War of Ideas

What about Silicon Valley’s foreign policy?

George Packer’s article on the political culture of Silicon Valley is provoking quite a bit of debate, which is understandable given that it’s been dropped into the middle of ongoing debates over Apple’s tax avoidance and Mark Zuckerberg’s support for the Keystone XL pipeline. (Not to mention the duelling books out by Internet skeptics Evgeny ...

Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

George Packer’s article on the political culture of Silicon Valley is provoking quite a bit of debate, which is understandable given that it’s been dropped into the middle of ongoing debates over Apple’s tax avoidance and Mark Zuckerberg’s support for the Keystone XL pipeline. (Not to mention the duelling books out by Internet skeptics Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier and cheerleaders Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen.)  

Packer argues that despite touting their own products as innovations that will transform society, most Internet companies are actually oriented toward "solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up." Despite its West Coast countercultural trappings — hackers, the Whole Earth Catalog, Burning Man, etc. — Packer says we shouldn’t be surprised that Silicon Valley behaves politically like any other industry: 

The phrase “change the world” is tossed around Silicon Valley conversations and business plans as freely as talk of “early-stage investing” and “beta tests.”

When financiers say that they’re doing God’s work by providing cheap credit, and oilmen claim to be patriots who are making the country energy-independent, no one takes them too seriously—it’s a given that their motivation is profit. But when technology entrepreneurs describe their lofty goals there’s no smirk or wink. “Many see their social responsibility fulfilled by their businesses, not by social or political action,” one young entrepreneur said of his colleagues. “It’s remarkably convenient that they can achieve their goals just by doing their start-up.” He added, “They actually think that Facebook is going to be the panacea for many of the world’s problems. It isn’t cynicism—it’s arrogance and ignorance.”[…]

Like industries that preceded it, Silicon Valley is not a philosophy, a revolution, or a cause. It’s a group of powerful corporations and wealthy individuals with their own well-guarded interests. Sometimes those interests can be aligned with the public’s, sometimes not.

I basically agree with Packer’s argument, but I’m a little curious about why the focus is quite so domestic. For all the discussion of Zuckerberg’s new PAC, one name that doesn’t show up in the article is Bill Gates. An assessment of Silicon Valley’s social engagement feels a little incomplete without noting that one of the godfathers of the modern tech industry — even if he’s not actually based in the Bay Area — is one of the world’s largest philantropists and, for better or worse, has some very specific ideas on the subject of international development.

Packer dismissively discusses Google’s work on developing smart parking meters for San Francisco, but doesn’t mention that the company has a former State Department staffer running an internal think tank working on topics ranging from media coverage of the Mexican drug war to human trafficking.

The Gates Foundation and Google Ideas certainly have their critics, and you can argue that like other industries, these companies use them to distract the public from more controversial issues like Microsoft’s antitrust record or the consequences of Google’s rise for user privacy, but they don’t quite fit with the cynical libertarianism that Packer has identified has Silicon Valley’s governing ideology. 

It also seems strange to have a discussion about whether the products made by internet firms are themselves improving global wellbeing without talking about the much ballyhooed role of social media political organizing in both autocracies and democracies. This role may be overhyped, but when tech advocates talk about how social media is changing the world, they’re generally thinking about protesters tweeting updates from Tahrir Square, not rich hipsters taking Uber home from bars in the Mission. Google’s fraught dealings with the Chinese government seem like a better example of the challenges facing a tech firm wading into politics than Zuckerberg’s FWD.us. Keeping the focus solely on domestic politics — and domestic customers — seems to miss a big part of the debate.

(See David Kirkpatrick on Facebook’s foreign policy from 2011.)

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

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