Until very recently, Silicon Valley has enjoyed fawning adoration from much of the media and has been viewed by the general public as a group of genius prophets who will guide us into the future. 2017 will be the year that this vision of Silicon Valley will be irrevocably and utterly shattered. By the end of the year, we will view many Silicon Valley business people for what they are: a new wave of robber barons who don’t care about us. The only difference, as Emmett Rensin put it in his thoughtful takedown of Silicon Valley for the Outline, is, “At least the real robber barons built railroads.”
If Hillary Clinton had won, the Valley’s CEOs would have been able to hide behind the dotage of superficially woke technocrats for a few more years. Donald Trump’s presidency will allow for unfettered Silicon Valley greed, and it will show consumers what many journalists and watchdogs have long understood: Silicon Valley is not your friend.
Money and Power
Image via White House/Pete Souza
To this point, Silicon Valley has had the good fortune to work alongside the Obama administration during its largest period of growth and prosperity. This has allowed these companies to maintain their cool, Warby Parker-wearing, latte-sipping image despite behaving like oil or banking tycoons, and not even bothering to wear top hats or monocles. Apple hides its taxes in Ireland. So does Facebook. But, under Obama, they have been able to maintain their veneer of hip humanitarianism. Under Trump, they will continue to be greedy, but will no longer have a cool president who likes Chance the Rapper and HBO to help them justify themselves.
One good thing about the Trump administration will be that associates of the Donald won’t be able to hide what they truly are. It once seemed like Rockefeller and Carnegie were above the law, above regulation, and to some extent, their corporations were brought to heel. 2017 will be the year that we realize apps where you can record shaky videos of yourself with dog ears aren’t that special, certainly not deserving of deregulation and endless tax breaks. Silicon Valley should have the same taxes, coverage, and accountability as everybody else, no matter how many foosball tables it crams into break rooms to entertain people who come to work wearing ratty V-neck T-shirts.
This now makes Facebook and Twitter the only two companies willing to say they will not help build a list of Muslims https://t.co/wNX2NtPh8l— The Intercept (@theintercept) December 14, 2016
Thanks to leaks from Edward Snowden and various others we know that tech companies had a hand in helping the NSA set up mass surveillance. The expert PR teams behind these companies have done a great job at making it seem like not only did they have no choice, but that in some way they offered credible resistance. This, of course, is bullshit.
If and when Donald Trump follows through on his threat to create a Muslim registry we will see the true values of these tech companies, and we will be disappointed. The Intercept’s Sam Biddle did some of the best post-election reporting so far when he asked tech companies point blank if they would help build a Muslim registry. Only two of the companies told him “No.”
Tech and the Media
Image via Brian Solis
Facebook, Twitter, and other social media tech companies fumbled their way through 2016 by trying to have it both ways. On one hand, they want to expand into video, audio, and even original narrative content, but none of them want to be called “media companies.” These firms don’t want to admit they create and filter media because then they would be responsible for the content on their website. They would rather be viewed like a phone company, a utility provider that is not responsible. However, these companies are quick to profit from the cultural product that comes from their site. They want the credit and no responsibility.
If that was the extent of the sinning of tech money men in media, that might not be totally damning. But, it got far worse. PayPal co-founder and Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel personally funded the lawsuit that brought down Gawker because he is still angry about the coverage he received from the site and its defunct Silicon Valley-focused shingle, Valleywag. After his pathetic crusade using retired pro wrestler Hulk Hogan as a proxy worked out for him, and Gawker was forced to sell off its assets to Univision, Thiel was rewarded with a spot on Trump’s transition team. Since Trump has repeatedly said that he would like to expand libel laws and punish journalists, look for more tech types to join with the conservative blowhard to counter journalists and aid and abet corruption.
Not only does no one in Silicon Valley want to identify as a media company, they would also like it if there were no media companies left to call bullshit on their bullshit.
One of the most obnoxious trends from tech companies has been the way they talk about laws and regulations as though they were optional. As you can see in this tweet, companies like Uber and Airbnb want the world to feel that when they follow the rules they are doing us a favor. Given that usually the stiffest penalty for shirking these rules is a fine, and these companies have valuations in the billions of dollars, they are right. For them, these rules are optional until there are more meaningful penalties.
This has resulted in a cavalier attitude that will persist until we have an administration that will stand up to abusive tech companies. Bush and Obama were not that administration and Trump certainly won’t be either. Until such a day comes, companies like Uber will tell local governments to go fuck themselves, highly negligent companies like tech-driven blood testing firm Theranos will profit, and Amazon will find itself on the wrong side of labor laws. These companies will put profit over people until they are given a reason to do otherwise.