Sunday, October 20, 2013

Can Silicon Valley Save the Country?

The latest instance of Silicon Valley myopia showed up in the Insight section of today's San Francisco Chronicle by way of a piece entitled "Silicon Valley innovation—can it save the country?," by Janine Zacharia. The author is described as a former reporter for the Washington Post now teaching journalism at Stanford University. The description does not state whether or not Stanford has an actual Department of Journalism. For that matter, in this age in which salaried positions are few and far between, it does not even mention whether Zacharia holds a faculty position, let alone one on a tenure track. Regardless of her status, however, she seems to have access to a break room that serves Silicon Valley Kool-Aid.

Stories like this are always highlighted by a graphic. In this case the graphic is a table entitled "Prosperous Silicon Valley." In it, Silicon Valley is treated as a country that has its own Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This allows its number for 2012 to be compared with those of "real" countries. That number, $76,645 places fifth behind Luxembourg ($106,406), Qatar ($104,756), Norway ($99,170), and Switzerland ($78,881). Expect this to be coming to a PowerPoint presentation near you.

The article itself suffers from the usual weakness that confuses corporate governance with political governance. From a political point of view, the governance structures of most corporations, including those in Silicon Valley, are highly authoritarian. If Zacharia were a Hegelian (assuming knowledge of The Philosophy of History, which would be quite a stretch), she would probably argue that such structures affirm Hegel's belief that monarchy is superior to democracy. This is predicated on the assumption that authority resides in a philosopher-king, who will almost always be wiser than an uninformed majority.

In reality, however, there are few (if any, these days) corporations run by philosopher-kings. The better ones may have benevolent dictators; but there is a general consensus that the authority of the individual is necessary to keep shareholders, customers, and workers equally happy (and, if not equally, with a preference to that particular rank ordering). Furthermore, a good philosopher-king is wise enough to believe that his opinion is not the only one and that it makes sense to treat other opinions as valid, even if all that means is coming up with better reasons for rejecting them. This is a good framework to consider a leader such as Eric Schimdt, who was notorious for believing that his was the only valid opinion, a stance that made any effort at dialog with this country's "real" government virtually impossible. However, Schmidt is merely a symptom of a greater disease, which is a general failure of Internet culture to grasp general principles of governance and appreciate why they are important.

I suppose the bottom line is that the involvement of Silicon Valley in political governance would be equally bad for both Silicon Valley and our current political problems, meaning that, yes, Virginia, things can get worse than they already are!

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