Does Silicon Valley Really Spend All Day Debating Politics?
One of my favorite ways to kill time is to read articles about Silicon Valley culture. It’s always an article written by a journalist who lives in some other place, who embeds him or herself in some siloed-off Silicon Valley subculture (the VC world, Googlers, blockchain entrepreneurs), and goes on to write an article as if the entire Bay Area is exactly like the subculture that they saw. That’s how you get a million articles like ‘Silicon Valley is obsessed with Soylent!’ (never mind that most people in Silicon Valley see Soylent as a bizarre novelty). Or ‘Everybody is Riding Electric Scooters to Work in Silicon Valley!’ (never mind that most of San Jose is a zigzag of highways where riding an electric scooter is quite hazardous, and even in San Francisco I see more people goofing off on scooters in Golden Gate Park than riding them to work on Market Street). Or ‘Everyone’s Living in Vans in the parking lots of tech companies!’ (one person — there was one person who did this, and hats off to him for saving on rent).
In spite of how click-baity these articles are, I always get a good laugh out of them. It feels like I’m reading a bizarro Onion article about the place where I live and work. Recently, a lot of articles have been written about political discussions in Silicon Valley companies — and whether those companies discriminate against people with conservative political views. Once again, the people writing these articles have taken a small slice of Silicon Valley culture (specifically, the workplace norms at Google and Facebook) and extrapolated it to all of the other companies and people here. In reality, most Silicon Valley companies don’t have a culture that constantly encourages open political discussion. Many of them are like traditional companies, where politics and religion are carefully tread topics among co-workers, while water cooler conversations tend towards “safe” topics like sports, raising children and the housing market. In fact, at the Silicon Valley offices of tech companies like Intel, Cisco, Microsoft, and Juniper Networks, most employees are first generation immigrants. Quite often, they’re more interested in discussing the politics of their native homelands than in discussing American politics (which can be a confusing jumble, even to American citizens like myself). And for those working in customer facing roles like technology sales, marketing and business development, politics is a well known Third Rail to avoid in conversation lest they offend their customers’ sensitivities. There’s also a large “geeky” Silent Majority in Silicon Valley that seems focused on pursuits like the latest machine learning algorithms and games of Settlers of Cataan than what’s happening in Washington D.C. For most of Silicon Valley, the idea of freely discussing politics at work seems not only strange, but detrimental to their career.
So why, specifically at Google and Facebook, is there this culture of open political discussion? My Googler friends have told me that Google founder Sergey Brin’s family had been persecuted for their religious and political views in the former Soviet Union, and as a reaction against that, Sergey wanted to create an incredibly open culture of debate at Google. Certainly, this is a noble sentiment that has contributed to Google’s ability to churn out amazing innovations, but it has shown to morph into quite a biased political conspiracy within the company. Meanwhile, companies like Facebook and Twitter, as platforms that encourages people to share their thoughts, can naturally gravitate towards corporate cultures that encourage a similar sort of group think. These companies evolve to have a culture like this because they are not just “tech companies,” but behave like media companies. Think about it: we get most of our news and entertainment from companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter. The problem is, media companies usually contain political bias.
Companies that have a culture of communication and debate like to say that their openness allows new ideas and innovations to spring up. I agree — to an extent. As the James Damore case at Google showed, sometimes the parameters of the debate can become so heated that employees become distracted from their work. Many view Google’s policies around diversity and inclusion to be divisive, while others found Damore’s response about such policies to be reprehensible — I’m not arguing either way in this article. As the controversy played out in the media, I read reports of Google employees spending entire weeks debating Damore’s memo on internal company forums. As a Google shareholder, my first thought when I heard that was: “Where’s my self-driving car, guys?” Debating politics is all well and good, but if you’re spending all day doing that, I’m never going to get my self-driving car. As a Google shareholder, I see the whole fiasco around James Damore and Google’s left-leaning cultural push as a distraction from creating more innovations and greater profits in the company. Silicon Valley is the nexus of our hyper-capitalist society. Enriching our world and providing value through technology is a sentiment that most tech companies in Silicon Valley follow — not politics.
At the same time, companies that don’t encourage open political debate and free speech can feel staid and stunted. Given the interconnected nature of creativity and ideas, debating everything — from politics to science, to religion, to sports, to the best cocktail bars — can lead people to amazing new ideas. It seems like there’s a middle ground, where the “old guard” Silicon Valley companies like Intel, Cisco and Microsoft can learn something about openness and debate from the “new guard” companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook — and at the same time, the “new guard” companies can learn a bit about tact and discretion from the “old guard”.