With the current backlash against tech, Silicon Valley is struggling to define its place in the world. Is it a crucible for big ideas or an engine of inequality that lacks a moral compass? A bit of both, perhaps? A panel in the Tradeshift Sanctuary at Davos last week explored its present and future.
Silicon Valley still nurtures big ideas, but it has lost the innocence that characterized its early years of builders and dreamers, said Christian Lanng, Co-founder and CEO of Tradeshift. The rise of social networks and online advertising has brought the region immense power, but perhaps more than it can handle.
“Silicon Valley in the last few years has really struggled to come to terms with what it means to have that power,” he said.
It’s also become fixated on achieving massive scale and lost sight of what it means to build something truly useful.
Lanng recalled Steve Jobs’ famous question to John Sculley, then CEO of Pepsi: “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”
We could ask the same of Silicon Valley companies today, Lanng said.
The problems don’t stem from malicious intent, said Samantha Stein, a tech commentator, but the results have had “stark unintended consequences.” She attributes it to a collision of technology and culture. People became obsessed with their online reputations, which fueled a kind of narcissism that has allowed outside actors to influence an election.
Innovators are starting to move elsewhere, the panelists said. Sky high rents and the intense war for talent have forced people to look beyond the Valley. Builders want somewhere away from the noise where they can “be invisible” and focus on creating products, said Luke Nosek, a managing partner with Gigafund and a PayPal Co-founder.
Berlin, Sao Paulo and Tel Aviv are attractive locales, Stein said, as well as some African cities including Lagos, Accra and Nairobi.
So what of Silicon Valley? Lanng believes it needs a reset. Elon Musk was recently criticized for smoking a joint during an interview, he noted, while Facebook executives “pretty much lied to Congress and didn’t get in trouble.”
“The priorities and moral compasses have gotten spun around,” he said.
To put it right, the panelists expressed more faith in the builders and tinkerers who characterized early Silicon Valley than the current crop of entrepreneurs and VCs.
“I actually trust the nerds more,” said Nosek.
A bit of recklessness isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Lanng said, but it needs to be of the right kind. “We need reckless builders, not reckless takers,” he said.