Think back a few years, before the Amazon HQ2 sweepstakes, before Susan Fowler’s viral blog post, before the #MeToo movement, before the 2016 election. Across the nation, Silicon Valley was the crown jewel of the economy. The companies were youthful and ambitious. The culture was loose and exciting. The capabilities they put into the world’s pockets were astonishing: talk to anyone, know everything, buy anything, all with a few little taps on glass. Yes, this had unleashed unprecedented surveillance possibilities, as Edward Snowden revealed, but these were still the most beloved companies in the country. Their founders were legends.
The past several weeks have been like the past two years in miniature. First, The New York Times released a blockbuster article about Google’s sexual-harassment problems that placed the blame both on the institution itself and on the co-founder and current CEO, Larry Page. Then, Amazon selected its new headquarters, releasing a torrent of criticism of the deals: Why were municipalities subsidizing the richest man in the world in their race to the bottom? And finally, yesterday, the Times put out a 50-source story about Facebook’s obliviousness to its own platform’s darker possibilities. (In a statement today, Facebook’s board of directors called the story “grossly unfair.”)
At home in Northern California, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly passed a tax designed to extract money from tech companies to help ease homelessness in the city. Across the Bay, Oakland voters passed a progressive property-transfer tax, which was another way of taxing the enormous wealth that’s poured into the Bay Area.
Locally and nationally, the tech industry has gone from bright young star to death star. Not only have Silicon Valley companies turned out to be roughly as dirty in their corporate maneuvering as any old oil company or military contractor, but because of the Valley’s founder worship, they’ve been almost uniquely controlled by a tiny number of people.
And as in most things, Facebook distills, or at least embodies, these industry-wide practices. After a brutal two years that started with the 2016 election, Mark Zuckerberg responded by placing loyalists in charge of all Facebook Inc. properties. The company’s lobbyists pushed a line that its opponents were linked to George Soros, while reporting other enemies to the Anti-Defamation League.
Where does this almost unbelievably bad news cycle end for these companies? And what if the news stays bad, but the people using their products can’t extract themselves from the platforms tech has built?
A historical analog for this fall from grace does exist. There was a time when Americans loved and talked about the transcontinental railroads the way we loved and talked about the internet. The steel lines spanning the nation were, as the Stanford historian Richard White put it, “the epitome of modernity.” “[Americans] were in love with railroads because railroads defined the age. The claims made for railroads by men who wrote about them were always extravagant,” White wrote in Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. “The kind of hyperbole recently lavished on the Internet was once the mark of railroad talk.”
Then the public turned on the transcontinental railroads. “The innovations entrepreneurs brought to the railroads—financial mechanisms, pricing innovations, and political techniques—were as harmful to the public, to the republic, and even to the corporation as they were profitable to many of the innovators,” White continued.
The railroads became some of the most despised institutions in the country and a core reason why monopoly became such a terrible word. When the railroad mythology collapsed, it helped create an entire political ideology: the progressivism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
That Americans fell out of love with those railroads, and the Gilded Age they helped usher in; that the railroads became corrupt monopolies that built the first powerful lobbying organizations; that the transcontinental railroads ended up failing businesses that still generated some of the richest people in the country: This story is often told separately from the one about the supposedly glorious creation and operation of the network itself. The men—among them Leland Stanford, the founder of the university that educated so many of today’s disruptors— were still revered, subject only to what White calls “say what you will” criticisms.
The people who founded the great internet companies of today—Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin—are experiencing a fast-motion version of the transcontinental story. Having built Facebook, Amazon, and Google, rewiring the experience of being alive, these men have seen their companies experience a mighty backlash. But the men themselves have continued to grow their legends, rooted in the raw power of their personal fortunes and the gravitas of their philanthropic endeavors. Zuckerberg is worth $53.7 billion. Page is worth $51.8 billion. Bezos is worth $133.8 billion, a number that ticked up even as activists and pundits criticized the HQ2 decision. Say what you will, they’ve built world-historic empires—no matter what ultimately becomes of them.