not the soul of the Valley.
John Donvan: So, yeah. Let me take that thought. Noam, your opponent’s pointing out things and ways in which companies and individuals who have been successful are doing good things or trying to do good things and continuing to do good things. But isn’t there—but you’re—you and Dipayan are citing things that have gone wrong, and I just want to challenge the notion that you can sin and still have a soul. It doesn’t mean you lose your soul because you sin.
Noam Cohen: Right.
John Donvan: So you are saying that the sins add up to—I know we’re getting—
Noam Cohen: Right. Theological.
John Donvan: —metaphysical and beyond metaphorical here, but the real point is that, sure they’ve screwed up. But the essential thing of trying to make the world a better place is still something they deeply believe in, both in terms of the companies and the products they try and develop, and not just Google and et cetera, and also in the way in which they’re sharing their wealth.
Noam Cohen: It kind of reminds me of that joke about the, you know, the joke about the person who kills their parents and asks for sympathy because they’re an orphan. I mean, I don’t know that you necessarily need to have, you know, what would look to these companies to solve problems they’ve created.
And I hear your point that you’re saying, you know, you still have a soul when you sin, but I think we’re really trying to say—and what we’re referring to dialogical—the idea—it’s a different kind of relationship we’re in now. To be a chip maker is one thing. When you have a—you’re bearing more responsibilities. It’s like when we’re describing what it is to have a soul, it means to respect the other, respect the community. If you are oblivious to it, that would be the sign that you don’t have a soul, and we don’t look to making up for it with donations, after the fact. If Facebook is abusing its trust with the people that it is supposed to be serving, with our country, if it doesn’t care that the elections are being influenced, that people are being made miserable and angry because of what they do to get a profit, that is, I mean –
John Donvan: So.
Noam Cohen: —beyond a sin, right?
John Donvan: So.
Leslie Berlin: Yeah.
Noam Cohen: Thank you.
John Donvan: The point that Noam and also Dipayan are making, they are citing some big sins.
Leslie Berlin: [affirmative]
John Donvan: And you started out twice saying things could get better. I mean, are you playing a tactic of setting aside the examples that you’re using as being outliers or being exceptions to the general thrust of what’s going on here?
It could be—you know, Dipayan said in his opening statement, essentially, how can a company that’s going to cooperate with Chinese censorship in order to preserve its profits consider itself moral? When he played out the notion that we’re talking about having morality and a moral compass here. That does not sound like following the moral compass, and that sounds like a big deal. So how do you respond to those very large things that are going on at the large companies?
Leslie Berlin: Yeah. I guess I have a few thoughts about this. I mean, I guess first, I would say that to me, there’s a difference between having a soul and being moral. And that would be something that I would want to point to. The second thing that I would point to is, again, and how these things have been happening forever, dialogical or not, and they have been resulting in change.
So for example, another thing you could throw out would be Theranos, fair.
John Donvan: Can you remind our listeners what that is?
Leslie Berlin: Theranos was a hugely financed attempt to be able to diagnose disease through teensy finger pricks. The founder was named Elizabeth Holmes, and the whole thing has been blown up and is under all sorts of investigation including for fraud and misleading investors, and peoples’ lives were at stake. So in 1983, there was a company called Diasonics, the biggest IPO of that time, $123 million. It was a company that was going to make it possible to do digital x-rays and computers to do things like ultrasounds. And it turned out to be very much the same thing. The biggest names in the Valley were sucked into it, like Arthur Rock, Robert Noyce, and it ended up with a fraud investigation and this sort of thing.
And unfortunately, this is part of what Silicon Valley is. I’m not arguing—our side isn’t arguing that Silicon Valley is perfect. We’re not arguing that Silicon Valley is static. We are arguing that the same things that have made Silicon Valley so great have a side that also is difficult to deal with and problematic. I’m not—God knows, I have no interest in standing up here and defending some of the things we see. All I’m saying is that has been here forever.
John Donvan: Okay. I’m very impressed how you already slipped the word “dialogical” into the conversation.
Leslie Berlin: Ph.D. Yes.
John Donvan: I’m looking for my opportunity. I’m feeling very dialogical tonight.
We have a question from May Lynn [spelled phonetically] at People-Centered Internet and May Lynn asks, “To define the moral compass, do we need new codes of ethics for humanity in this age of digital transformation?”
