There are times when the news cycle in Silicon Valley is so slow one thinks it went into hibernation. And then, there are times, like the past few weeks, when so much bombshells from Silicon Valley are dropped it gives journalists whiplash trying to keep up.
Uber was hooked into the biggest crisis of its existence after a letter from former engineer Susan Fowler detailed her experiences with a sexist boss, an indifferent HR and a “Game of Thrones”-style political war to create a toxic work environment. Uber immediately went into “independent investigation” crisis mode, with former Attorney General Eric Holder and media mogul Arianna Huffington leading the probe.
Many expressed concern that Holder, Huffington and Uber Chief Human Resources Officer Liane Hornsey conducting the investigation voids the independent part. Holder has been working for Uber since last June. Huffington sits on the board of directors and has endured work harassment scandals of her own while she led The Huffington Post.
Early Uber investors Mitch Kapor and Freada Klein wrote an open letter of their own last Thursday to argue Uber’s selection of Holder and Huffington suggests that it is “deeply invested in the company weathering a PR crisis” than actually rooting out the sexism and improper behavior. “We are disappointed to see that Uber has selected a team of insiders to investigate its destructive culture and make recommendations for a change,” they wrote.
Despite its core commitment to change and disruption, Silicon Valley’s largest companies look settled into the status quo. Time and time again, the industry’s most celebrated companies seem content to let internal rot fester, whether it be a toxic work environment (Tinder, Hyperloop One, Zenefits and countless more startups had the same issue) or issues plaguing its user base (more on that later). Only when the stench gets so strong that the press takes a whiff and hounds them do companies attempt to clean the mess up.
Even when change comes from the top of the company, the rationale behind it is so narrowly defined by its billionaire founders that the change itself is counterproductive.
In response to real issues like fake news, Mark Zuckerberg’s 6,000-word manifesto on Facebook’s new role two weeks ago was devoid of meaningful introspection on the role Facebook has played in our civic society — to both great benefit and great detriment.
In Zuckerberg’s mind, Facebook is on the cusp of building a global quasi-state of its own. And for the 32-year old, the only way to fix social and political issues Facebook wrought is not less Facebook but much, much more Facebook.
“Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community. When we began, this idea was not controversial … Yet now, across the world there are people left behind by globalization, and movements for withdrawing from global connection,” Zuckerberg writes. “In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.”
Zuckerberg’s manifesto has been largely panned by the tech media as too vague and somewhat contradictory. Zuckerberg’s proposal to democratize the global Facebook community comes essentially by “gerrymandering the internet” and only worsening the filter bubble problem, according to Annnalee Lewitz at Ars Technica.
By giving the bots and the 50-plus-1 percent of people nearby to determine a Facebook user’s norms and standards, rather than a group of humans to think through the nuances, a user’s feed will likely become more ossified than it is now with like-minded neighbors and friends.
Despite Facebook now being a global albatross with nearly 2 billion users, Zuckerberg seems to believe Facebook can pivot and shift nimbly without causing collateral damage on existing social connections and civic institutions.
If any change is needed, it may be government action to bust the Facebook monopoly. As tech analyst Ben Thompson notes, Facebook — and its empire which includes Instagram and Whatsapp — already holds a monopoly in global social communications. Facebook is already pervasive in our daily lives as is; imagine if Facebook decides to use its weight to take an assertive, central role in our lives.
“It’s bad enough for Facebook to have so much power,” Thompson wrote. “But the very suggestion that Zuckerberg might utilize it for political ends raises the costs of inaction from not just opportunity costs to overt ones.”
I understand fully that connecting Uber’s sexism issue to Facebook’s political agenda may be too far of a jump for some. But I also believe both issues demonstrate how the tech tycoons have lost their touch with people outside Silicon Valley and are more eager now to cover the stench with Febreze.
It’s a long, disheartening cry from the days when Silicon Valley promised something new and different to corporate America.
The Nexus covers the intersection of technology, business and culture in San Francisco and beyond. Write to Seung at email@example.com.