Remember when silicon valley was going to usher in a new, egalitarian world order? Challenge the Man on behalf of the multitudes? Set us all free?
It’s been a long journey from Google to Snapchat—or to apps that enable drivers to auction off the public street-parking spot they’re about to leave in San Francisco. With a few exceptions, the Valley’s innovations have become smaller, and smaller-minded. Many turn on concepts (network effects, regulatory arbitrage, price discrimination) that economists would say are double-edged, if not pernicious. And while the Web was touted as a great democratizing force, recent tech innovations have created lots of profits at the top of the ladder and lots of job losses lower down. The tech sector itself has proved disappointing as a jobs engine and at times hostile to women.
Every era of business produces its excesses—and eventually, a backlash. The scientifically managed behemoth corporation was lionized in the 1950s, and held an outsize place in our culture before the intense reaction against it in the 1960s. Something similar happened on Wall Street a couple of decades later.
Silicon Valley has never been more pious in its self-regard, or more culturally influential. But the backlash against it is clearly building. We should hope that backlash doesn’t extend too far, because, of course, Silicon Valley is in important respects a force for progress and—yes—for good. And yet a correction to, or at least a complication of, its purely libertarian ethos and Pollyannaishness about technology has long been overdue.