Do we want a tech world defined by compassionless jerks?
I've written before about the toxicity of the Silicon Valley/San Francisco cult of "disruption," which has no empathy for the disrupted, and little place for any empathy at all. But my hackles were raised again by a BusinessWeek review of venture capitalist Ben Horowitz's new book, which confirmed that Silicon Valley's power brokers are passionately devoted to creating a society at war with itself.
The issue came up again with the departure of Julie Ann Horvath from Github, just the latest Silicon Valley bullying saga. Remember that Github is the place that had a minor scandal over code full of racial slurs before one of its code leaders decided to take a "brave stand" against using non-gendered pronouns in code, presumably because the chicks should just get over it.
This isn't about gender, not really. Horowitz makes clear that he welcomes women willing to really get into the 24/7 fight, "Sultans of Swat" who play "motherf**kin' chess." It's a co-ed game of f**k you and grab-ass out there, where the kick in the balls doesn't pay attention to whether your reproductive organs are internal or external.
Some of it may be about age. As The New York Times noted this week, there's a terrifying cult of youth in Silicon Valley, and with youth comes a lot of testosterone and a sense of invulnerability. What Yiren Lu misses in his op-ed piece, though, is that the men who are funding these young guys are often older, but they don't seem to be imparting much thoughtfulness or wisdom into the mix.
I'm going to let real feminist bloggers do the heavy lifting as to why this culture is more wearing on women than on men: the constant sexual microaggressions, the no-win situations where aggressive women are seen as less feminine but less aggressive women can't succeed, the general atmosphere of a "bros' club including ladybros" as opposed to a people's club of people, and the world where "my right to offend" always trumps your right to feel welcome.
But nobody, men or women, should want this kind of culture defining their tech future. It's defined by rhetoric of emotional violence and a real misanthropy that goes beyond mere misogyny. Compassion and empathy are seen as negatives - values to be selected against, not for. In a nation where political and economic divisions are rending us apart, a little more compassion and inclusiveness could go a long way.
If we're going to disrupt, we need to care about what happens to the disrupted, because we're all in the same continental boat. An individualistic culture of "I've got mine, and I'm going to disrupt yours" leads only to a war of all against all, and lives that are nasty, brutish, and short.
I have some friends out there who are fighting the good fight, running Tumblrs that collect embarrassingly sexist Silicon Valley job ads and writing heartfelt pleas on Medium. But we're talking about my daughter, right? I want her to go somewhere she's valued, not somewhere she'll have to fight every day against forces trying to grind her down. Yes, that's what billions of people struggling on this earth do daily, but the goal of civilisation is to lessen that particular struggle. I want her to live a life where kindness and understanding are important. And if she chooses tech, fortunately, she'll have options.
The Valley isn't tech
I've been in the tech industry, in some form, for 20 years now. There's nothing inherent about technology that creates this toxic culture. Yes, the clean algorithmicity of programming tends to attract the kinds of men who have trouble with messy, analog emotions, but those guys don't have to be assholes.
In my travels, the Silicon Valley culture seems to be restricted to Silicon Valley. In New York, for instance, banking seems to draw most of the jerks, resulting in a more inclusive tech culture. The pre-eminence of academics in Boston make for a more thoughtful culture there.
Seattle still styles itself as a work-to-live town, not a live-to-work town. Austin's blueness in the midst of red Texas keeps folks there a little humble. In Toronto, well, they're Canadian.
This toxic culture hasn't always defined the Bay Area, either. As Lu points out, earlier generations of programmers made brilliant advances while still keeping their professional attitudes more professional.
For now, there are enough Tom Perkins with their six-packs of Rolexes willing to give cash to the latest "disruptor" to keep things going for a while. It's also hard to measure what isn't being created. But if I were you, I'd keep a close eye on those other tech hubs. If they welcome geeks who really look like 21st century America, perhaps they'll find technologies more likely to bring us together than to pull us apart.