10 October 2017

On Silicon Valley: politics in the small print

There's been a political awakening, where the tech crowd have become enthusiastic guards of the constitution. 

In recent months, many Americans have been turning to tray bakes, internet kittens and videos of tiny burrowing mammals.

Frankly, we’ll take anything providing a modicum of spiritual comfort as we lurch from the prospect of all-out nuclear war, to all-out civil war, to the collective realisation that our president couldn’t run a bath, let alone the free world.

Added to that, Silicon Valley has been licking its wounds after a remarkable series of scandals, including James Damore’s infamous Google memo, and the ‘fall of Brotopia’ – the high-profile exodus of Valley bros from VCs like Binary Capital and companies like Uber. You’d be forgiven for thinking the bay area would be a sullen place right now.

In fact, the mood is rather ebullient. Most people I speak to are mysteriously re-energised and there is a palpable sense of purpose – much of it political.

There has been a curious reaction to what’s going on in Washington. Where the current administration is abjectly failing to adhere to the US constitution, CEOs of tech companies appear to be eager to try to step into the void, and consciously enshrine the principles of equality into the terms and conditions of their services. Incredibly, it seems to be working.

In case you missed it, Airbnb, Google and website hosting company Go Daddy took a noticeable stance against white supremacists amid the fallout of Charlottesville. In the days leading up to the sickening events, Airbnb deleted the accounts of extremists making it impossible for them to find accommodation. The next day, Go Daddy and Google deleted fascist websites, rendering them invisible. Their justification? The users broke the terms and conditions of their agreements.

These three, among others, are taking up the fight against fascism with signup screens and small print. Who knew the essence of liberal American patriotism lived in those T&Cs that no one reads but everyone declares ‘I Agree’ to?

It’s a weird role for brands like Airbnb. I use the term brands rather than businesses, because it is the power of the Airbnb brand, built on its stated mission of ‘belonging’, which makes its stand against white supremacists all the more potent. I find it refreshing to see Silicon Valley take such action after years of empty ‘We’re here to the make the world

better’ promises. Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall tweeted: ‘We will not rest until we have ZERO racism and bigotry on our platform.’

The question is – why now? Corporations are traditionally known to be conservative. By not taking a stand, they have historically avoided the risk of alienating a vocal percentage of their audience. Now, things have changed – we’re seeing companies forced to take a position as larger numbers of people weaponise their freedom of choice.

For over a century, people have been unionising to demand better wages and working conditions. Of course, this tactic only works if demand for labour is high. Nowadays, there are many places where it isn’t. Jobs can be outsourced, automated or coded out of existence with a few keystrokes. Labour doesn’t work for us in Silicon Valley.

The only leverage we have left is to organise consumption. By threatening to remove it, we can influence corporate interests and encourage companies to take a stand where our politicians will not. We’re seeing this with campaigning organisations like Sleeping Giants [which uses social media to persuade companies to stop advertising with conservative news sites]. I’m predicting more in the future.

After years of swatting away politics as a concern, patriotism has begun to stir among many tech CEOs. It is worth noting, however, that the idea of a company like Airbnb as modern-day patriot is a stretch for many Americans. Disruption comes at a price, and a heavy one for those being disrupted – in this case workers in the traditional US hospitality industry.

The Californian tech world’s top echelons have for a long time shut themselves into wealthy liberal bubbles. And it is precisely this kind of easy wealth and easy politics that make them an obvious target for the swathes of Americans angry at a ‘liberal elite’.

It’s sad to think that the place where something as fundamental to American identity as ‘All men are created equal’ is being most actively enforced is in the terms and conditions of privately-owned tech companies. But given the alternatives – more vehicles driving into peaceful protestors, more empty-eyed men shouldering assault rifles and raising Nazi salutes – I’ll take sad over evil any day.

David Bryant has worked on tech, design and strategy in Silicon Valley and New York.

First appeared in issue 19 Oct/Nov