from Project Syndicate
If Socrates’s gadfly was in Silicon Valley, it would have a lot of lazy horses to sting. The citizens of the techno-polis appear oblivious to how the outside world’s perception of them has changed, and radically so. Once universally revered as a hotbed of innovation, the world’s premier technology hub is increasingly viewed with suspicion and resentment.
Yes, Silicon Valley is still admired as a source of invention and creative destruction; but it is also widely viewed as having lost its ethical compass. With proliferating reports of lax attitudes toward data privacy, wanton disregard for the dignity of the less fortunate, and a growing sense that technology companies are pushing their preferred policy agenda on the rest of the world, discontent and disillusion are rising.
Viewed from outside, the world sees companies that exude a sense of entitlement – for example, by flouting local regulations as they expand into cities around the world, from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro. Supremely confident in the power of their knowledge and skills, they are convinced that they will guide the world onto the Path of Truth. This overweening certitude is not new – the United States, after all, was founded on missionary zeal – but the ethical arrogance is.
Of course, not all technology companies should be tarred with the same brush as the main offenders. But the recent spate of high-profile cases harms the reputation of the sector as a whole. As the world looks to Silicon Valley and sees an echo chamber of self-righteous conceit, mature and law-abiding technology companies are assumed to be inside it, too.
The cases are becoming legion. Uber, the data-abusing car-sharing app that spikes prices during peak demand and threatens journalists who write negatively about it, has been banned in Spain, the Netherlands, Thailand, and two Indian cities so far, including New Delhi (after a driver allegedly raped a passenger). These reports follow the revelation that pictures shared on Snapchat may not be deleted, as promised. In August, Brazilian authorities banned the social-networking app Secret after the company failed to respond to cyberbullying concerns, with Israel considering a similar move. The list goes on.
Silicon Valley is risking a backlash that will not do anyone any good. Its leaders are increasingly out of step with the public’s expectation of ethical and conscientious behavior. If they fail to generate new ideas and devise novel approaches, their problems will only multiply further.