Covers | June 17, 2017 at 8:00 am

Silicon Valley: The Hero the United States Deserves

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Silicon Valley and its host of enigmatic billionaires love to deride the U.S. government as a slow-moving, inefficient quagmire, incapable of producing real results. In turn, the public sector has criticized Silicon Valley for being out of touch with ordinary people, dreaming too big, and putting profit before principle. However, once you cut past the beach-boy culture and mind-boggling billion dollar valuations, there is a tremendous amount of substance in San Francisco and Palo Alto – real, valuable innovation that’s pushing the boundaries of technological possibility and safeguarding society.

In the 2008 movie, The Dark Knight, Lt. Gordon observes that Batman is “the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now… He’s a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight.” In the same manner, Silicon Valley is the United States’ last, best hope. Ultimately, the tension between Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C. serves as a hedge against government abuse of power, while Silicon Valley’s ambitious mentality drives the pace of innovation forward when the government is unable or unwilling to do so. In this age of reduced federal funding for science and technology, coupled with unprecedented governmental invasions of privacy, we desperately need Silicon Valley.

Protecting Privacy

In early 2016, the FBI attempted to force Apple to bypass its own security encryption and unlock the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter, who killed fourteen people during a holiday party. Apple refused, citing the fact that it could only comply with this request by writing new software to override its existing software – in effect, the government was forcing it to write software, which the company claimed violated its rights to freedom of speech. After a protracted court battle, the FBI eventually paid a professional hacker to access the phone and dropped the case. Apple, however, in making its decision not to comply, had already established a powerful precedent – that software companies do not violate user privacy on demand.

This decision was widely publicized in an open letter from Apple CEO Tim Cook to the public. The letter stated that Apple had historically complied with all reasonable government requests for data in their possession, but in this case, “[making] a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and [installing] it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation” was something that “would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.” Cook noted that “if the government can [force Apple to] make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device” and even to expand this power to demand that Apple build other kinds of surveillance software.

A host of other high profile Silicon Valley companies, including Google, Dropbox, Amazon and Snapchat quickly concurred, filing amicus briefs in support of Apple’s stance. There were a host of factors that compelled the giants of Silicon Valley to draw a line in the sand and align themselves on the pro-privacy side, but make no mistake—Silicon Valley’s collective decision to fight the federal government was not purely an ethical one. Ben Sobel, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, told the HPR that “fundamentally, these are business decisions. Apple noticed that it would be not only bad PR for them to unlock the phone, but also really intrusive to their future business model,” as complying with these types of requests would take up a lot of their developers’ time.

Mason Kortz, another fellow at the Berkman Klein Center and a Clinical Instructional Fellow at the Harvard Law School Cyberlaw Clinic, agreed with Sobel, elaborating to the HPR that “tech companies want policies that are cheap and easy for them to comply with, appealing to their customers, and don’t mess with their business model.” According to Kortz, when companies are faced with decisions like Apple was, there are a variety of factors, including “actual ethical principles…but also the optics—how it appears to their user base, the potential for liability, and just the actual cost of compliance,” which they must consider.

The good news for consumers is that these complex business considerations create a powerful set of incentives for Silicon Valley technology companies to protect user privacy from government intrusion. In short, the very same business, profit-driven mentality that Silicon Valley is criticized for, serves to create an incentive structure that protects consumers.

When Government Can’t Keep Up

Outside of the bubble, Silicon Valley is sometimes criticized for its laser focus on disruption, and its self-important airs. According to Evgeny Morozov, a notable technology critic, “In Silicon Valley’s conception of the universe, everything is already rotten and corrupt and the only source of purity is to be found in Californian basements, where the hard working and hoodie-wearing saints are toiling to accelerate progress”. This isolationist attitude can be problematic, and has prompted some within the community to contend that Silicon Valley is out of touch with the general public, and perhaps doing less good for the everyman than they think. Despite this valid criticism, Silicon Valley’s mentality of taking on tough challenges with singular focus certainly has huge benefits for society.

Outside of the software sector, Silicon Valley’s penchant for dreaming big—specifically, for dreaming beyond current technological limitations—may be criticized as out of touch with reality. This mentality of taking on tough challenges, however, has huge benefits for society. From 2003 to 2015, the National Institutes of Health lost 22 percent of its funding capacity, which led to less money available for medical research. During the same period, Silicon Valley venture capitalists steadily increased their investments in biotech companies, and provided much-needed capital to companies that were in the process of developing promising treatments for diseases ranging from cancer to Alzheimer’s.

