George Packer has a fascinating article on Silicon Valley’s entrée into the political space and the oft-annoying culture of techno-utopianism and insular hype that emerges from the agglomeration of a lot of youngish, smart, prosperous men trying to get even richer by changing the world. In perhaps his most devastating line, Packer writes, “It suddenly occurred to me that the hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up.”
It’s funny and at least somewhat true. But as with a lot of the tech backlash literature, I think it’s important to distinguish between backlash against the ideas and backlash against the hype.
After all, the way Silicon Valley startups are financed essentially guarantees massive overhyping. Founders are trying to get money from venture capitalists and are trying to convince talented employees to work for hard-to-value stock options. Venture capitalists are pursuing a hits strategy, in which a small number of mega-successes are supposed to make up for a larger number of failures. Thanks to network effects, there’s a huge financial incentive to sign up users as quickly as possible. All things considered, it’s a perfect storm of hype. When people go to banks looking for small business loans, they have a large incentive to present themselves as sober-minded people with modest expectations and a firm grasp of downside risk. But when people get into the venture-financed technology game, they’re entering an environment where sober self-presentation virtually ensures failure.
Consequently, almost everything and everyone is overhyped. People misuse the word “disrupting” a lot and fall prey to weird fads. Personally, I don’t find excessive hype to be all that bothersome. I think the media generally suffers from a negativity bias so there’s something a little refreshing about the hype bias. But everyone’s entitled to be annoyed by whatever they like, and I think a lot of people find Silicon Valley hype annoying. The thing to remember is that it’s structural and inevitable. A good idea will be described as a great one. A great idea will be described as a history-shaking game-changer. And a cynic will be able to pierce the hype and cut the hypesters down to size. But a good idea misdescribed as a great one is still a good idea, and a good idea is still a valuable thing to have. Uber is not going to transform human existence by making it slightly easier to get a ride home from the bar at night. But it is making some customers’ lives somewhat better, increasing some drivers’ incomes somewhat, and by cutting down on drunk driving probably even saving a life or two. It’s not the worst kind of project for people to work on.