The PayPal mafia are the new Baldwin brothers, says Milo Yiannopoulos, who wonders if Silicon Valley has become a hit-driven entertainment business that’s ultimately unproductive for the American economy.
One of my favourite journalists is The Register’s Andrew Orlowski. He’s fabulously readable, consistently on the money and asks tough questions of supposedly sacred cows. His polemical but professional style makes him unmissable and, I hope he won’t mind me saying, was very much part of my overall editorial vision for The Kernel.
Andrew recently drew my attention to a fascinating article by Ashlee Vance that appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek in April 2011. Its premise is that the social networking revolution, unlike the dot com bust, will leave us with very little after the inevitable crash. It’s a brave argument: one worthy of Andrew himself.
But I’d like us to dwell today on a cultural aside the author makes, because I think it’s instructive: Vance says that Silicon Valley is becoming ever more like Hollywood. What’s meant by this is that the San Francisco’s ecosystem increasingly resembles the dysfunctional, hit-driven entertainment business of its southern counterpart, Los Angeles.
Vance quotes Glenn Kelman, chief executive of online brokerage Redfin: “My fear is that Silicon Valley has become more like Hollywood – an entertainment-oriented, hit-driven business that doesn’t fundamentally increase American competitiveness.”
In light of the events of the past year, it seems to me there is reason not only to concur with this analysis as it was made, in April 2011, but even to suspect that the process of Hollywoodisation in the Bay Area is accelerating. This isn’t just an economic argument. The cultural fabric of Silicon Valley is becoming dangerously warped by Hollywoodesque habits.
Already in 2010, The Social Network had brought the two worlds of San Francisco and Los Angeles into violent collision. The feedback effect was inevitable: when Sean Parker spent millions of dollars on a lavish party to celebrate Spotify’s integration into Facebook, with extravagant food, big-name DJs and Snoop Dogg brought in to entertain his guests, the cycle of life imitating art was complete. We were back in 2001, only, this time, the cameras were rolling 24/7.
And what a strange place the world has been since, with Parker giving interviews to the New York Times about the terrible trials of fame. Poor lamb. Close your eyes and he could be any Hollywood A-lister whingeing disingenuously about how intrusive the press have been since his latest blockbuster.
If politics is showbusiness for ugly people, the technology industry is a burlesque striptease by bespectacled social misfits. The endless whirligig of panels, conferences, “mentoring” and God knows what else. And let’s not even get started on the extraordinary lavishness of the Summit Series events, which are uncannily similar to Beverly Hills parties I attended while living in LA in 2008.
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Unlike actors, who spend the majority of the year enjoying downtime and spending the money they made from their last movie, start-up entrepreneurs do have somewhere better to be. The office.
Yet a culture of excessive narcissism and self-indulgence is taking hold and being replicated among acolytes. One need only look at the tiresome soap opera at TechCrunch to see how deeply the rot has set in further down the food chain.
A cult of personality in American tech blogging is nothing new, but there’s a difference between Robert Scoble, who has paid his dues, and the hordes of talentless apes clogging up offices in downtown San Francisco, desperately in search of scoops like so many monkeys at keyboards. Tweeting as they go, of course.
Several of TechCrunch’s former employees are friends of mine, which makes it awkward for me to be frank. But here goes. The inability of that stable’s offspring to remove themselves from the stories they are writing about is the reason these people are not taken seriously, for all the power they supposedly have.
I glanced over Sarah Lacy’s new effort and was mesmerised by an assault of many vertical pronouns. “Me, me, me, me, me,” only takes you so far when you’ve nothing actually to say. Sarah does, it’s disappointing not to see her lead by better example.
Back at TechCrunch, how odd that a news-breaking service should devote so much time to discussion of itself and its employees. It betrays amateurism and a desperate arrogance. A sense that everyone on the site knows they’re winging it.
What an unedifying spectacle to see staffer after staffer quit in a flurry of hastily and in some cases mildly sneakily published words. I look forward to our own Mike Butcher’s coup de grâce soon.
How preposterous that a reporter known best for his slavish devotion to consumer electronics products and his ability to turn facile observations into 900 word blog posts should now be advertising himself as a venture capitalist.
And what a sorry indictment on the technology scene in Silicon Valley that it did not demand better than this dross.
