The Introduction provides an overview of the background and development of the book and the key questions that underlie its purpose. This section explains the importance of understanding the psychological norms that underpin the tech industry, as well as the values that shape the behaviors of Silicon Valley and the knock-on effects these have on our world.
It is one of life’s more amusing truths that we very rarely find what we set out in search of—nor do we usually end up exactly where we meant to go. That is the case with almost everything in my life and, thankfully, it holds true for this book as well.
Without realizing it, this work began taking shape in 2013. Like many people, I was becoming a little unnerved by the pace and scope of technology—how untested it seemed, how omnipresent and seductive. I would watch toddlers glued to iPads, parents glued to smartphones, and the rest of us chained to one device or another. I wondered what the effects would be, 20 years down the line, when it might be too late to do anything about it. A psychology nerd at heart, I was particularly worried about how these shiny little black boxes might affect our mental health and wellbeing , while the romantic in me wondered how they would change our relationships.
Two years later, my questions had snowballed dramatically. I ran a non-profit that looked at the effects of technology, co-founded awareness campaigns, and gave talks on any tech-related subject whenever I was able (despite a deep dislike of public speaking). I was probably the last person you’d want to get stuck talking to at a party, so precise was my ability to steer any conversation into a discussion about the human and social impacts of technology. What began as a concern about how technology impacts our wellbeing had evolved into a study of how tech affects society more broadly. I researched how technology was changing our institutions, our interactions, the way we work, our understanding of privacy, and the very notion of truth and information. But I knew I hadn’t found what tied it all together.
After years of studying how tech was changing our world—and whether it was changing us—my questions circled back to psychology; but instead of wondering about the psychological effects technology was having on us, I started to wonder about the psychology that was creating technology itself. This book is a result of that question. It is an attempt to explore the thinking and behaviors present in Silicon Valley, how these are defining the world that is being built, how that is positive, and how it is not.
While many books have usefully outlined what is happening in Silicon Valley, fewer have attempted to explore why. The first part of this book looks at the psychology of the industry—its identity, culture, myths, and motivations. Each chapter begins with a short introduction to the psychological components of these terms, then explores how they are relevant to the mindset or behaviors of Silicon Valley. The second part explores some of the major social impacts linked to the spread of technology—misinformation, the decline of democracy , wealth and income inequality , changes to employment , and mental health , relationships, and cognition—and how the psychology of tech may have contributed to or enabled these. The third and final part looks at the psychological and leadership qualities that are either missing or socially maladaptive within Silicon Valley and what we can do to course-correct the industry.
A few caveats before we get started.
It is not the intention of this book to shame or cast blame, but to draw attention to behavioral norms within the industry that are unhealthy or harmful to society. When it comes to its beliefs, behaviors, and choices—the building blocks of its psychology—the tech industry could use some help, of the kind that cannot be engineered away. I hope this book fosters some useful discussions and positive changes towards that end.
Nor is it the intent of this study to ‘diagnose’ the whole of Silicon Valley, an exercise that is as impossible as it would be unhelpful. Rather, this book will borrow ideas and frameworks used to understand psychological processes and apply them to the tech industry. It will look at trends and behaviors that establish the standards and conventions of Silicon Valley. It will not aim to label, but to explore and shed light on the dynamics that inform the culture of the tech industry—its beliefs, values, and motivations. Unlike personal psychology, industrial, cultural, and organizational psychology each require generalizations, which capture systemic issues but often leave out the voices and nuance of individual experience. While I have attempted to retain personal accounts by including interviews, a broad range of research, and detailed analysis, I am conscious that at times these must give way to the larger themes and psychological commonalities of the industry, which are the focus of this study. Thus, this book will likely disappoint anyone searching for a panacea for all tech’s problems. What I hope it can offer is a collection of observations about the psychology of the tech industry and a different way of thinking about how we might address the unique and urgent issues that mindset has created.
