it comes to software, Silicon Valley understands the threat of
monocultures. If 100 percent of computers run the same code and
malware authors discover an exploit, 100 percent of computers will be
vulnerable to the same attack. Fortunately, the way to reduce such
risks is straightforward: Increase diversity.
this insight seems limited to software. Technology executives have yet
to fully recognize the risks posed by the potent political
monocultures forming inside their own companies.
reached the point where many tech employees in the San Francisco Bay
Area who happen to be libertarian or conservative feel compelled to
keep their views secret. Others, open about their opinions, report
that they've suffered career setbacks for being insufficiently
progressive, even as their outspoken left-of-center colleagues who
spent 2016 sporting "I'm With Her" hats have not.
some self-identified liberals are dismayed at what they view as a
toxic monoculture. Tim Ferriss, a startup advisor and investor, moved
to Austin after living for 17 years in San Francisco. "Silicon Valley
also has an insidious infection that is spreading—a peculiar form of
McCarthyism masquerading as liberal open-mindedness," he posted on
Reddit in November. "I'm as socially liberal as you get, and I find it
climate is unhealthy for employers as well. Companies such as
Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Apple are increasingly likely to miss
opportunities to develop products that can appeal to the half of the
nation that cares little for left-of-center politics.
created market opportunities for substitute services, from Gab.ai (a
Twitter alternative) to Brave (a web browser), from InfoGalactic (akin
to Wikipedia) to Voat.co (a chat board site much like Reddit)—each of
which advertises itself as committed to protecting free speech,
privacy, and a diversity of viewpoints. D.tube, a decentralized video
sharing site, boasts that, unlike YouTube, it is "not able to censor
videos" due to built-in technological constraints.
CEOs of billion-dollar companies who are famously paranoid about
competition from upstarts, this is a remarkable unforced error.
(Google employees are well aware that they occupy a campus owned by
Silicon Graphics before its bankruptcy, while Facebook's headquarters
used to be Sun Microsystems'. Mark Zuckerberg kept the old Sun sign
around to remind employees of what their fate could be.)
current climate means that tech companies are likely to miss out on
good workers who don't quite fit in. The brilliant nonconformists who
helped to create the computing and internet industries—and launched
the Burning Man festival along the way—would likely fail an initial
human resources résumé screen today. Yet Silicon Valley has thrived in
part because its history is populated by figures like Whole
Earth Catalog editor Stewart Brand, novelist
Ken Kesey and his LSD-fueled "Merry Pranksters," phone hacker Cap'n
Crunch, inventor Douglas Engelbart, and the late Electronic Frontier
Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow. Time was, the counterculture
co-existed and even overlapped with conservatives and libertarians.
Barlow, for example, was chairman of Wyoming's Sublette County
Republican Party and a coordinator for Dick Cheney's 1978
congressional campaign. He also was a lyricist for the Grateful Dead.
Bay Area could transform itself from fruit orchards to a
trillion-dollar economy precisely because it lacked a political
monoculture. Take David Packard and Bill Hewlett, who founded what
would become Silicon Valley's largest employer and first great
corporation. The two were avid outdoorsmen who together bought a
28,539-acre ranch east of San Jose for hunting deer and wild pigs.
in particular was a prominent supporter of conservative causes: He
became a trustee of the American Enterprise Institute and Stanford
University's Hoover Institution and served as Richard Nixon's deputy
defense secretary. He was also unapologetic about his politics,
warning in 1992 that "the Democratic Party has been the party of
socialism since President Roosevelt's term."
Shockley, creator of the transistor, ran for the California GOP's
Senate nomination in 1982. Ron Conway, an early investor in Google and
PayPal, is a self-described conservative who worked on Nixon's 1968
campaign. According to one of his longtime friends, Steve Jobs voted
for Ronald Reagan; according to Steve Wozniak, he was influenced by
Ayn Rand's Atlas
Shrugged. T.J. Rodgers, the now-retired CEO of Cypress
Semiconductor, assigned Rand's writings to his management team, and
DoubleClick's Kevin O'Connor gave his son "Rand" as a middle name. As
recently as 2008, then–presidential candidate Ron Paul could show up
at Google and find a standing-room-only employee audience.
Silicon Valley, on the other hand, seems to repel smart people who are
insufficiently progressive. Billionaire investor Peter Thiel, arguably
the region's most prominent conservative, is moving to Los Angeles
because of the Bay Area's "intolerant, left-leaning politics,"
according to The
Wall Street Journal. Andrew Torba, founder of Gab.ai, explained
Guardian why he too had left: "As a
conservative, a Christian, and a Trump supporter I felt like I
couldn't speak freely without being shunned or attacked for having a
Marc Andreessen has said he knows of exactly two people in Silicon
Valley who voted for Donald Trump. "I guarantee there are Trump
supporters in Silicon Valley who feel like they can't say so," he
added. "What does it do to someone who feels literally like they
cannot express themselves? That is such an unhealthy place to get to."
atmosphere inside Google has become especially toxic, according to a
lawsuit filed by James Damore against his former employer. The
software engineer has buttressed his case with nearly 100 pages of
posts shared openly among employees, including one in which a manager
announced that he maintains a blacklist of workers who hold differing
views on religion. "'Legitimate world views' 'Conservative
Christianity,'" read another. "I admire your tolerance, but pairing
those two phrases still sounds like an oxymoron to me."
posts appeared before Damore circulated his controversial memo within
the company. Afterward, he says, the tone darkened. One colleague
predicted that "a good number of the people you might have to work
with may simply punch you in the face." Others likened conservative
coworkers to "this cancer within our culture."
will have a chance to defend itself, and the courts may well decide
there was no unlawful discrimination involved in Damore's firing. But
management's decision to tolerate (encourage?) such extreme
single-mindedness aligns Google's parent company, Alphabet Inc., even
more hermetically with one side of the culture wars. (Twitter wasn't
helped, either, by Project Veritas' release of undercover videos in
which current and former employees appear to disparage Christians and
discuss "shadow banning," or preventing other users from seeing
someone's public posts.)
this comes during a time of unfortunate regulatory overreach targeting
technology companies. Even before Damore's lawsuit, conservatives had
begun to propose treating social media platforms as public utilities.
Missouri's Republican attorney general is investigating Google, a move
that should worry any CEO who remembers how states helped to kick off
the antitrust case against Microsoft from two decades ago. Congress is
considering a bill to weaken the federal law that shields internet
companies from liability for their users' crimes, while Facebook is on
the defensive over allegations of social media addiction and its role
in spreading "fake news." President Trump claims Amazon has been
ducking its taxes. And the head of the Federal Communications
Commission calls Silicon Valley "a much bigger actual threat to an
open internet than broadband providers."
wave of populist anger may never crest against the technology
industry, but for the first time in recent memory, such a scenario
looks possible. If 100 percent of major technology companies share the
same monoculture, 100 percent of them become vulnerable to the same
threats: lost market opportunities, alienated employees, and newfound
regulatory enthusiasm. If only there were another option.