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The Year Silicon Valley Went Morally Bankrupt

Tech moguls want to remake the world, but in 2016 they behaved as if they owe us no explanation for their decisions.

Saul Loeb / Staff

Peter Thiel has had a very good year. He vanquished Gawker, rode out Trumpism to its triumphant conclusion, and is now poised to influence the incoming administration to his advantage. The president-elect, Thiel said in October, “gets the big things right.” It’s still not clear what exactly those “things” are—Thiel has been publicly vague about the specific policy alignments he shares with Donald Trump—but the two share a certain grandiosity and a disdain for the government, as well as a warped view of what it means to be a good and decent human being.

In Silicon Valley, Thiel has long been a critic of democracy, political correctness, and women who have suffered sexual assault. As the Guardian reported in October, Thiel co-authored a 1995 book that derided Stanford University’s “multiculturalism,” accused the rape crisis movement of “vilifying men,” and referred to date rape as “belated regret.” (He’s since apologized for his “crudely argued statements,” but that’s difficult to believe now thanks to his enthusiastic support for Trump.) “Real diversity requires a diversity of ideas,” he wrote, “not simply a bunch of like-minded activists who resemble the bar scene from Star Wars.”

Thiel has suffered few professional repercussions for his outspoken Trumpism. Y Combinator announced in October that Thiel would remain one of its partners, citing a need to protect a “diversity of opinion.” A few days later, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Thiel would also stay on the board of Facebook. “We can’t create a culture that says it cares about diversity and then excludes almost half the country because they back a political candidate,” he wrote in a memo to staff. “There are many reasons a person might support Trump that do not involve racism, sexism, xenophobia, or accepting sexual assault.” Thiel’s company, Palantir Technologies, may have lost clients this year, but according to Buzzfeed News, this was reportedly due to dissatisfaction with Palantir’s services and not the politics of its owner. There has been some dissent—Ellen Pao’s Project Include ended its relationship with Y Combinator over Thiel—but his exalted position in Silicon Valley remains largely intact.

Thiel’s illiberalism—and the tech industry’s tolerance for it in a year when the measure of human decency was horrifically recalibrated—aren’t anomalies, but evidence of Silicon Valley’s decades-long descent into moral bankruptcy.

The disrupter class has long believed it is in the business of midwifing a new age. In his 1996 manifesto, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” John Perry Barlow broadly addressed the government, declaring cyberspace free of the “tyrannies you seek to impose on us.” “You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear,” he added.

Barlow’s manifesto is undeniably grandiose. “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth,” he announced. “We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.” This was more than an expression of ego. Barlow asserted a moral hierarchy, and in this new order, Silicon Valley outranked the world it had come to transform.

Barlow’s views have since been invoked by everyone from Jeff Jarvis to Jaron Lanier to, of course, Peter Thiel. Free expression, egalitarianism, meritocracy—these are the moral positions the Valley has embraced since its infancy. But there’s always been an anti-democratic undercurrent to the Valley’s utopianism—and Thiel simply ran with it.

A year before Barlow released his manifesto, theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron identified a “heterogenous ideology” emerging from the Valley’s motley assortment of entrepreneurs and hackers. This “Californian Ideology,” they argued, represented “a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies.” But Barbrook and Cameron believed that the Valley’s trenchant libertarianism would prevent it from achieving emancipation for anyone but tech moguls: “Their utopian vision of California depends upon a willful blindness towards the other—much less positive—features of life on the West Coast: racism, poverty, and environmental degradation.” They had identified an early version of Evgeny Morozov’s “solutionism,” which he defined in 2013 as “an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion: whether they are ‘solvable’ with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal.”

By combining left-wing utopianism with right-wing economics, Silicon Valley ensured that Barlow’s grand vision would eventually mutate into the solutionism that dominates the tech industry today. Morality is rarely nice and rarely clean. It is not efficient and it certainly does not maximize profit. Much easier to leave the whole messy business alone.

Silicon Valley’s moral aloofness surfaced repeatedly in 2016. It underpinned the Valley’s tolerance for Thiel, and it also set two of the industry’s biggest stars up to fail in spectacularly public ways.

Facebook’s reluctance to adopt anything resembling a political stance proved to be a godsend to the proprietors of fake news sites during the presidential campaign. The site’s existing policies allow any crackpot with a website to create a page to advertise it and whatever political hyperbole he pleases. Viral posts questioned the integrity of the democratic process, accused Hillary Clinton of selling weapons to ISIS, and claimed that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump. Buzzfeed News found that these stories, though obviously false, typically outperformed real news on the platform, especially in the weeks leading up to the election.

The popularity of fake news, and Facebook’s refusal to stem the tide, caused some Democrats to blame the site for facilitating Trump’s victory, an assertion Zuckerberg vehemently rejects. “Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99 percent of what people see is authentic,” he wrote in a public post. The site will address the issue, he added, but “identifying the ‘truth’ is complicated.”

To Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives, the site’s fake news problem has no political or moral dimensions; it’s a matter of consumer satisfaction that can be resolved by an algorithm. Facebook, as Zuckerberg lectured us this year, is a technology company, not a media company. It is not in the business of making moral judgments.

The consequences of Zuckerberg’s inaction are now clear. On December 4, a North Carolina man brought a loaded weapon into Washington, D.C.’s Comet Ping Pong to investigate a conspiracy theory called #Pizzagate in which Comet is the hub of a child-trafficking ring organized by Democratic Party operatives. The story was popularized by fake news.

If Zuckerberg is living on another moral planet, then Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes inhabits her own universe. This year, she starred in a peculiar and very public morality play when her revolutionary blood-testing technology company virtually collapsed. The Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou first reported in 2015 that Theranos didn’t use its own technology to conduct all the laboratory tests its partners contracted it to perform. We now know his suspicions about Holmes’s claims are correct. After 13 years in business, Theranos still didn’t have a working product. Federal prosecutors are currently investigating the company for fraud and the government also banned Holmes from owning or operating a medical lab for two years. Irate former investors are suing her and so are patients. One says his faulty blood test led to a heart attack.

It was a classic story of Silicon Valley hubris: Holmes tried to build a biotech company despite knowing very little about biotech. That’s not so strange—the world is full of 19-year olds convinced of their own genius—but most don’t convince investors to sink billions into a product that doesn’t actually exist. Holmes sold promises, and her investors never asked for anything more, convinced of her genius. Theranos announced in October that it would close its existing blood-testing facilities, but it’s not going away, and neither is Holmes. The company, with Holmes still its CEO, now claims it’s invented “a miniaturized superlab.” Like Zuckerberg’s insistence that his company wasn’t responsible for algorithms that allowed lies to flourish, Holmes wrapped herself in the truth she wanted to believe. When that logic began to crumble, she only wrapped herself more tightly.

Tech moguls strive to remake the world, but this year they behaved as if they owe us no explanation for their decisions: Peter Thiel destroyed a critical investigative news outlet; Theranos staff responded to John Carreyrou’s reporting by chanting, “Fuck you, Carreyrou!” at an all-hands meeting; Zuckerberg deflected criticism for months, and only recently announced a rough plan to address Facebook’s fake news problem.

Meanwhile, we’re forced to live with the consequences of their decisions: President Trump. Injured patients. Wealthy hucksters and deluded voters. What reason do any of us have to trust Silicon Valley’s vision for our future?

If the Valley wants to create something other than a technocracy that favors authoritarians and punishes their critics, it has to engage with the world it’s trying to change and undertake the messy business of regaining its moral equilibrium. Algorithms can’t solve everything.