Best Business Writing 2014 — Taking on Google, Facebook, and the Ethos of Silicon Valley

The Best Business Writing 2014

The Best Business Writing 2014, edited by Dean Starkman, Martha Hamilton, and Ryan Chittum includes a series of sharp essays on the culture, practice, ethos, and ideology of Silicon Valley. In different ways, Evgeny Morozov, Rebecca Solnit, and Susan Faludi puncture the bubble that surrounds much of our celebration of technology’s impact on society.

In Why We Are Allowed to Hate Silicon Valley, published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Morozov takes a closer look at the intrusive role technology companies such as Google have in our life:

But consider just how weird our current arrangement is. Imagine I told you that the post office could run on a different, innovation-friendly business model. Forget stamps. They cost money—and why pay money when there’s a way to send letters for free? Just think about the world-changing potential: the poor kids in Africa can finally reach you with their pleas for more laptops! So, instead of stamps, we would switch to an advertis­ing-backed system: we’d open every letter that you send, scan its contents, insert a relevant ad, seal it, and then forward it to the recipient.

Sounds crazy? It does. But this is how we have chosen to run our e-mail. In the wake of the NSA scandal and the debacle that is, trust in public institutions runs so low that any alternative arrangement—especially the one that would give pub­lic institutions a greater role—seems unthinkable. But this is only part of the problem. What would happen when some of our long cherished and privately run digital infrastructure begins to crum­ble as companies evolve and change their business models?….

Now that our communication networks are in the hands of the private sector, we should avoid making the same mistake with privacy. We shouldn’t reduce this complex problem to market-based solutions. Alas, thanks to Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial zeal, privatization is already creeping in. Privacy is becoming a commodity. How does one get privacy these days? Just ask any hacker: only by studying how the right tools work. Privacy is no longer something to be taken for granted or enjoyed for free: you have to expend some resources to master the tools. Those re­sources could be money, patience, attention—you might even hire a consultant to do all this for you—but the point is that privacy is becoming expensive.

In her London Review of Books‘s “diary” entry, Google Invades, longtime San Francisco-resident Rebecca Solnit considers howtech companies have turned San Francisco into a “bedroom community” and pushed out minorities and “outsiders” it was once a haven for:

Silicon Valley is … quiet work and here to stay in one form or another. But there are ways in which technology is just another boom and the Bay Area is once again a boomtown, with transient populations, esca­lating housing costs, mass displacements, and the casual erasure of what was here before. I think of it as frontierism, with all the fron­tier’s attitude and operational style, where people without a lot of attachments come and do things without a lot of concern for their impact, where money moves around pretty casually, and people are ground underfoot equally casually. Sometimes the Google Bus just seems like one face of Janus-headed capitalism; it contains the people too valuable even to use public transport or drive them­selves. In the same spaces wander homeless people undeserving of private space or the minimum comfort and security; right by the Google bus stop on Cesar Chavez Street immigrant men from Latin America stand waiting for employers in the building trade to scoop them up, or to be arrested and deported by the government. Both sides of the divide are bleak, and the middle way is hard to find.

Finally, in Facebook Feminism, Like It or Not, originally published in The Baffler Susan Faludi looks at the cult-like status and the many contradictions of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In:

When asked why she isn’t pushing for structural social and economic change, Sandberg says she’s all in favor of “public-policy reform,” though she’s vague about how exactly that would work, beyond generic tsk-tsking about the pay gap and lack of maternity leave. She says she supports reforming the workplace—but the par­ticulars of comparable worth or subsidized child care are hardly prominent elements of her book or her many media appearances.

Sandberg began her TED Talk in December 2010, the trial balloon for the Lean In campaign, with a one-sentence nod to “flex time,” training, and other “programs” that might advance working women, and then declared, “I want to talk about none of that today.” What she wanted to talk about, she said, was “what we can do as individuals” to climb to the top of the command chain.

This clipped, jarring shift from the collective grievances of working women to the feel-good options open to credentialed, professional types is also a pronounced theme in Lean In, the book. In the opening pages, Sandberg acknowledges that “the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet” but goes on to stress that “each subsequent chapter focuses on an adjustment or difference that we can make ourselves.” When asked in a radio interview in Boston about the external barriers women face, Sandberg agreed that women are held back “by dis­crimination and sexism and terrible public policy” and “we should reform all of that,” but then immediately suggested that the concentration on such reforms has been disproportionate, arguing that “the conversation can’t be only about that, and in a lot of ways the conversation on women is usually only about that.” Toward the end of the Q&A period at the Menlo Park event, a student watching online asked, “What would you say to the critics who argue that lower socioeconomic status makes it diffi cult to lean in?” Sandberg replied that leaning in might be even “more important for women who are struggling to make ends meet,” then offered this anecdote as evidence: She had received a fan e-mail from a reader who “never graduated from college” and had gone back to work in 1998 after her husband lost his job. “Until she read Lean In, she had never asked for a raise. And last week, she asked for a raise.” Pause for the drum roll. “And she got it! That’s what this is about.”

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