I love me some Silicon Valley — the TV show, not the place — and one of the final season arcs is about Gavin Belson trying to do “tech ethics,” or “tethics,” before he finally admits he’s a piece of trash in an effort to undermine Richard. I hope Belson appears on the finale, by the way. Good character.
Well, in the real world, “tech ethics” is a big discussion point right now. MIT is weighing in on it, Harvard Business Review is piping up, there are now priests getting involved, and there’s a push for future engineering degrees to require ethics training.
This is all well and good, but I need to point you to an interview with Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom, who seemingly exited the company post-acquisition by Facebook because he hates Zuck with the entire core of his being. In this interview, Systrom says:
I just think people have come to realize what is true. There was a while where everyone thought it was all about solving the world’s problems and it was all mission driven. There is a lot of that, but the idea that there’s no sense of capitalism, no sense of winning at all costs, would be misguided. People have come to realize that Silicon Valley is just like every other large center of business in the world. It’s an industry, and it has its cast of characters. It’s not all philanthropy.
That’s the essence of everything.
These companies obscure their missions
They are not about “uniting” or “saving” the world. They are about money. Most of these companies came from investor or VC bases. Those guys want to see 10–100x returns on their investments. They are not doing it to save the world, unite the world via widgets, build a community, increase global health, etc. They want to make stone cold cash.
And as a result…
Many of your investment/retirement portfolios contain some of these high-growth tech companies. Just this Sunday, I was sitting at brunch (fancy!) with some people, two of whom had Microsoft stock — which is doing well. Microsoft has mostly managed to distance itself from the current tech ethics discussion, although theoretically something could pop about Bill Gates and Jeffrey Epstein down the line.
Anyway, one of these guys at brunch is late 50s, and thinking retirement in a decade or less. That Microsoft stock is a component of that plan for him, and/or the assumption that it will continue to deliver returns.
Now what happens if we over-focus on “tech ethics” or regulation?
The companies we hit hardest will be in a tougher position to make money. They may still make oodles of money, but it will be an uphill battle for sure. And the companies we’re not focusing on will do less-than-ethical stuff, thus giving themselves an advantage (tech companies will always run years ahead of legal/government), and the big companies we are holding to a higher ethical ground will just find ways to revert to easier approaches to making money.
And in the end, broadly I don’t think a lot of people will care. They want good retirement packages, and tech stocks are part of that. They want to feel like their families are taken care of; ditto. And they want stuff to be easy and fast and meme-level fun; ditto as well. Tech companies do all that for us, and I think we’ve handed them data and power over us because those are the things we really care about. Talking about ethics and diversity and women representation are nice things to say, and many do actually believe them, but if it’s a difference for you of a stock growing rapidly and you having a great vacation at 62 vs. Google hiring a few more female engineers that you’ve never met, what do you think most people actually care about?
But shouldn’t all companies be ethical?
Ideally, but that’s not really the way of the first world, in all honesty. I know dozens of people who claim to be super religious and moral and ethical, for example — and then they run small businesses and pay like crap, fire people randomly, etc. because doing that is better for their business and their family. I’ve even written about that.
The biggest hashtag of this decade was #MeToo, right? (Or maybe something about a Korean boy band.) The real headline that summarized this decade is #GetMine. What happened was, in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, most people doubled down on getting their nut above all. I mean, what can you really do about climate change or school shootings? You can be sustainable, but are 7.4 billion others going to do so? No. You can be nice to the awkward kid that everyone is scared might become a shooter, but someone else might set him off. Point being: most people focus on what they can control, and that’s usually their job, their income (somewhat), their family, their neighborhood, etc. That’s how NIMBY became such a big thing; people want things their way, even if they virtue-signal about their broader life beliefs.
So broadly I think we talk about tech ethics a lot, but I don’t think we really care that much so long as we can see cool stuff on The Gram and our phones allow us fast access to stuff and these companies keep growing on the public market.