I was out with a friend who works for a big tech company when I asked if he was dating anyone. He answered in the affirmative and said that the girl worked at Goldman Sachs. “The Man,” he muttered.
The irony of his statement was not lost on me. These days big tech companies — sometimes called “FAAAM” or “the frightful five” — are resembling “the Man.”
As a recent article by Mike Monteiro points out, the early days of Silicon Valley were full of promise and hope.
“We didn’t need permission, we were gonna build a new way of communicating and everyone was gonna have a voice in this new world.”
But that hopeful dream has started to sour. Tech companies created by pioneering idealists are now controlled by profit-driven boards. In Twitter’s case, Monteiro argues, it has become an enabler of abuse and misinformation.
Are any of the frightful five free from this trend? Let’s take a look.
One of Facebook’s early mottos was “move fast and break things.” Its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was a programmer, and engineers rule Facebook-land. But recent events may be eroding morale.
Zuckerberg famously denied Facebook’s role in influencing 2016 voters, calling it a “crazy” idea. He later admitted fault, and the company has agreed to hand over some 3,000 ads bought by Russian operatives.
Facebook has changed the way we consume media, and was influential in electing one of the country’s most disliked presidents. Take this quote from Steve Bannon, from a piece by the Atlantic:
“I wouldn’t have come aboard, even for Trump, if I hadn’t known they were building this massive Facebook and data engine. Facebook is what propelled Breitbart to a massive audience. We know its power.”
Add to this what appears to be the bottoming out of innovation in Facebook’s products. When they couldn’t buy Snapchat (as they did Instagram and Whatsapp), they copied its features verbatim. Sounds like the type of behavior you would see from a company interested in turning a profit more than in “changing the world.”
One of Google’s early mottos was “do no evil.” It too is coming under increasing scrutiny. Remember the Google engineer who published a “manifesto” on gender differences in engineering? The fact that such a person thrived in the Google system calls into question the company’s hiring practices.
Google has been scrutinized as having a monopoly over digital advertising, and, like Facebook, has been identified as a conduit for misinformation. YouTube, owned by Google, does a fairly poor job of filtering hate speech and death threats. I recently discovered this while watching a speech by the mayor of New Orleans.
The joke about Amazon is that they want to take over the world. It has arguably caused the collapse of many retail companies, and will likely deliver the final blow to many more.
Amazon has been reported to have a cutthroat company culture, and has been scrutinized for poor working conditions in its factories. It was also recently criticized for disrupting its hometown, Seattle, in much the same way that other tech companies have affected the Bay Area.
4 & 5. Microsoft and Apple
I chose to lump these two together, for the sake of brevity and because they face similar futures. Both have a large market share from a cash cow product (iPhone, Windows), and both are struggling to innovate.
Both have been criticized for having monopolistic tendencies. Microsoft was very aggressive in this vain in the early days of the Internet era, and Apple has tried hard to insulate its customers from competitors.
Apple is an aggressive patent defender, which can stifle innovation. Microsoft has helped develop a business ecosystem that depends on its core product, Windows, and is often beholden to its security weaknesses. In either case, both companies are extremely profit-driven, much like other corporations.
There are many positive reasons to work for any of the above companies. You can certainly have an impact by shaping products that will be used by billions of people. But don’t think that your company is “changing the world” while banks and other businesses are “the Man.” That is wildly inaccurate.
No tech company is perfect and they all have flaws. Any publicly-traded or VC-backed company is obligated to make a profit for its shareholders. That rule applies to Silicon Valley as much as it does for big banks. If you really want to change the world, start your own company. Join a non-profit. Run for public office. Just don’t carry the delusion that by working for a big tech company you are better or different from everyone else.
With all of this negative attention being directed at tech companies, maybe Goldman Sachs doesn’t look so bad.
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