The default interpretation for the above pattern is that the light source is coming from above. My default view of Silicon Valley is that its primary goal is to improve the human condition. Accomplishing that goal through the vehicle of profit-driven companies just happens to be the most efficient way to do so. There is an alternative perspective however, where the light source is at the bottom and the white sections form the undersides of the cubes. These days I keep seeing this version of Silicon Valley, where improving the human condition is vacuous and ultimately always second to delivering ever larger profits.
This flipped perspective pervades my judgement of everything nowadays. It’s not an optical illusion, I’m just disillusioned. I can no longer see Silicon Valley companies as means for tackling meaningful problems. I see them for what they are, an endless variety of the same machine. Each taking in money and then trying to spit out more money. Or should I say, deliver a return on investment. All while chugging away at superfluous yet utterly critical “user needs”. This inverted view is treacherous because it reveals that all mission statements and corporate values can be bought given the right price. Shareholder primacy is not something that Silicon Valley has magically outsmarted. Capital demands its return, mission and values be damned.
In reflecting on why I’m encumbered with this cynical view, I’ve identified two possible sources. The first is the meta-context of the Trump presidency. Witnessing corruption flourish unchecked for 4 out of the 5 years I’ve been a working professional has undoubtedly infected my worldview. The sheer lack of accountability in the sphere of politics has fostered a total breakdown of trust in institutions. If the US Government can be so thoroughly abused with no consequence, is it unreasonable to be skeptical of tech executives’ quests for enrichment.
The second source is working in Silicon Valley itself. What’s battered my spirit isn’t some malicious profit over everything strategy, but seeing good people succumb to the unceasing pressure to optimize for financial returns time after time. The number of “How do we monetize this” conversations I’ve led, been a part of, or overheard has left my eyes constantly searching for where value can be extracted. It’s the lack of an evil plot or a super villain that makes things so disheartening. Money runs the world after all, and it’s my own naïveté to assume that anything else can truly take precedence. The drive for return on investment creeps into every nook and cranny. It’s corrosiveness knows no bounds.
Despite constantly seeing the inverted perspective, the original interpretation somehow stays ever present. The path forwards involves explicit analysis of the alignment between desired impact and financial returns. Knowing that the profit motive is all consuming, the solution is to ensure the tightest coupling between impact and returns. Continually evaluating decisions on whether they maintain alignment or introduce misalignment is necessary and currently lacking in my experience. A new standard for the definition of improving the human condition is also desperately needed. It won’t be easy given that actual improvement means tackling much tougher problems. Alignment analysis and higher standards for impact can restore stability to my original perspective of Silicon Valley.
Having spent long enough staring at this pattern, it’s more immediately useful to believe in the default view. However, the inverted perspective serves as a reminder to stay ever vigilant of the incessant need for profit to place itself above all else.