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How Silicon Valley Glommed On To Politics


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. And now, All Tech Considered.


SIEGEL: There's an article in the May 27th issue of The New Yorker called "Change the World: Silicon Valley transfers its slogans - and its money - to the realm of politics." In it, The New Yorker's George Packer writes about, among other things, technological optimism, the sort of thinking that led Mark Zuckerberg to remark a few years ago that widespread use of Facebook in Lebanon could help young people feel more connected and perhaps less likely to embrace terrorism.

George Packer writes this: Technology can be an answer to incompetence and inefficiency, but it has little to say about larger issues of justice and fairness, unless you think that political problems are bugs that can be fixed by engineering rather than fundamental conflicts of interest and value.

And he joins us now from Brooklyn. George Packer, welcome once again.

GEORGE PACKER: Good to be back with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Are we now seeing a huge amount of money and political influence coming from people who are very rich, very self-interested, very smart and very much convinced that their interests are our interests?

PACKER: Yeah. What I found in Silicon Valley is an industry that's sort of been kept a very far remove from Washington and had an attitude of just let us do our thing and make the miracles that people love around the world and leave us alone. And I think the industry has gotten big enough, wealthy enough and entangled in - in our lives enough that some of the leaders out there are beginning to realize they can't completely ignore politics.

They have to pay attention to it. They need lobbyists in Washington. Mark Zuckerberg has started an advocacy group for immigration reform. And there's even a line of thinking out there that technology holds a lot of the answers to what ails government.

SIEGEL: As for the phrase that's the title of your article, "Change the World," when I hear it, I associate Barack Obama saying as much. It reminds me years ago, Jimmy Carter said that we just needed a government as good as we are, and Bill Clinton used to declare every profound political conflict a case of false choices at some level. We've always had a certain amount of simplistic, optimistic bromides from people in public life. Is this one any different?

PACKER: I think it's very much in that lineage. It's sort of populist. It's magical thinking. It's ahistorical in the sense that it really doesn't take recent history seriously. Instead, it thinks that a whole new way of doing things, such as transferring engineering solutions to political problems, using the iPhone to improve, you know, city services and the problems of urban government. That's very much the same kind of magical thinking that I think Barack Obama's 2008 campaign somewhat suffered from and the other politicians that you named.

It seems to be a regular temptation in the era where people feel that government doesn't work very well. We just - if we just kind of get out of that box and into another one, or out of all boxes, somehow that will solve the problem.

SIEGEL: You write, after hearing the praises sung of apps that can hail us a taxi and pick us a restaurant and order a bike messenger to deliver takeout, quote, "It suddenly occurred to me that the hottest tech startups are solving all the problems of being 20 years old with cash on hand because that's who thinks them up."

PACKER: Yeah. That's a little bit of a - an unfair quip since, of course, there's a lot else going on in Silicon Valley, including some, you know, pretty amazing engineering breakthroughs.

But I did get the feeling - especially in San Francisco where south of Market Street there's just thousands, it seems, of little startup companies that are the next social network or the next sharing economy breakthrough. Their vision of what life should be like in its frictionless, seamless version - which is a - phrases you hear often out there - is the life of 20-somethings.

People, you know, without kids, without jobs that are - involve a fair amount of drudgery. It's like, the real problem is how do you get your food to your apartment as fast as possible? So it was perhaps not entirely justified, but I couldn't resist it.

SIEGEL: You know, thinking about the political views of the folks in Silicon Valley, as you write about them, I was thinking about Henry Ford, who was an ingenious industrialist of his day who held many very odious views. But he also believed in paying autoworkers a wage that would permit them to buy the cars they were making. There was a certain egalitarianism involved in what he was doing. That doesn't seem to figure at all in this particular world view.

PACKER: Right. These are very un-odious people. These are very good people, nice people, people you like to talk to and be around and who, if they did have workers, would probably pay them pretty well because they'd distribute their stock options quite fairly. But they don't have any workers. That's the problem.

It's - the working class of San Francisco and the Bay Area is being pushed out of its old neighborhoods because of the skyrocketing cost of housing, and there's no real working class left because these are jobs for engineers and managers and designers - very smart people. A lot of them come from Ivy League colleges. And San Francisco and Silicon Valley are more and more being shaped after their desires and their idea of the good life.

SIEGEL: Is this story also - is it equally about the naivete of people who think that Silicon Valley millionaires are different, or is that only about the peculiar view of those people themselves?

PACKER: No. I think you're right. It is about the country's attitude towards Silicon Valley and its leaders, which is to say they're not quite seen as just corporate heads or as industry titans. They're seen as pioneers, revolutionaries, even. Steve Jobs very much encouraged that. And so for example, last week when Tim Cook - who replaced Jobs as the CEO of Apple - appeared before the Senate to try to explain Apple's extremely creative means for avoiding paying corporate taxes in the U.S., by the end, the senators seem to be racing to shake his hand and tell him how much they loved Apple's products, which tells me Apple isn't like the oil and gas industry, isn't like the pharmaceutical industry. They are considered somehow higher than that.

And I think that's a dangerous attitude because, after all, Apple was found to be one of the biggest tax avoiders in the country today. And that's something that should not be waved away simply because senators have wonderful iPhones in their pockets that they stare at all the time.

SIEGEL: George Packer's article in the May 27th New Yorker is called "Change the World." He's also the author of the new book "The Unwinding." George Packer, thanks a lot for talking with us.

PACKER: My pleasure, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.