As one CNBC reporter emphatically announced, the late Steve Jobs “heroically” resisted the temptation of getting involved in political matters, making him a renegade hero in the eyes of many. He frequently ignored requests by politicians for him to show up to their hearings or meetings, had no problem criticizing people about their ideas and philosophies in public (like Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Network), while also never bothering to form a political action committee in order to serve or protect his company’s interests.
And who could blame him? Politics is dirty, ugly, corrupt, dishonest, unmeritocratic — especially looking at what it has become in recent history — existing as an antithesis to everything that the tech industry stands for. Apple Computers, and many other companies like it, were such big successes that their ties with such people would’ve been a waste of resources and a waste of their time. Or so they thought, anyway.
When the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was introduced earlier this year, the tech community became outraged at the fact that Congress was attempting to pass a bill that would severely punish individuals who were found to be infringing on content copyright on the internet and on other forms of electronic devices. When the legislation was brought to the attention of the tech community, they fired back — swiftly and hard — gathering as much support from the public as they could, using the medium they knew best: the internet. By citing First Amendment rights and pointing out scenarios where the law could potentially be abused, they sought to defend the web’s practice of free-exchange and free-commerce.
In the early days of the internet, the situation was one of pure anarchy, mostly because at that point in time noone had the means or methods of understanding what was really going on. Illegal activity was rampant and routine, with most of these practices still existing as part of the norm of internet culture even to this day. (Something of up to 85-90% of the content on the internet is acquired illegally, to cite one example.) A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, though — society is now at a point where the general public understands just enough of how it works, where they’re able to form their own ideas and opinions surrounding the internet and its uses. SOPA made it clear, however, that politicians were generally ignorant of technological issues, and their propositions tended to display a lack of nuance of how things actually worked. (It’s pretty complicated stuff, to be fair.)
While SOPA itself was temporarily put on the holding shelf, similar bills (like CISPA) have been introduced into the political system as secondary attempts toward accomplishing what’s basically the same idea — increased regulation, restriction, and monitoring. When the existence of these legislative actions came to light, many people in the tech sector felt “betrayed” in that these bills were perceived as attempts by Washington and Hollywood to “sneak in” by-laws without their approval or consent. Objectively speaking, however, this may seem like a logical outcome for an industry that has gained a reputation for their political indifference — it’s hard to include people in discussions if they don’t even bother to represent themselves, after all. While many of the leaders in the tech industry have begun to swing in the other direction, as of today they still exist as part of the minority.
While traditional corporations have gotten a fairly bad reputation in recent years, looking at any given list of the top charitable private companies in the U.S., the older, more established institutions tend to always be at the top. (A little known fact is that U.S. companies tend to be very generous in terms of their contributions per capita — arguably one of the highest in the world.) Companies like Microsoft, Apple and Google have also participated in philanthropic programs to a certain extent, though their giving tends to be heavily weighted toward technology and the sciences, making them less “balanced” than traditional corporate giving.
There is an angle to charitable giving (particularly at the corporate level) that is seldom talked about, which is that these “gifts” also exist as opportunities for contributors to promote their ideas and values through the organizations that they support. The tech industry’s narrowly focused approach may have had positive outcomes in areas of business and innovation, but often at the expense of its political and cultural influence, which puts them at a significant disadvantage in the social arenas of society. The result of this practice is that majority of narratives that describe or allude to the tech sector (“Matrix”, “I,Robot”, “The Social Network”, etc.) tend to be either negative or satirical in nature, making the industry as a whole (and the people who work in them) seem unappealing and morally suspect. Engineers have the power to build platforms in any way they see fit, but politics and culture is what largely determines people’s opinions of them — an idea that technically-inclined people often overlook or underestimate when taking their work out into the real world.