Dipayan, I’d like to rephrase that and say—or kind of come in at the other direction for which she is saying is, what May Lynn is saying—is that, is your ethical system out-of-date? And therefore, your critique loses its relevance because we’re in a different world now? Or is this morality, this moral compass, eternal and steady?
Dipayan Ghosh: Well, I would say this. As much as I think that technology has changed, it has evolved, and it has evolved to the extent that Silicon Valley has changed in the way it interfaces with the consumer. Human beings have not changed. We still have the same moral compass; we still have the same moral nature. In fact, the way that the dictionary defines a soul—having a soul is having a moral nature. And what I would say is that humans have not changed. Humans still believe that there’s a right, and there’s a wrong.
There might be different places where we all land on that spectrum, obviously, but I would say that human nature has not changed. And so I guess the way that I would tie this back to our argument is that, given the fact that a soul is about having a moral nature, understanding what is right, and what is wrong, and witnessing the fact that companies like Google, like Facebook, like Apple, like Amazon, Microsoft, which are also part of this American tech industry, as well as the venture capitalists that fuel and fund the industry—and of course there are always exceptions as Leslie has brought up.
Given the fact that they have systematically thought about commercialism; thought about maintaining their corporate interests, their shareholder interests; driving profits up and up and up, even when those profits might tread all over the public interest, whether it’s our democracy; whether it’s the consumer having rights and power in the face of a monopolistic player in the industry; whether it’s with regard to disinformation; whether it’s any of these very difficult challenges that Silicon Valley has wrought now—what I would say is that it has, to an extent, lost that compass and it may very well be the case that it never really did. Maybe, as Noam was saying, these founders when they were in their dorm rooms, when they were on their college campuses as they were dropping out to pursue their big idea, they did have idealism. They did have a moral compass. But as they had to grow their company, convince venture capitalists, prove that ROI year on year on year, they had to give it up.
John Donvan: Let me take a question again from the audience. This is from David Kirkpatrick. And I’ll bring it to you, Josh. If the foibles of Silicon Valley’s giants are merely similar to those have companies have always had, how can it be that the failures of just these one or two companies in Silicon Valley that we’ve been talking about—the big ones—have such a vast effect as enabling a foreign power to distort and probably alter the results of a presidential election? This kind of social harm has never been possible in the actions of companies before, the argument being that the scale is just so different that it does color everything else that’s going in here.
Joshua McKenty: So yeah, I’ll take two stabs at that.
John Donvan: Sure.
Joshua McKenty: The first one is globalization is not unique to Silicon Valley, right? So the nature of a completely connected world raises the stakes for everyone. The second is, I would say, I—if we look at 2008, I think we’ve already had an opportunity for the banking industry, completely separate from Silicon Valley, to have a devastating impact on nations around the world.
I mean the collapse of Lehman Brothers—
John Donvan: You are sort of doing a “what about-ism,” as opposed to actually directly answering whether—in this case, the kind of things these companies are doing is so—has been so large scale and, some could argue, devastating in its impact that one could not argue for soul here.
Joshua McKenty: Here’s what’s changed, and I’ll connect this back to what Dipayan was just saying as well, in terms of the moral compass. When technology moved slowly, when, in general, innovation moved slowly, we expected to policy makers to regulate. We expected government to come in and say, “Oh, there’s a new technology here; there’s cars; we should have laws about cars. There’s the internet; maybe we should have laws safety and privacy on the internet.” When technology is moving so fast that the policy makers have no hope to keep up, we now expect the technology makers themselves to play that role. That’s a shift in the rate of change.
And that’s a shift in who’s responsible and who we expect to be responsible. So it’s less that, as users we’re saying, “Hey somebody should regulate this for us, and we shouldn’t be vulnerable to this kind of massive abuse.” But what we’re saying is, “The regulators are too slow. We expect the sword makers to be responsible for the use of the sword.”
Noam Cohen: John, can I kind of ask a question?
John Donvan: Yes, please.
