Mathew Ingram at GigaOm has recently published a piece entitled Making fun of Silicon Valley is easy, but the next big thing looks like a toy. It bothered me as soon as I read it. Today I saw a few people I generally respect tweeting it and my unease grew. I’ll explain.
The point of the piece is, as is the current fashion in online writing, entirely spelled out in the headline. It’s fairly innocuous, but the message is clear. If you’re making fun of moronic Silicon Valley startups like Yo, or startups in general, you could be stupidly mislabeling the next Twitter or Facebook. Take this line of thought to its logical conclusion and the result is that it would be a mistake to question any new product or service in the tech space. I say no.
The same day that I read Ingram’s piece, I read this one on PandoDaily about a startup called Secret. The author of the piece, Sarah Lacy, has numerous concerns about this company and what they have created, concerns that seem eminently valid:
If Secret continues to grow with everyone trying to profit off of its popularity willfully justifying and ignoring the social cost, there will be Secret suicides. As a community, we will regret this. It will make the Craigslist killer and the Airbnb meth head-gate scandals look like nothing.
Lacy is a close watcher of the tech space. She has been writing about technology for 15 years. She has written two well-received books about it. But I guess she didn’t get the memo that Valley startups can turn into amazing, wonderful things even if they start out as silly or, in the case of Secret, morally and ethically questionable. She is taking a critical approach and thank goodness, because she explicitly addresses in her piece that others are unwilling or unable to do so.
That being the case, that there is a clear dearth of critical thought about technology, do we really need another exhortation to basically leave Silicon Valley entrepreneurs alone? If even light comedy about a frivolous new app is to be frowned upon, what does that say about the more serious criticism of an Evgeny Morozov or a Sherry Turkle?
The reality is that technology, on its own, is neither a benevolent force, nor an evil one. Your MacBook or your Facebook account don’t have feelings and motives. However, the people who built them and programmed them do. To pretend otherwise is utopian foolishness at best. At worst, it is dangerously careless.