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Now, the aforesaid cult of the personality is all-consuming and self-reinforcing: whether it’s earnest tweeting from angel investors every dreamer with a laptop wants to meet, or posturing, ill-educated bloggers masquerading as serious journalists, now all that matters is that you build a persona, wangle your way onto a panel and let the conference circuit feedback loop do the rest.
To be sure, Americans have it better. I’d rather a soap opera than the tedious drivel cascading out of European technology sites. But it does say something about the culture of the West Coast that founders are so willing to put up with attention-seeking antics from unpleasant, unqualified and unprofessional people.
The cult of the founder, of the pundit, of the investor, of the author: all these things have been gilded and ameliorated by a social media epidemic spawned in the Valley, which encourages us to talk about people instead of ideas. Providence is everything. It seems odd, then, that some of the most unpleasant people on the planet have risen to the top.
Look at the crowing from start-ups who get cash from a well-known investor or fund. The investment process has been gamified: prominent angels are now badges to be won after elaborate, document-laden courtship rituals.
Does a celebrity investor add significant value? In some cases, it’s difficult to say. But the septic tank of the start-up funding ecosystem means that there are a few particularly choice turds who never fall out of demand.
An ephemeral understanding of success, spurred on by the desperate excesses of the venture capital industry, does little to dissuade founders from aiming for the quick hit or death.
Few are remodelling the world around them, as the blog and conference rhetoric likes to claim. “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” says former Facebook employee Jeff Hammerbacher. “That sucks.”
There’s a simple reason things work like this: money. VCs have worked out the formula for a start-up that can be flipped, and it’s a bit like hiring Jennifer Aniston for a rom com: guaranteed financial success, even if she never gets the Oscar.
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There is one difference between the Valley and the Hills, and it’s the reason Silicon Valley’s degeneration into elitist and cultic yet oddly brainless behaviour is so tragic: the stars of Silicon Valley are actually smart, unlike doofuses of the order of Matt Damon, who should never be allowed near a camera unless his words have been prepared for him by someone else.
That’s why it’s so odd that their idols and mentors – the bloggers, angels, venture capitalists and other bigwigs – are invariably a few slides short of a full playground.
In any case, this cult of the rockstar entepreneur is dangerous and irresponsible. Let’s get back to reality, please. Because something tells me that the myopic ingénues of San Francisco, London and Berlin aren’t equipped to deal with what comes with being a proper global star. Poor Parker, if he’s any indication, certainly seems to be struggling.
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All that said, I rather suspect in one regard Silicon Valley chief executives might feel at home in Hollywood. Few places in the world offer the sort of insulated reinforcement bubble the Valley elite demands.
And the wannabe, cultic behaviour you see in Studio City isn’t so far removed from SOMA. Indeed, take a boat from Lima into the Peruvian rain-forests and you’ll not find much less ardent devotion to dogmatic rubric among Nazca warlords than the current adulation showered on Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup, a book which provides some good advice but hardly heralds the second coming.
Over-eagerness to subscribe to orthodoxy is the mark of a small mind. There are plenty of those in Los Angeles. But fewer, or so I’d thought, in San Francisco, where a generation of smart minds has become obsessed with a tiny elite of, in global terms, very mediocre people.
It’s not as if there aren’t inspiring intellectual role models. But why did it take so long for Evgeny Morozov to kneecap Jeff Jarvis, and how did a pseud like Jarvis ever get on to the cool kid invite list? I wouldn’t invite him to the spaying of my family pet.
It’s as though there’s a generation of young Tom Cruises choosing to fixate their professional aspirations on Jean Claude Van Damme, eschewing the Harrison Fords all around them. Consequently, they are navigating the demands of fame like a Jersey Shore harlot, mistaking conference appearances, retweets – and, yes, funding rounds – for accomplishment.
And, like Snooki, they come across on our screens as buffoons. Only these “buffoons” control the levers to technology that has, in some cases, remarkable power over our lives.
Quite how so many have fallen so fast into fixating their attention on so few is a mystery. (That’s how Hollywood works, after all.) But in the post-TechCrunch era, it’s time for a new pantheon to inspire Silicon Valley’s brightest and best. Only please, Lord, let them have brains this time.