The DisruptersSilicon Valley elites’ vision of the future
In just ten years, Facebook built a global empire that surpassed General Electric in market value—and did it with just 4 percent of the Old Economy giant’s workforce: 12,000, compared with 300,000. Whatsapp, a recent Facebook acquisition, managed an even more impressive wealth-to-labor ratio, with a $19 billion value and just 55 employees. Combined, both companies reach roughly one-sixth of humanity. Facebook’s entertainment colleague just to the south, Netflix, crushed Blockbuster’s mammoth national network of 9,000 stores and 60,000 employees with its more nimble workforce of just 3,700 employees. It’s easy to see why: for just $10 a month, Netflix consumers could enjoy an unlimited video library larger than any of Blockbuster’s retail shops, without ever having to find their car keys. Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy protection in 2010.
Blockbuster’s fate has been duplicated many times. The Silicon Valley economy has caused massive disruption of traditional business and business models—in the process, making a relatively small cadre of brilliant engineers staggeringly wealthy. Until now, these dislocations, while profound, have been reasonably manageable. But in the years ahead, a vast new range of technological innovation—from self-driving cars to robots—may make the disruptions we have seen so far look tame. In this coming world, driven by innovation and powered by individual brilliance, what role will “normal” employees and small-business owners have?
I sought to learn how the tech elite would answer these and other questions, and how they think more broadly, by polling dozens of start-up founders and conducting interviews with a handful of notable billionaires. To my knowledge, mine is the first representative opinion poll of tech founders, thanks to connections I made during my time directing political writing for the Valley’s premier tech blog, TechCrunch. At the time, TechCrunch owned an exhaustive, user-generated database of start-up founders and investors, called Crunchbase. It was an insider’s source for all things tech—the Wikipedia of Silicon Valley. I obtained the e-mail addresses of every founder and cofounder in the database and got many of them to answer a long battery of political and psychological questions, on everything from their thoughts on human nature to energy policy. To ensure that the sample wasn’t biased by my own connections, I randomly e-mailed thousands of founders on the list. A total of 147 founders made it into my final sample. I supplemented my randomized sample with direct outreach to a few billionaires and household names in tech (such as the founder of Craigslist, Craig Newmark, who isn’t a billionaire but did create one of the most widely used websites in the world).
As far as the future of innovation and its impact on ordinary people, the most common answer I received in Silicon Valley was this: over the (very) long run, an increasingly greater share of economic wealth will be generated by a smaller slice of very talented or original people. Everyone else will increasingly subsist on some combination of part-time entrepreneurial “gig work” and government aid. The way the Valley elite see it, everyone can try to be an entrepreneur; some small percentage will achieve wild success and create enough wealth that others can live comfortably. Many tech leaders appear optimistic that this type of economy will provide the vast majority of people with unprecedented prosperity and leisure, though no one quite knows when.
My aim in conducting this survey was to discover and report on the long-term economic vision of tech leaders, who are beginning to take on a broader role as public leaders. As such, I explore here two main themes. The first is the economic ideal of the elite and how their technologies shape their vision of an entrepreneurial yet unequal society. The second is Silicon Valley’s uniquely pro-government political ideology and how it feeds into its solution for the displacements that automation and transformation will cause: a universal basic income.