Defining the tech industry is another ambiguous starting point. While the field of technology was more contained when I first began researching its effects, it has since become a layer over everything. To help clarify the scope of what the following chapters explore, I borrow Jamie Bartlett’s definition, which refers to the modern tech industry “specifically [as] the digital technologies associated with Silicon Valley—social media platforms, big data, mobile technology and artificial intelligence—that are increasingly dominating economic, political and social life.”1 There is also the issue of categorization. Azeem Azhar has rightfully pointed out that not all tech companies are created equal; when we talk about the tech industry, there is a danger of conflating the Facebooks, Googles, and Twitters of the world with “small-t technology.” This risks the possibility that “[t]he real (and exaggerated) misbehaviour, stubbornness and obnoxiousness of… the Big-T Tech industry might spill over into a general diminution of faith in small-t technology.”2 To address this, Azhar has called for “two different strategies: one to tackle the power, where it distorts, of bigtech, and another to critically evaluate, steer and design the direction of small-t technology” in a way that is consistent with social values.3 This book aims both to explore the power dynamics, attitudes, and behaviors of big tech, and consider the future direction of technology more broadly, with particular attention to the industry’s ethics.
Despite the difficulties of definition and containment, it is my hope that the following pages foster a deeper understanding of the tech industry that allow us to begin answering important questions about the future. What types of thinking and beliefs define the industry? What voices and perspectives are missing? Is the leadership of the quality we expect? How can we build on what works and challenge what doesn’t? And, most importantly, how can we ensure the products and platforms of Silicon Valley contribute to a world that ensures technology provides the best possible future for the greatest number of people?
The purpose of this book is not to suggest that we have a problem, but rather that we have a multitude of opportunities to shape the kind of future we imagine: a future grounded in awareness, responsible motivations, sound social values, and more ethical technology. I also hope to convey that these challenges are not Silicon Valley’s alone to answer. The social and economic conditions that have enabled the challenges we face were realized and condoned collectively, and we are responsible for solving them together.
Like me, and perhaps like you, Silicon Valley has not ended up where it set out to go. It has certainly progressed, but perhaps not in the direction any of us imagined or in the way we would like to see it continue. Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, has called the current, centralized version of the internet “anti-human” and argued that it has failed humanity, rather than serving it.4 MIT professor, internet activist, and tech pioneer Ethan Zuckerman has deemed the modern web a “fiasco.”5 Indeed, Silicon Valley’s promise to make the world a better place seems increasingly hollow as it becomes clear that its values and intentions have been corrupted by a system that continues to prioritize the wrong things: profits, shareholders, consumption. Most compellingly, to my mind, it has undergone a profound shift from the thinking and psychological tenets on which it was founded, resulting in both an industry-wide identity crisis and a range of social impacts with which we are now grappling.
Strictly speaking, this book is a story about the psychology of an industry and the people who comprise it. It is also, however, a story about progress, about myths, philosophy, economics, and ethics. About how society is changing and how we keep up. It is a story about values. Above all, it is a story about the way things are, and an invitation to imagine how they might be different. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.
Bartlett, J. (2018). The People vs Tech: How the Internet is Killing Democracy (and How We Save It) (p. 1). New York: Penguin.
Azhar, A. (2018, November 17). Oh, Facebook! IQ, Speeding Evolution, Slowing Science; Designing Chatbots; Chomsky vs Piaget; Clothes Rental, Exoplanets, the Poop Catalogue++ #192. Retrieved from https://mailchi.mp/exponentialview/ev192?e=4998896507
Brooker, K. (2018, August). “I was Devastated”: The Man Who Created the World Wide Web has Some Regrets. Retrieved August 18, 2018, from The Hive website: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2018/07/the-man-who-created-the-world-wide-web-has-some-regrets
Zuckerman, E. (2014, August 14). The Internet’s Original Sin. Retrieved May 23, 2019, from The Atlantic website: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/08/advertising-is-the-internets-original-sin/376041/
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