What’s wrong with Silicon Valley? Dr Katy Cook, a psychologist, interviewed more than 200 tech industry workers, to provide a kind of psychoanalysis of its culture. The results are not encouraging, although she stresses that the people themselves aren’t the problem: “no-one I met was evil ...Every one of them was a nice person”.
Cook is interested in the values and motives of the big tech companies, where, she says, there’s been a profound shift. The original, somewhat hippyish values - things like sharing, freedom and the open source source movement - have been replaced by a new set centred on profits, shareholder value and market dominance. That change “represents what we might expect from any person or group in a position of unchecked power”.
She describes it as a “hyper-capitalist system ...this kind of extractive advertising-based world.” In her book, The Psychology of Silicon Valley, Cook diagnoses the root of the problem as a lack of emotional intelligence within some of these companies. As a consultant, it’s something she is in the business of trying to help companies tackle.
But Cook’s thesis has implications for all of us as she also claims that the products of the big tech companies reflect their values. Brilliant minds are at work but they are drawn from a narrow range of backgrounds. The lack of diversity in the Valley leads to the extraordinary concentration of resources on ‘problems’ that would hardly be recognised beyond its narrow wealthy, mostly-male demographics.
Cook has some fun with this, describing the startup that created a service which sent a car to your car at home to fill it with petrol, to eliminate the ‘pain point’ of having to visit a garage. Or there’s the expensive high tech Juicero kitchen gadget which empties an expensive, specially-produced bag of fruit juice into a glass - when it turns out that you can easily do that yourself by squeezing the bag, with no help needed from a machine.
When it comes to the growing Bitcoin SV ecosystem, Cook suggests that in terms of values, there are lessons to be learnt from the Internet and Silicon Valley experience: “you have the advantage of having witnessed the last 20 years - and the pitfalls of not behaving in a way that's legally responsible [or is] ethically dubious. I think you have a good model for how not to act too which is just as important”.
Indeed, some painful examples of tech companies that found themselves in trouble could act as powerful warnings: “no-one wants to be on the cover of Time magazine looking like a battered man like Mark Zuckerberg”.
On the other hand, like it or not, millions of people have been forced to rely on the tech companies in a way they never have before during the pandemic lockdowns. Cook notes that Silicon Valley “hasn't had a lot of bad PR” in the past few months.
But users have had a chance to test tech services beyond what they probably ever wanted: ”I think the fact that we're spending so much time on technology makes a lot of people cognizant of the fact that they would rather spend time with people in real life and would rather go out to a restaurant or have an in-person conversation. It doesn't feel emotionally good to be in front of a screen as much as we are right now.”
You can download a free ebook version of Katy Cook’s ‘The Psychology of Silicon Valley’ from her website and find a link to order a print copy on Amazon.