Noam Cohen: What I’m struck is that we have to recognize that there is an inherent compliment in this question right? We would never have a session, “Has big pharma lost its soul?” Right? There is something special about, we’re saying about Silicon Valley. What I think is notable is that to say that you have to have a story and a narrative that there was—and our story is that there was idealism that was lost. I mean, to sort of just say that this, because it’s about—I don’t know because it’s about machines, you know, a technology, a certain technology, that’s why it’s a special, soulful place? It seems like an unfair way to have this debate. It’s like either we’re going to look hard at the story of Silicon Valley: how did it get here, how has it changed? It can’t just be sort of described as this place that never changes, is always about innovation and doing great things.
And it’s not like any other company or industry in the world, like big pharma or oil, would never presume to have a session about how their soul is so great.
John Donvan: Are we just in a place, though, where Silicon Valley proclaimed itself better than other places, that Silicon Valley announced that it was going to do the right things, that Silicon Valley was going to have a great big, amazing soul?
Joshua McKenty: I mean, that is the God of Silicon Valley’s religion is the sense of possibility. That they could go do things that are impossible.
Noam Cohen: And that’s different than big pharma? That’s different than oil? They don’t want to big things and impossible?
Joshua McKenty: They have aspiration, but they don’t have hubris.
Noam Cohen: [laughs] That’s an asset, you say, okay?
Joshua McKenty: Huh?
Noam Cohen: That’s an asset.
Joshua McKenty: Hubris is not immoral; it’s not amoral; it’s a characteristic of the Valley that we all scoff at. We say, “Oh that’s so ridiculous, look at how egotistical they are.” And yet that doesn’t mean they don’t do good things.
Leslie Berlin: I think—
John Donvan: You’re saying they, not we.
Joshua McKenty: [laughs]
Leslie Berlin: I guess, I have two thoughts about this.
First of all, I have to say that this notion of Silicon Valley as the place—you know, the inheritor of, kind of like the most moral Horatio Algiers myth you could ever imagine, was itself a commercial construct. I’m not making that up. I mean, there was a deliberate attempt—in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was a recognition that this technology was way too complicated for anyone to understand it. And it was a deliberate decision that we were going to brand these companies by their founders because that was the only way anyone would ever—can you imagine explaining what software is? You can’t even—I mean, now it’s hard to understand; imagine back then. So that’s the first thing that I would point out, is that it’s entirely possible that this story of Silicon Valley, having started in this idealistic way, was itself a construct that has been sold to us from the beginning and –
John Donvan: Can I just stop you for a second?
Leslie Berlin: Yeah.
John Donvan: I just want to check in with your opponents on this and I want to let Leslie continue that thought. But I’m wondering, do you buy that, at the beginning, there actually was a soul and there were these great guys, and they were going to do these things or is more of a construct?
Dipayan Ghosh: I do because, when she says it was imposed, I don’t take that necessarily to mean the people were giving idolism to whoever the creators in their dorm room who were still incredibly young. You ever think how young these people were when they are making these deals right? You mean, Sergey Brin and Larry Page were 23, so I’m really struck that she’s saying that there’s an imposition.
Leslie Berlin: Yeah. So, no, I didn’t say it was—from the beginning, I have argued that there was a side by side commercialism and idealism. I’ve never argued differently than that. And I would just point out, before I make my other point that, if you could look at what could basically be considered the founding document of Silicon Valley, the launch of Fairchild Semiconductor which is the company that put the Silicon in Silicon Valley.
And those people were trying to do some—they knew they could build transistors; they knew it was going to change the world. And the way that they started that company, and I am not making this up, is they signed a dollar bill with each other, eight founders and two capitalists signed a dollar bill and that is the way that people have chosen to innovate in Silicon Valley. These guys had all worked in research labs, they’d all worked in government labs and they all felt that the way to make a change was through the commercial markets. That’s been since the beginning. But the other point that I just wanted to make back to the other sort of, we’re noticing now, is the way that I think of this is, for a long time we looked at what came out of Silicon Valley and it looked like magic. It was glorious. And now we’re doing what everybody does when you’ve gotten used to magic, which is we’re looking and saying, “Wait a second, is this a trick?” And I think that’s where we are right now and these are important questions to be asking.
John Donvan: And I have to break in because that concludes round two of this Intelligence Squared U.S. Debate—
—where our resolution is Silicon Valley has lost its soul. Now we move on to round three. Round three will be closing statements. They will be two minutes each. Here to make his closing statement in support of the resolution, Silicon Valley has lost its soul, Noam Cohen, journalist and author of “The Know-It-Alls.”
