Silicon Valley disruptors have shifted from heroes to villains

Silicon Valley start-ups are increasingly seen as villains – and not in a cute loveable Minion kind of way. Image credit: Sarunyu L /

Silicon Valley startups have had a great run at becoming the big disruptors of stodgy old business models. Until their CEOs started acting like jerks. And now they’re starting to lose their rock-star status as the media – and, ironically, Twitter users – increasingly recast them as cartoon villains out to make billions of dollars by wrecking stuff and damn the consequences.

That’s the central thrust of this interesting article from Erin Griffiths at Wired, which reports that media coverage of the Silicon Valley tech scene is turning increasingly negative on several fronts, from Uber’s various scandals and an increasing focus on Silicon Valley’s corporate cultural sexism to worries over the power they have over ordinary people now that technology is becoming so central to our lives:

As headlines have exposed the troubling inner workings of company after company, startup culture no longer feels like fodder for gentle parodies about ping pong and hoodies. It feels ugly and rotten. Facebook, the greatest startup success story of this era, isn’t a merry band of hackers building cutesy tools that allow you to digitally Poke your friends. It’s a powerful and potentially sinister collector of personal data, a propaganda partner to government censors, and an enabler of discriminatory advertising.

It’s quite a turnaround from the late ‘00s, when the Facebooks, Twitters and Ubers of the OTT world were emerging as plucky tech heroes out to make the world a better place at a time when Wall Street greed had just torpedoed the global economy. A few years later, Facebook was out to connect the unconnected, Twitter was helping overthrow dictatorships in the Middle East, and companies like Uber and Airbnb upended the taxi and hotel industries by doing what the incumbents should have been doing in the first place but never would do because they had no commercial incentive to do so.

The honeymoon effectively ended this year thanks in large part to things like the Uber scandals and Mark Zuckerberg’s apparently cavalier attitude towards the problems of fake news and election manipulations, to say nothing of the spectacle of Silicon Valley companies hiring beautiful models to attend company Christmas parties posing as employees, or coming up with business plans to kill neighborhood bodegas, or selling snake oil like “brain-hacking” supplements.

A big part of the problem, Wired reports, is that Silicon Valley is a bubble unto itself that has become so isolated from the way the real world works – and what potential customers might want or find useful – that they’re not only unable to relate to it, they also have no idea why everyone’s so upset, and why government regulators are now starting to get serious about regulating digital businesses over things like data privacy and advertising transparency. I mean, why wouldn’t people think replacing their jobs with AI is totally cool? Why would anyone think a virtual assistant is like wiretapping your house? It’s Amazon and Google doing it, not the government, so it’s not like 1984, right?

None of this is to say that start-ups are a bad thing, of course. And certainly not all start-ups are functioning with this mentality. The Wired article is focused mainly on Silicon Valley, which is a notoriously insular culture. Here in Asia (and certainly elsewhere) we’re seeing everyone from governments, universities and NGOs to operators, vendors and systems integrators funding innovation labs and incubators to help local entrepreneurs and innovators develop their ideas into something at least usable if not always monetizable – and these don’t seem to have the same problems (or at least they haven’t made international headlines yet – well, mostly).

The point is that start-ups – or at least the ones in Silicon Valley – are being forced to reckon with the reality that customer-centricity matters.

There’s a savage, almost poetic irony in this, given than many OTTs got their start by giving consumers considerably more power compared to the incumbents, particularly in the telecoms space, but also in finance, transport, hotels and others. But now at least some are finding out the hard way that it’s one thing to come up with a great tech platform to make people’s lives easier – it’s another to just assume they’ll love whatever you churn out just because it’s clever.

Moreover, more consumers are starting to see the negative side of a Digital Era where companies are collecting massive amounts of data on them (and sometimes selling it, and even losing it), digital services and critical infrastructure are becoming increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks, state-sponsored hackers have apparently figured out how to use social media to manipulate the outcome or democratic elections, and young confident guys are going on CNBC talking about how AI will either automate half the planet out of work or (if it’s Elon Musk) kill us all.

These are legitimate concerns. The level of disruption we’re seeing from digital entrepreneurs is impressive from a tech/business point of view, but at street level it’s confusing, disconcerting or potentially scary – especially in the context of the geopolitical uncertainties and economic volatilities unfolding around the world. We’ve often criticized telecoms players for not being as customer-centric as they should be and for being a bit arrogant in their attitudes towards customers. It seems start-ups aren’t immune from that mentality.

So. Telcos and start-ups alike: be advised.

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