Monday, October 31, 2011

Is Silicon Valley Racist?

In one of those remarkable ironic coincidences, I found myself reading Violet Blue’s latest post to her Pulp Tech blog on ZDNet, “Silicon Valley’s Race Problem,” shortly after I began reading Michael Tomasky’s latest contribution to The New York Review, “The Racist Redskins,” examining a recent book by Thomas G. Smith on the problem of segregation in professional football.  The point of departure for the blog post is a series of provocative remarks by Michael Arrington, founder of TechCrunch, who will be appearing as an interview subject in a new CNN documentary, Black in America 4.

Just about every Arrington quote in the post is offensive in one way or another, but I suspect that taking offense may overlook a broader context.  That context was suggested by Kurt Collins, quoted in the blog post as follows:

I honestly don’t think Arrington is racist. Racism implies a forethought and a malice that I don’t believe is there in his case. In this case, I honestly think people are confusing his extreme arrogance and overall disdain for all things not Arrington for racism.

In other words Arrington is no different from Eric Schmidt, who has shot off any number of reckless assertions on no end of occasions, with little regard to any consequences that might bump into reality (to invoke, once again, Ken Auletta’s metaphor).  However, I think this story has more to do with myopia than arrogance.  This is the point that surfaces in the quote from Damon Brown:

Silicon Valley is reluctant to discuss anything outside of burgeoning IPOs and new tech.

The reason for that reluctance is an implicit consent that Silicon Valley elites neither know nor care very much about the broader social consequences of all that innovation they are so eager to promote.  This reflects on the conclusion of the blog post:

I personally think that casual disregard for Silicon Valley’s racial (and gender) diversity issues is culturally dangerous.

I would only question the adjective “casual.”  I think the disregard is willful, because “anything outside of burgeoning IPOs and new tech” is accepted, by consensus, as a distraction.  In particular, it distracts from the goal of yielding a significant return on investment by introducing all those social issues that put to the test whether or not a given entrepreneurial effort is actually solving a problem or either creating new ones or making existing problems worse.  The fact is that any cant about entrepreneurism making the world a better place serves only politicians.  Everyone else is in the game for the money;  and ours is a culture in which the only money that counts comes from short-term gains before one moves on to the next new thing.  (Think of how the phrase “serial entrepreneur” carries such a positive connotation, even though it amounts to a twist on the far more negative phrase, “serial killing.”  In other words it is just a variation on the use of the phrase “making a killing” in investment.)

By putting the race card into this game, CNN may ultimately expose the extent to which Silicon Valley has been living off of a potentially sociopathic myth for several decades;  but that exposure is also likely to have consequences.  The world economy has been trying to endure a bumpy ride for some time, primarily due to a depressingly long run of bad judgment calls.  It remains to be seen whether or not CNN is about to make the ride bumpier.

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