Noam Cohen: Well, I’ve learned a lot from this debate. I really—and it’s interesting. I feel like in some ways we are kind of arguing who believes in the idolism of Silicon Valley more. I think even our claim that there is and there was a soul is sort of at stake here. Because Leslie I think, you know—I think to her side’s benefit has sort of explained that, even though there’s a whole mythology that has been created about Silicon Valley, that maybe we were sort of sold to think that there was something different and special about it. Now we’re in favor of this claim that it lost its soul. That means we have to believe there was a soul to have lost.
And I—we do. And I don’t think it’s just words. I think about the people who did create these—the projects we care about so much. And I kind of fall back—maybe I keep falling back on Google so much because I think it was the most transparent case of young people creating something incredible and kind of laying out the principles that I thought were really compelling about how a search engine should work and how it shouldn’t have advertising. There’s a story about how did they go from—why did they end up becoming a company? Well, so they had this incredibly successful project as Ph.D. students. It’s doing really well. It’s taking up almost all of Stanford’s bandwidth, so they’re forced to—Stanford, rather than saying, “We love this project; we’re going to keep growing it; we don’t mind.” They said, “You better figure out what to do.” So what did Larry Page and Sergey Brin do? They went to a professor down the hall and said, “What should we do?” And he said, “I have an idea.” And the next day they had a meeting with a potential investor who heard their spiel for a very short amount of time, was like, “I love it.” Went to his Porsche, signed $100,000 check and said, “It’s for Google Inc.”
They’re like, “There is no Google Inc. We’re just grad students.” And he said, “There will be.” And of course, in a month later, there was a Google Inc. And I do feel like you have to have some sympathy for them, these are 23 year olds who were trying to do something great and they were part of an ethos that wanted to make a difference and do something great. And there are such forces that are—that have told them that you can’t do it that way. So I do think that there is a history and a philosophy and an idealism that exists here. And I do think that lately we have very little reason to believe that because we are seeing the effects. It’s clear—I think that Dipayan, my partner, has really shown there is no soul now. I think now what we’re really—for you to think about is whether we’d ever argue there was a soul to begin with. Thank you very much.
John Donvan: Thank you. Noam Cohen. The resolution again, Silicon Valley has lost its soul. Here to make her closing statement against the resolution, Leslie Berlin, Silicon Valley historian at Stanford University and author of “Troublemakers.”
Leslie Berlin: So before the Google founders went to Andy Bechtolsheim and got that $100,000 check, they signed an invention disclosure with Stanford’s Office of Technology Licensing because they knew that they were going to need to be licensing and getting money out of this invention that had been sponsored by the federal government and therefore belonged in part to Stanford.
Remember the memo about that flaky joker Steve Jobs? I just want us to think about all of the thousands of people right now who are in their garages or at their kitchen tables using technology to try to change the world. And I know it’s so easy to be cynical about this and snide. And of course some people are charlatans, and some people are making mistakes that are terrible, and some of them are criminal, and of course, we can do better. But the problems that we are seeing here are not because these people are in Silicon Valley and it’s not because they’re working in tech. It’s because the nature of innovation and in being human involves this kind of exploration and dialing back.
Right now people come from all over the world; right now two thirds of the people working in science and tech in Silicon Valley were born outside of the United States. And they’ve come here because they know that technology gives them a way to have an impact. And the result has been an unprecedented wave of breakthroughs that have made our lives better and our economy the envy of the world. I mean, do you really think your lives would be better without your phones or without insulin? Or would our planet be better off without the fuel efficiency we’ve had? Are we all going to be better off if the people who are coming here from around the world decide to go somewhere else where we’re not allowed to have these kind of debates around what’s happening here? Because I can tell you there are plenty of places in the world that would welcome them. To say that Silicon Valley has lost its soul is to ignore the facts of history, and it makes a mockery of all of the flaky people who have come here to make our lives better.
Silicon Valley has not lost its soul, and you should vote no against the resolution.
John Donvan: Thank you, Leslie Berlin. And that resolution is, in fact, Silicon Valley has lost its soul. And here making his closing statement in support of the resolution, Dipayan Ghosh, Pozen Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Dipayan Ghosh: Thank you. I just want to focus first on one point made by the opposite side, which is that there is this idea of commercialism, idealism in the valley. And I would ask, can you have commercialism and idealism at the same time? I’d posit that you cannot. It’s simply not possible. And that’s really just the first rule of economics at play. A rational player in a game, a rational company operating in a space is not going to thing about what’s right and what’s wrong. It will think about the legal landscape and optimize profits given that constraint.