The process of taking a drug from the discovery stage to clinical use is an expensive, multi-year undertaking fraught with regulatory issues. Here, Silicon Valley’s money plays an extensive role in enabling promising medical technology to navigate this journey from bench to bedside. Given that President Trump recently announced a further 20 percent reduction in the NIH’s budget, the role of Silicon Valley venture capitalists as early investors in biotech research, development, and commercialization is more crucial than ever.

Moreover, even when the government creates important technology, Silicon Valley start-ups can improve it and make it more user-friendly and efficient. Take the example of clinicaltrials.gov, a federal government effort to make information on clinical trials transparent and easily available. While a good idea in theory, in practice, government attempts like this have failed to connect with the people who need it most—patients and families searching for clinical trials. Sol Chen, a young entrepreneur, observed this problem and co-founded Clara, a software platform that enables patients to easily find clinical trials and join a community of individuals who have been through the process. Now the CTO of Clara, she told the HPR how her startup is using clinicaltrials.gov “to scrape what’s on there and present it in a better way. We’re using the data they have, and presenting it in a way that people can digest and understand.” This methodology exemplifies the aspirational nature of the technology start-up scene, and its willingness to take an existing idea and improve upon it when the government is unable or unwilling to.

The Bleeding Edge

In Silicon Valley, there’s a special name for technology so cutting edge that ‘cutting edge’ is an insufficient description: bleeding edge. This term is reserved for inventions and ideas so revolutionary they’re not ready for public use without significant validation and testing. But bleeding edge technology isn’t just novel; it’s also so far from reaching the market that investing money in it carries massive risk. This type of technology could be life-changing, but is expensive to develop, and could also completely fail after much time, effort, and money is invested. Despite the large risks involved, bleeding edge technology is exactly the type of technology that Silicon Valley loves to believe in, and excels at developing.

As the public sector’s investment in space research decreases, Silicon Valley startups are quickly springing up to take their place. Companies like SpaceX are at the forefront of space flight, in many ways superseding NASA and the federal government’s space programs. SpaceX, founded by the quintessential Silicon Valley dreamer and doer, Elon Musk, is re-imagining space flight. In entering an industry that was once the exclusive domain of governments, Musk has reignited the space race by signing contracts with NASA to deliver supplies to the International Space Station, and by making plans for trips to Mars.

It’s important to note that SpaceX’s early attempts at rocket launches ended in abject failure. In fact, it took Musk six years to achieve a successful launch. After its third failure, in 2008, the company would almost certainly have shut down, if not for a large investment from Peter Thiel, Musk’s fellow PayPal co-founder, and a renowned Silicon Valley investor. It took a unique kind of mentality—the one Silicon Valley specializes in—to see the potential in a bleeding edge company with no record of success, and realize it.

Aerospace is not the only province traditionally reserved for governments that Silicon Valley is disrupting. Bay Area investors and companies are also at the forefront of ed-tech, a growing field at the intersection of technology and education reform. In 2007, Silicon Valley added a new startup, Khan Academy, a nonprofit dedicated to providing high quality educational materials for free, entirely online. Other companies have since joined the fray, including Coursera, which delivers classes from top universities to students across the world via the internet, and Remind, which enables messaging between parents, teachers and students.

Together, these companies, and many others in the space, are working to make education more accessible, and fundamentally shifting content delivery to online, adaptable mediums. Though the delivery of education is generally thought of as the purview of government, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are finding innovative ways to engage more students and apply technology for social impact.

This theme, of Silicon Valley providing an infusion of innovation to traditionally government-run industries, and taking on bleeding edge technology despite the risks, is characteristic of the Bay Area’s founders and investors. From software to hardware, and schools to space, Silicon Valley occupies a unique and necessary spot at the forefront of technological advancement.

Inspiration and Aspiration

On a daily basis, Silicon Valley’s thirst for technological innovation coupled with business interests combine to create tremendous value for society. These aspects of the high-tech, San Francisco culture may lead to tension with the government, but they ultimately create a fine balance, in which Silicon Valley’s motivations serve to protect consumers from governmental abuse of power and enable technological advances in the absence of government support.

Throughout the last decade, Silicon Valley has consistently been at the forefront of technological innovation. As Chen, the co-founder of Clara, notes, “Silicon Valley especially tends to take larger risks than other cities do, in terms of investing, so [people there will] invest in something that’s a moonshot… [they say] ‘Wow, this would be crazy if it existed, so we should just try to make it exist.’” And it’s this very mentality that may literally lead to the innovation that changes the world.

Just as Batman was sometimes at odds with the Gotham City administration but persevered to help its people, such is the role of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs and investors. As technology and society continue to advance by leaps and bounds, Silicon Valley is exactly what we need—a protector and an innovator.

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