An open letter to Valleywag: Why your snark is going to get us all killed
It was disheartening to observe the snarky reactions to Justin Rosenstein’s TC Disrupt talk about doing great things.
For those of you who weren’t there to see it, or missed the abundance of negative energy that flowed from some corners in its wake, the Asana co-founder got on stage live in front of thousands of the technorati and made a simple suggestion:
Find the intersection of your passions and world-changing impact, Rosenstein said, and configure your career to realize positive change for both yourself and the world.
Maybe the timing was just bad—what with the shifting sentiment towards the Valley and the Zeitgeist from the HBO show—or maybe modern human civilization is truly doomed.
Valleywag, the self-anointed protectors of the common sense, chimed in, calling Rosenstein “clownish,” and “another aloof rich man-tween with nothing original to say.”
Boy Genius Report called his talk “ridiculous,” and “the worst tech speech ever.”
On stage after the talk, TechCrunch Alex Wilhelm mockingly asked Rosenstein if people would listen to him if he weren’t rich, and whether or not “Candy Crush is the opiate of the people.”
But here’s an update: Candy Crush is, in fact, the opiate of the people, and if we don’t wake up soon from our dopamine naps, we face the risk of our own extinction.
The superpowers of the like-minded few
Among other incisive things Rosenstein said in his talk was this line, right at the beginning:
“We are in an unprecedented moment in the history of civilization, where suddenly this tiny number of people have the ability to have world-shaping impact on everyone.”
Though Rosenstein presented this observation in unambiguously positive light, for those who want good things to happen to humanity in the 21st century, it is actually mixed news:
The good news is that if you are a brilliant technology leader, a wealthy and well-connected investor, a smart individual contributor, or an influential member of the press, the sum of your decisions and actions really does have the potential to shape the world in dramatic ways.
The bad news is that this is true whether your intentions for humanity are generous or not.
Let’s go over both sides of this coin:
On one side, the potential of modern technology means a couple of mathematically-inclined grad students can design an algorithm that happens to be remarkable at discovering relevant results in the vast expanse of the internet and go on to build Google, then self-driving cars and internet-delivery blimps and all that other incredible shit Google is going to bring into the world.
On the other side of the coin, it means a handful of very dark souls with the right financial and human resources at their disposal can wreak great harm on large swaths of civilization.
On this side, you have those who would engineer novel pathogens and release them into the subways or detonate a suitcase nuke in Times Square; those who manipulate the mass media to sow distrust in science; and those who build war and surveillance technologies and deliver them to the autocrats and other agents of oppression in the world.
Though you probably don’t realize it, snark puts you on the wrong side of that coin.
Let me explain:
For the first time in Planet Earth’s long story, one species of life has the potential to single-handedly determine the destiny of itself and most of the other species alive.
Miraculously, it seems we—the species in question—actually have been given a choice.
For all of the staggering complexity of the universe and life on this planet, this choice turns out to be a simple one: choose benevolence and love—towards ourselves, our species and the Earth that birthed us—or choose the destruction of all of those things.
It’s entirely within our capabilities to make this choice, but the least-good news is that if we choose no choice—to look the other way; to bury our proverbial heads in the proverbial sand—the choice will make itself for us, and it’s unlikely to choose in our favor.
This brings us back to the question of snark:
Snark and its attendant cynicism are two of the main places that scared, angry, hurt and/or disempowered people go to hide from themselves and everyone else.
They are the places we go to run from our own vulnerability and the core of our humanity, and they live on the same dark road as terrorism.
(I’m not saying that your snark means you’re a terrorist. I’m saying they come from the same hood.)
When an authentically compassionate person like Justin Rosenstein gets on stage and tells the gathered technology industry to “do things that really, substantively work to help humanity thrive” and your first response is to shoot him down, to call him out, to accuse him of bloviating, the quotient of violence in the world ticks up a notch.
If you are an influential member of the media, your voice carries, and though it may feel like it is just echoing in the void, it is not. When you have a megaphone and your words are full of snark and negativity, they go straight to the worst parts of our nature, and make those parts resonate in kind.
I’ve been a tech journalist. I know how hard it is to weather the storm of bullshit from every angle—all the pitches, distortions, half-truths, and lies—and remain optimistic.
I’m not saying that you have to take the technology industry’s smug self-importance and love it. I’m definitely not saying to stop asking hard questions when hard questions are warranted.
I am not saying it’s time to sell out.
I’m just suggesting that you differentiate between the ideas and people that are worthy of your hard-boiled edge and those that deserve an open ear.
In his talk, Rosenstein said: “Let’s solve the big problems. Let’s dedicate our energy to moving the world in the direction of our dreams.”
Say what you will about anything: Isn’t this the right idea?