Silicon Valley Calls out Tech’s Ethical Void
AI, personal data, lying to Congress — the new season’s debut is funny but not fiction
It’s like they’re screaming: Pay attention. Two minutes into the first episode of HBO comedy Silicon Valley’s new season, babe-in-the-woods startup CEO Richard Hendricks, whose company Pied Piper has grown from one software algorithm to a household brand, sits in a Congressional hearing about tech sector ethics. The allusion to Mark Zuckerberg’s tongue-tied performances before Congress is obvious. But instead of stonewalling, Richard gets up and refuses a wireless microphone. He goes analog, pacing back and forth as he spells out the state of Big Tech today:
“These people up here — you want to rein them in. But you can’t. Facebook owns 80 percent of mobile social traffic. Google owns 92 percent of search. And Amazon Web Services is bigger than their next four competitors combined. Even [Richard’s giant competitor] Hooli can’t survive these monopolies. No one can. They track our every move. They monitor every moment in our lives. And they exploit our data for profit. And you can ask them all the questions you want, but they’re not gonna change. They don’t have to. These companies are kings! And they rule over kingdoms far larger than any nation in human history. They won. We lost.“
For those who haven’t binged the series, Richard has been the show’s everyman since the first episode, an earnest programmer to whom Valley insiders constantly need to explain how things really work (“You don’t know the half of it. Neither does Congress.”) Five seasons later, Richard the successful CEO inspires all with a spontaneous declaration that he will help the government build a new Internet founded on integrity, just as American colonists started afresh from imperial England in 1776: “An Internet that is of the people, by the people, and for the people, so help me God.”
The cheering has barely subsided before Richard finds himself sucked into the same slimy behavior that he despises. He learns that Colin, the head of Pied Piper’s cash cow gaming division, has been collecting everything on gamers that he can, turning on their headset microphones 24/7 to record their every word. Richard’s security architect Gilfoyle has built an AI bot that talks to coworkers so Gilfoyle can ignore them. Both refuse to stop, and both engineers are critical to the company’s financial success, as is the improved gameplay Colin has brought by spying on players. You might have a moment of sympathy for Facebook’s CEO learning what Cambridge Analytica was really doing with his members’ data.
Richard, connecting the dots, runs Gilfoyle’s AI over Colin’s own personal data, creating an infographic of Colin’s many fireable offenses and illegal hobbies, with audio evidence. He realizes it could be used to leverage Colin into ending all customer data collection, despite the move’s financial impact to the company.
This is where you should really pay attention. At first, Richard and his loyal confidant agree that using AI to weaponize Colin’s private conversations for blackmail is “just plain wrong … We’re supposed to be the virtuous ones here.” Right?
Right. Their integrity lasts for 30 seconds.
The genius of Silicon Valley is that all the jokes are true. Richard and his loyal lieutenant step onto the same slippery slope that I’ve watched real-life startup execs slide down. They convince themselves, just as Colin had with recording gamers’ lives, that it’s all for good. It’s “wrong in the service of rightness.” It’s “unethical in defense of ethics. Unjust in the quest for justice.” It’s the NSA tapping your phone. Facebook and Google trying to optimize your personal experience.
Richard uses AI and personal data to create the evidence, confronts Colin and orders him to change. If only he’d listened to his own words: They’re not gonna change. They don’t have to. Colin, told to march into a board meeting, tell the truth, and pledge never to collect any data again ever, marches into the meeting and instead brags about it. He’s as defiant as Travis Kalanick. He crows that Richard’s new AI analyzes customers’ private data and will make them all billions. Three cheers for Richard! He’s now expected to roll out the AI on the people whom he was trying to protect.
It turns out that Richard, great at algorithms, is bad at blackmail: The board members were all well aware of Colin’s expense account fraud, his coke-snorting on the job, and his affair with one board member’s wife. Their only concern is how soon will Richard be AI-scraping his customer’s home conversations. His heartfelt speech to Congress? Best spin job ever, kid.
I’m not here to tell you what you already know about tech’s ethical vacuum. I’m talking to the real Richards, whose sense of right and wrong twists in your gut. Your ethics will be ridiculed and overruled by people above you, beside you and below you. Here’s what Silicon Valley is trying to tell you: Whatever you choose, don’t presume you can inspire or force tech culture to change. It’s more likely that one self-excused slip at a time, it’ll change you.