It’s everywhere today — a sense of outrage at the practices of big tech companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Snapchat and Uber. It might be triggered by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress about the Cambridge Analytica data breach or by Tesla’s Elon Musk having a meltdown in the pages of The New York Times.
Now Lucie Greene — worldwide director of the Innovation Group, an in-house think tank at J. Walter Thompson — has written a book, “Silicon States: The Power and Politics of Big Tech and What It Means for Our Future,” which is coming out from Counterpoint Press this week. Greene, who worked in WWD’s London bureau early in her career, has had a ringside seat for the development of these top companies. She writes, after disrupting cell phones, these firms seek to take the place of governments by playing roles in arenas including health care, space travel, education and the housing market. What does this mean for society?
Greene, who estimates that she attends about 20 tech conferences a year, diagnoses a “lack of empathy, which I think kind of permeates the culture there” among Silicon Valley venture capitalists. As automation eliminates jobs, tech leaders tout the notion of a universal basic income to fill the gap, but, as she pointed out during an interview at the Manhattan restaurant Morandi, that leaves out “the psychological value of work” and feeling of value to society. She also observes that venture capitalists haven’t taken on the issue of homelessness, which is very visible in major American cities such as New York and San Francisco.
Greene notes that, while there has been a great deal of umbrage at certain actions by Google and Facebook, Amazon has not attracted quite the same outrage. She attributes this to the fact that the firm is “quite private,” and “even though people criticize the treatment of some of its employees,” that has not translated into attacks on the company because Amazon never attached to its enterprise the same kind of idealistic narratives about transforming society that other firms did.
In “Silicon States,” Greene finds a “sociopathic paternalism” in remarks such as the ones that venture capitalist Peter Thiel made in a conversation with her and Caroline Daniel, then the editor of FT Weekend, at a conference in 2014. He said, “We’re living in a world in which there are enormous problems, and there are many things that are incredibly screwed up. And I think it is imperative on us to try to fix these problems as quickly as possible. And sometimes that means not asking for permission — but really asking for forgiveness later.”
In the book, Greene is skeptical about the grandiose Virgin Hyperloop One, which seeks to disrupt transportation for people and goods with a high-speed, floating tubular train system. Richard Branson became involved in the project, helmed by Rob Lloyd, and this resulted in its headquarters being transformed from modest into manicured but does not seem to have created a great many other tangible results thus far.
Greene also questions the way that certain on-demand apps function, making it possible for a consumer to have “everything on their terms,” whether it’s food on Seamless, a date on Tinder or a text message. She says that it can “make them very desensitized, affecting civil engagement.”
She phrases it more harshly in the book: “No one will have to encounter anyone, or anything, at any time that they don’t want to. And when they do want something, it will arrive quickly. …[O]n-demand culture has already turned urban millennials into a tribe of impatient selfish babies, unable to handle any social realities, let alone wait for taxis.”