That’s how this industry works. The best example of this is in the leading internet companies; look at the social media companies. Consider their business model. Their business model is very simple. It is to create compelling platforms like Messenger and Twitter and Snapchat to an extent that many philosophers and psychologists argue has become borderline addictive. Second, collect as much data as they can within that framework to compose behavioral advertising profiles on individual consumers. And third, to develop algorithms that target ads at the individual and curate content. It’s a feedback loop which has pushed disinformation and hate speech and discrimination on the individual and they don’t care.
They don’t do anything about it because the regulatory landscape is bare. In the United States, we don’t have a privacy law; we don’t have any laws that apply to this sector as a general matter. So they have placed profits over the concept of what is morally good and morally right. This is why I think that Silicon Valley has lost its soul, and I urge you to vote yes on the proposition. Thank you.
John Donvan: Thank you, Dipayan Ghosh. And again, that is the resolution, Silicon Valley has lost its soul. And here to make his closing statement against this resolution, Joshua McKenty, Vice President at Pivotal.
Joshua McKenty: Thank you, so I was born in Canada and I never went to university, and I came to Silicon Valley, ended up working at NASA and eventually at the U.N. One of the big U.N. ideas that we talked about a lot today at Techonomy is the sustainable development goals.
And the backbone of those is what’s called the triple bottom line, which is the unification of idealism and commercialism. So we have to believe that that’s possible. And if we only believe that in Silicon Valley, then that alone makes it a magical place. When we think about soulfulness and we want to judge someone else’s soul, we look to see if we feel a soul connection with them. Right? And if we’re going to say is there a place somewhere in the world where we feel drawn to, where our soul says, “Please, I need to go there; that is the place where I feel at home; those are my people.” I think for a great number of people, immigrants from all over the world, that place is Silicon Valley. That hasn’t stopped being true; I don’t think it will ever stop being true. When we think about the number of things I personally have been able to be involved in, earthquake modeling, using Twilio to work on tuberculosis vaccines for Africa, you know, consumer products, enterprise products, meetings in D.C. with international aid.
All of these things came from my relationships that I built in Silicon Valley. When we look at the laws of unintended consequences, all of these horrible things that we do wrong, they make great headlines. All of the beautiful things that we do right, they largely pass unnoticed, but that doesn’t mean they’re not valuable. We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Have you all watched Peter Pan? You know the scene the fairy is dying because people say, “I don’t believe,” and you got to say, “Hey, we want to clap. Clap to bring the fairies back!” The fact that we get cynical and we don’t want to clap, that doesn’t mean that the magic is gone; it means that we’ve lost our innocence and we have to bring that back. So I urge you to vote no on this proposition.
John Donvan: Thank you, Josh McKenty, and that concludes round three of our debate, Silicon Valley has lost its soul.
Our goal is to raise the level of public discourse through the actual, paradoxically, vehicle of argument.
We want to establish that critical thinking can emerge through people who disagree with each other vigorously doing so respectfully. And also with a respect for the facts and respect for the power of logic and argument. I just want to say to all four of you, what you brought to the stage tonight so perfectly fit what we want to do, and you did it so well that I want to congratulate all of you for the way that you did this tonight. So thank you.
And now it’s time to learn which side you feel has argued the best. Again, it’s the difference between the vote that you registered before you heard the argument and the vote that you registered after you heard the argument that determines who is our winner. On the resolution, Silicon Valley has its soul, before the debate in polling the live audience: 51 percent of you agreed with that resolution, 33 percent were against it, and 16 percent were undecided. The team arguing for the motion in the second vote, their first vote was 51 percent, their second vote was 35 percent. They lost 16 percentage points.
The team against the motion in their first vote was 33 percent; their second vote was 63 percent.
They pulled up 30 percentage points. That makes them the winner, the team arguing against the resolution, Silicon Valley has lots its soul, is declared our winner. Thank you to all of our debaters. Thank you, Techonomy. Thank you, from me, John Donvan and Intelligence Squared U.S. We’ll see you next time.