Imagine a world in which Facebook was located at “One Public Interest Technology Way.”
It’s hard to imagine. After all, in our lifetime, the role of much of Silicon Valley has simply been to create great tech and, in Facebook’s case, bring people together. As Facebook’s recent announcement to allow political misinformation to flourish on the platform shows, the company doesn’t think too deeply about the big picture of democracy’s needs. This chasm of realities is on full display in the debate over Facebook’s proposed digital currency, Libra.
It should surprise nobody, then, that the company is located at One Hacker Way.
The hacker ethos remains with the company, even at its current size. The way of the hacker is to live outside the system, to find ways to exploit the system, but by no means to be the system. Respect is gained by how much you can circumvent barriers in the network. Being a hacker is to be part of a discrete community.
Unfortunately, this type of disaffected communitarianism, scaled up doesn’t support the rules-based outcomes needed for a successful democracy. It’s not that Facebook or Zuckerberg see themselves as hackers. But the hacker culture drives the flawed understanding of the broader world in which if you code it elegantly enough, everything else will fall into place.
Why does the arc of Silicon Valley bend in this direction? It goes back to the sector’s communitarian roots.
Today, the underlying communitarian hacker ethos in the Western tech world threatens to overturn the political system itself.
This disconnect between tech and the political needs of a democratic society is the subject of a speech by security expert Bruce Schneier, in a recent appeal for the growth of public-minded technologists.
Schneier quite rightly observes:
Historically, programmers have been given an inherent right to code the as they saw fit because historically, it didn’t matter.
Technology consisted of tools.
Now it does matter and that privilege needs to end.
Technology is deeply embedded in society.
And the work technologists do affect the world we live in – in a very human way.
Technology is social, it’s political, it’s economic.
It’s a complex system that’s bigger than any one academic discipline.
If we’re honest with ourselves, it never was ok for technology to be separate from policy.
It’s just that today the separation is much more dangerous.
We need technologists in all aspects of public interest work: informing policy, creating tools, building the future
…We need people who can speak tech to power, and we need them now.
This is a reality so obvious, it’s easy to overlook. It explains the disconnect between Silicon Valley and Washington and Silicon Valley’s interaction with Washington.
Addressing the disconnect between the tech world and political world is key to addressing the longer-term challenges technological change presents to our democratic future. More attention should be placed here.