So that was the beginning of watching all this stuff happening in Silicon Valley and thinking, “Wow it’s interesting that everyone thinks what’s going on here is so wonderful.” Some people in tech literally say that there’s a modern renaissance happening in Silicon Valley. But my experience and my family’s experience [is] very different. So, I think that was a big part of what led me to have a more critical eye on the tech industry, and then ultimately to write this book.
Yeah, the thing about Silicon Valley is that it’s not really just a place like London or Greece — it’s also kind of ethereal. The term “Silicon Valley” has become synonymous with the tech industry — not just the Santa Clara Valley. And so, the thing about writing "A People’s History of Silicon Valley" was that I had to cover how the tech industry is affecting people’s lives across the entire world. When someone at Uber changes how the algorithm works for picking up rides, for example, an Uber driver in Mumbai is affected. Or if Facebook, all of a sudden, changes the way that you see things in your timeline, a small family business in Johannesburg may suddenly have fewer customers.
So, the decisions and choices that a small number of engineers and CEOs make in Silicon Valley have repercussions across the whole world and can sometimes radically affect or ruin people’s lives overnight. The way a small number of rich people can manipulate people’s lives so suddenly and quickly by rewriting the algorithms that govern them — that’s profoundly undemocratic.
So the book is an attempt to write a dual history that’s both about the people who physically live in Silicon Valley — not just the workers, but also the way that the technology in Silicon Valley affects everyday people’s lives — while also telling the larger story of how people across the whole world are implicated in making the tech industry function and provid[e] the profits that cause Silicon Valley to be perceived as this really wealthy place where there’s a renaissance happening, as some CEOs like to say.
There were actually lots of hippies who thought computers were these revolutionary machines that were going to free us in some way. And later, the internet also enhanced that feeling for a lot of people. There were people who thought that if we network computers together, it would just sort of innately lead to these anti-authoritarian, free networks where we could all communicate without any government or corporate control having any involvement in our lives — that we were going to be completely freed by these machines.
Yes. It’s unsurprising that so many tech CEOs and so many people who work in tech have really libertarian beliefs — that they ignore the social realm and don’t think of themselves as products of society, but rather as these individualistic übermensches who, by virtue of their own genius and brilliance, create these amazing products — which is patently not true. And by having libertarian politics and by spending money either directly or through their companies on lobbyists that lobby against things like fair taxation, or having any of the profits from their products go back to public coffers … they’ve ensured that there’s going to be income inequality in the Bay Area for a long time to come. It’s always astounding to think that San Francisco is lauded as one of the wealthiest cities in the country in terms of how much wealth is here. And yet, there’s so much poverty because that wealth is just not redistributed.
And a lot of the things that we think of as being intrinsic to the tech industry or to Silicon Valley were actually created by public money. A lot of the basis of what the internet is, was created by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the Pentagon. Similarly, a huge amount of the technology in the iPhone was created with public money. But those pieces of the iPhone and the internet aren’t patented in the same way that Apple or Microsoft patent their things. So, the US government is essentially just giving away these technologies toward private profits.
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