January 01, 2018

Silicon Valley's Lost Year Blends Fake With Future

At the beginning of last year, as the Trump presidency sickeningly took hold, I worried his mere presence and daily volleys against what most of us thought to be good and proper, right and just, would dominate our every thought and conversation. His long shadow of darkness constantly loomed against any chance of progress and invention - taking the luster off usual excitement, demanding an unrelenting distraction, and regular dread.

I pushed pause on the blog because I felt like my comments on the day to day in Silicon Valley carried less weight in a world of crisis, as politics overwhelmed the usual storylines. But I realize silence is not the answer. Instead, we should ask more of ourselves when the wind is not at our back, but against us.

So what if we can make cars to drive themselves, only to find our streets hit by long-range missiles? So what if we could make it easier to connect people together on the Internet, all while seeing people turned away at the entrances to our countries, and see laws enacted that pitted people against each other in ways that we found abhorrently racist fifty years ago? So what if somebody could sprinkle some magical Internet dust on cryptocurrency and make a handful of desk jockeys rich (on paper), when trillions of real world dollars were being extracted out of the lower 90 percent of earners from an egregiously unequal tax bill jammed through congress, with chicken scratches in the margins?

It all seems pretty foolish sometimes, as we banter about over variations in cost per click on banner ads when retail supermarkets are going out of business and laying people off. It seems ridiculous that customers can debate the benefits of the latest food delivery startup when US senators openly debate eliminating food stamps for those who need them. And you can't get all that excited about meal replacements like Soylent and the highest tech juice squeezers in all the land when there are people just miles from the most valuable companies in the world who can't afford to both live and eat.

Remember "Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy?" Well, not only is the guy telling that story now tainted with his own awful reality, but not only is nobody truly happy, but there's a lot of crap that isn't amazing.

Nearly 60 percent of children in the city of East Palo Alto, buttressing Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park are homeless, victims of skyrocketing housing prices. Families have stuffed themselves into RVs, only to be told to move along, in Mountain View and Palo Alto, home to $3 million average home prices, bordering Google and Stanford. And yet, the big tech companies keep hiring, while Bay Area cities don't even come close to keeping up with the housing demand.

The Uncloaking of the Alt Right and the Me Too Phenomenon

As for those tech workers who have managed to find a way to live here? 2017 was a mess. Along with an emboldened racist and sexist wing in the Valley, with a new hero in the White House, and a self-promoting ex-Google engineer having penned a hateful screed that cast doubt to his colleagues' abilities solely due to their gender at birth, we also managed to get pummeled by regular news alerts to who the latest scumbags were who mistreated women and thought they could forever get away with it.

What a disaster to see people I considered friends in years past - like Robert Scoble and Dave McClure, to find some of their seedy behavior exposed to the world, and know that's just the tip of the iceberg, as others who have made sport of inappropriate behavior a practical part-time job are legion. While I am very glad to see that it seems, finally, women are being believed, and men are admitting they screwed up, it will take generations to see our workplaces truly be welcoming places for everyone - if it is ever to be.

(Time out: What a f---ing disaster Robert's non-apology post turned out to be. I was stunned at how bad it was, when the easiest thing to do would be to admit guilt, admit to being an ass and promise to work on making things right. I was horrified when I saw it...)

Bitcoin - A Bet or a Con?

So what did our best and brightest minds tend themselves to, instead of taking on hard work and pushing back on the vacuous fact deniers running the place? Many of them took to gambling their life savings on shiny internet tokens and watching prices rise like addicted penny stock chasers - making their own lingo, and debating the basis of specific coins, as if there were any real value in it - besides to get rich, and quick! Thanks for nothing, crypto nerds.

I'm old enough to remember the first dot com boom, with its own fake money games - Beenz and Flooz, that made up their own online currencies, only to go bankrupt at the first sign of weakness. At risk of being the last person on the crypto train, spare me the spam messages and emails and tweets, and please, get back to work. There are too many things you could have done with your time that helped the world, like we are supposed to do.

I apologize for my irregular notes here. When the Valley is really humming, and working on important tools and exciting ways to help us all learn, communicate and share, that's exciting. I see those flashes of brilliance, where I am, at Google, more than I tell you. But I worry many of the trends we've seen that reward bad behavior have become so entrenched, that the real value is being absorbed by the funders and the funded, more than the users. We have to share or the backlash will be stronger than we've already seen.

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