Websites such as YouTube, Spotify, Soundcloud, etc. have been very effective tools as platform systems, but they all stop short of one thing: actually getting involved in the messy, often subjective process of content creation. Engineers tend to dislike talking about things that can’t immediately be quantified (it’s just the way their brains tend to be wired) but by avoiding these issues they’ve essentially put the fate of the public’s opinions of them in the hands of others. Many were probably hoping that their work would “speak for itself”, and that the new-found freedom of the internet would somehow lead to a consensus by public that would turn out in their favor. (By the invisible hand of the culture industry, so to speak.) But an honest look at the situation would probably point to the fact that this isn’t the way things have turned out, and there doesn’t seem to be any indication that things are about to change any time soon, either. The reality is that cultural narratives — good, evil, beautiful, ugly or otherwise — are, and always have been, scripted and deliberately applied by parties interested in promoting certain agendas and/or values into the public sphere.
The tech industry has an image problem, in other words.
Entrepreneurs can consider themselves lucky in that they have the ability to write their own story, which allows for them to see and cast themselves in a positive light, even against seemingly all odds, difficulties, and roadblocks. But the rise of entrepreneurial practices throughout the world can also be seen from another angle: the massive failures of the modernist ethos have forced people to abandon the narratives of the old world and create their own stories as means of regaining their sense of meaning and happiness in their day to day lives. People don’t become entrepreneurs because they want to — but because they have to — and the “need” for these practices has increased exponentially as the leadership of existing institutions continue to crumble under its own weight.
The tech industry had, however, largely failed to provide a narrative that could serve as a replacement or alternative during the extremely unstable years of 08′ and 09′ — something that most historians would consider somewhat of a “missed opportunity”. The sector excelled economically in the wake of the financial crisis, but wasn’t politically or culturally organized enough to make its ideas and actions part of mainstream consciousness. Successful “revolutions” of these types (excluding ones that involve military force) all have the same general story behind them: economic, political, and cultural forces coming together, under the banner of a common value system, in order to enact holistic and sustainable changes in its society’s norms and philosophies. It can’t be just one, or even two — it has to be all three, and its efforts need to be well coordinated and well-balanced. Doing this is extremely difficult, as is finding the leadership enlightened enough to understand how these things work, which is why most attempts at revolutions tend to end in failure or in most cases, never happen at all.
In the current startup environment where fast-growth and quick-exits have become a strong priority for founders and VCs, getting their hands tied in politics and content creation might be a hard sell, since the benefits can’t be easily quantified into an investor-friendly format, while its returns often have time-scales of a decade or more. As the economy begins to stabilize and society starts to resume normal operations, the tech community may eventually find itself having lost its lead against companies in other sectors that have been involved in decades of charitable giving and political involvement. People tend to, after all, remember and stay loyal to institutions that have left meaningful impacts on their lives and communities, more than any tool or gadget that they might use as a consumer or client.
Fred Wilson – A VC: Fast, Fair, and Frictionless Content on the Web
Though the opportunity for the tech community’s decisive victory has largely been missed, since many of the traditional institutions and organizations are still struggling to keep themselves afloat, the window of opportunity for enacting holistic change is still remains to be wide open. Google’s Eric Schmidt now sits on the board of the New America Foundation (whom also includes figures such as Francis Fukuyama and Ted Halstead), a political think-tank that tends to be sympathetic to the concerns and possibilities that the industry has to offer. The group was the originator the idea of Radical Center politics, whos manifesto outlines the need for politicians to work closely with the industry in order to enact “industry and recession proof” policies.
In the wake of Facebook’s public offering, philanthropic organizations have also begun to aggressively target tech and software companies in hopes that the Valley’s leaders are looking to increase their presence in the social spheres of society than they have in the past. The culture of the tech industry has many good things to offer to society in terms of its cores values — working ethics, meteocracies, the ideals of inclusiveness and blindness to identities/backgrounds, clarity and directness, transparency, and so on — philosophies that many feel had been lost in the ethos of current American politics and culture.
So the opportunities are all there, waiting for someone to step in and make them happen. Whether the leaders of the industry will see the value in participating in such endeavors is yet to be seen, making the future of the tech community somewhat of an uncertainty at this point. Entrepreneurs, however, whom understand both the struggles of the working-classes and the importance of telling a “good story”, are the ones most likely to see the value in laying the foundations of their long-term futures. And if the connections between these fields can be made, then the ideals of a world in balance may once again become a possibility.