- There is a growing sense that America’s tech entrepreneurs are no longer making useful things that solve difficult problems.
- Worse than that, Silicon Valley is exhibiting some of Wall Street’s amoral behaviors.
- Ankur Jain, of Kairos Society, has created a fund aimed at solving big problems that are particularly tough on middle-class Americans.
At some point in between coming up with the tagline “Don’t be evil” and bringing Soylent into this world – between building the cloud and cheerleading the disaster that is Theranos – Silicon Valley became a place it hates.
Silicon Valley became Wall Street.
I don’t cover Silicon Valley. But I do cover Wall Street. I know Wall Street.
And it takes one to know one. I also know that in private and not-so-private conversations, the two centers of capitalism see themselves as symbiotic rivals.
Over the past few years, the Ivy League graduates who used to pour into Wall Street have started opting for Silicon Valley instead. So have some of the Wall Streeters themselves. Stanford has outshone Harvard, and America’s business hero has become Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, not JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon.
It’s not hard to see why. Like Silicon Valley’s technology, Bezos has managed to reach his business into almost every facet of daily life in America.
The most important distinction for this story is that the purported ethos of each place couldn’t be more different. Wall Street stands practically naked in its acknowledgment that greed is the driver of many its dealings. Silicon Valley, on the other hand, has always sold itself as a place that made good things that help the world and solve problems.
And this is where it has now run into problems.
At the moment, it is not difficult to argue that Silicon Valley is not living up to its ideals – that its former ethos is just a veneer over what has become a bubble of tone-deaf ideas and money chasing money for money’s sake. At dinners with venture capitalists, investments are measured not by the brilliance of the idea behind them or the scope of the problems they solve, but by how much money they’ve managed to raise.
Every guy wearing Louis Vuitton sneakers at The Battery – a members-only San Francisco club for the Valley’s elite – wants to interrupt your conversation to talk about the growth metrics he’s seeing on his bitcoin sticker company.
Let me tell you: It sounds a lot like a guy in Gucci loafers at the Hunt and Fish Club in New York City bragging about how much money his hedge fund raised.
Meanwhile, since the 2016 US presidential election, Facebook, Google, and Twitter have managed to anger just about every single American with a smartphone.
“Silicon Valley has gotten out of touch in a time when it’s more powerful than ever and the work that it does affects more people than ever,” said Ankur Jain, the 27-year-old founder of the Kairos Society, which includes a venture-capital fund. “Ninety percent of VC funds say they want to change the world, and they don’t.”
In that sense, Wall Street has Silicon Valley beat. At least Wall Street is doing what it set out to do.
What good is a maker?
IT'S CALLED *ROOMMATES*
YOU INVENTED ***ROOMMATES*** pic.twitter.com/zKo1VrFwqR
— Yulie [NSFL] 🐳 (@sugarsh0t) November 13, 2017
It’s not just making something that matters. It’s what you make.
Perhaps you looked at the Forbes “30 Under 30” list for startups. If you didn’t, let me tell you about some things you’ll find there: a company that’s like Airbnb but for pets, a glorified catering service for Silicon Valley startups, an app that helps you decorate, and a point-of-sale platform that can help you finance that Jet Ski you’ve always had your eye on.
America has so many big problems, and part of Silicon Valley’s pride was helping us solve them.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with getting an Airbnb for your labradoodle. But this isn’t just about startups.
Apple is a tax avoider, and Google, Facebook, and Twitter – where to even start with them? We’ll call them the big three.
At a Senate hearing last month on how Russian bots used social media to spread misinformation during the 2016 campaign, Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota couldn’t get any of the lawyers representing the big three to say they wouldn’t accept payment for US political ads in foreign currency.
And by the way, a shout-out to the big three’s CEOs for sending their lawyers and not answering questions themselves about a hostile foreign power on their platforms. That beats Wall Street too – every major US Wall Street bank head has had a turn in the hot seat in Congress. But I guess the seat’s too hot for Mark Zuckerberg.
Slowly, the big three have been trickling out troubling data about the number of people who’ve seen misinformation on their platforms. Facebook was throwing around numbers like 10 million at first, then it hiked that up to 126 million.
It’s like when Dimon says “open kimono” and every journalist on Wall Street shudders, knowing that whatever ugly thing is under there the reality is probably 10 times worse.
Google, Facebook, and Twitter never wanted the responsibility of patrolling their platforms. They just wanted to sell your data. The problem with that, of course, is that they run spaces that need to be filled with something, anything, good or otherwise. That has consequences.
Th opposite of good isn’t nothing – it’s evil. And in the absence of good, that is what will often fill the void.
Put more simply: “Don’t be evil” is no longer enough. (Google, incidentally, dropped it a few years ago as a motto.)
How to get back to good
What has happened, it seems quite clear, is that instead of innovating for America or the world, Silicon Valley is innovating for itself.
Instead of asking, “What does the world need?” – a big, bold question if there ever was one – more often it’s asking, “What do I want?”
And “I,” a wealthy, tech-savvy urban dweller, would like an app that delivers a burrito on command, or a $400 juicer.
Enter Jain, who has decided that this is enough. At a time when middle-class America – a massive market, as he repeatedly pointed out to me – is hurting more than ever, it’s time for Silicon Valley to be bold. It’s time for it to be useful. It’s time for it to be what it says it is.
“The everyday person is getting squeezed at every phase of their life,” he told me. And not just middle-class people.
“The decision-makers [in Silicon Valley] assume their engineers are just fine, but when rent is 50% of your after-tax income, you’re struggling,” he said.
On Thursday, Jain announced he had dedicated a fund to fixing the following big problems in America:
- Student debt.
- Sky-high rent in urban centers.
- The cost of unemployment and retraining.
- Retirement income.
The fund’s board include Vicente and Marta Fox, the former president and first lady of Mexico; Mark Thompson, the CEO of The New York Times; Bobbi Brown, the founder of Bobbi Brown Cosmetics; Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner; and more. There are, however, no venture capitalists.
“We’re going to feel deal-flow FOMO by passing up deals everyone is working on, but we’re going to have to do that to stay focused,” Jain said.
Now a place where money likes to follow money, Silicon Valley has become risk-averse and cowardly. On Wall Street, we call this a herd.
Silicon Valley, welcome to Wall Street.