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Reagan-Era Gen X Dogma Has No Place in Silicon Valley

by | Jul 1, 2021 | New, News

Believe you can and you’re halfway there.

— Theodore Roosevelt

As a core member of Gen X, I’m usually content to sit and watch Boomers and Millennials lob rhetorical bombs at one another. I and my cohort quietly plug away as an underrated influence on society and especially the modern tech industry; despite our occasional complaints about being forgotten, many of us relish operating out of the cultural limelight. But recently I’ve come to recognize some of my generation’s worst pathologies in the extractive, divisive models promoted by Silicon Valley’s venture capital class. Which makes sense: so many of them are Gen X, especially Gen X men.

Gen X workers were the ground troops of the 1990s web boom. Many of those who struck it rich then used their newfound wealth to, unsurprisingly, invest in more software. If you consider us along with our close cultural cousins, people who are technically part of the mid-century baby boom but born after 1960, you find an enormous percentage of the people who actually pull the strings in Silicon Valley, or dispense the money, which amounts to the same thing. The values and mindsets of millennial CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg and Adam Neumann get a lot of press, but Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Marc Benioff, Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella, Paul Graham, Alfred Lin, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel? All born between 1964 and 1973. These Gen X men run the valley, and their short-term, disruptive focus shows the twisted side of our quiet get-things-done habits.

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Cyd Harrell (@cydharrell) is a user researcher and civic design consultant and the author of A Civic Technologist's Practice Guide, a survival manual for public-sector tech work.

In a recent interview, the venture capitalist and software engineer Marc Andreessen (born, like me, in 1971) nodded to the “decline of state capacity” as an inevitable matter before going on to discuss at length his belief in the power of software to revolutionize every facet of life on earth. He dismissed the historical sweep of collective societal endeavor as "the systematic failure of virtually all public sector entities around the world." He said this presumably while sitting somewhere amid a publicly maintained network of safe transportation, water, and power infrastructure, communicating over publicly developed internet connections, and protected by his publicly funded, publicly distributed Covid vaccine. Andreessen went on to talk about how only private enterprise, and most specifically software enterprises, could address the problems we as a nation and a world are facing now. I realized that Andreessen was selling Reaganite nostrums from our shared childhood.

We Gen Xers entered the web industry just after the extreme uncertainty and shocks of our formative years had shaped, and for many solidified, our worldview. Unlike Boomers, we didn’t grow up with duck and cover drills; by the time we were grade schoolers both the US and the USSR had enough nuclear weapons to make any fully engaged war unsurvivable. The Day After played on national television in 1982. Just as kids have always discussed gruesome fairy tales, we matter-of-factly discussed how much better it was to die quickly at the center of the blast zone than experience torturous radiation poisoning at the edge.

In 1989, as the Berlin Wall came down, the first Bush administration was ramping up tensions with Saddam Hussein and struggling toward a recession. Gen Xers looking for work after graduating from high school or college found a landscape of corporate raiders, decreasingly unionized factory work, and public institutions that were either downsizing or offshoring and could afford to hire few of us. While many private industries recovered, tax cuts meant that hiring in state and local governments has never bounced back to its 1980s level. It was hard to believe—indeed most of us didn’t—that there would ever be the kind of institutional support for us that past generations had enjoyed. Reality truly bit.

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And then from nowhere (except to the few who’d been following the developments at DARPA and UIUC), a boom—a new industry where we could not only make a good living but put our own stamp on the world. For those of us privileged to participate, it seemed like a reprieve from all our expectations of doom. Even more, the quick fortunes and easy entry points seemed to confirm that the generational solidity we so missed in institutional support would be found through private enterprise, and private enterprise alone.

In the 1980s, strange complements of Morning in America jingoism, the AIDS crisis, and crushing interest rates revived an axiom that government didn’t work. To our generation the message was starker: It couldn’t work, and it definitely wouldn’t be there for us when we grew up. We knew Social Security would be long gone by the time we retired, if the bombs didn’t get us first. That turned out to be nonsense, but it was pervasive nonsense promoted by politicians and eagerly covered by the media. It’s hard to break free of base-level assumptions set so early in life, and many of our Gen X investors seem to still think like disregarded 20-year-olds, to the detriment of imagination and innovation for us all.

Gen X investors and leaders helped commercialize Netscape, built search engines and online payment systems, and invented the first social networks. Their pride in those accomplishments is justifiable. But in his interview Andreessen, whose influential A16Z fund manages over $18 billion, says, “Someone writes code, and all of a sudden riders and drivers coordinate a completely new kind of real-world transportation system, and we call it Lyft.” This overstates both the newness and the benefits of private rideshare systems, which in 2021 are becoming, as predicted, more expensive and less reliable even as they continue to fail to turn a profit for the companies or investors. And it glosses over the point. Lyft and Uber were designed to extract profits from all parts of the system, so that once investor subsidies decreased, an unaffordable and immediately inequitable system that exploits drivers was baked in.

Software isn’t the problem. I’d suggest that the GTFS (General Transit Feed Specification) public standard that let everyone find out exactly when their train or bus is coming is an equally or more important advancement in transportation due to software, but since that didn't make money for VCs I doubt they would agree. It’s fairly easy to imagine an improvement to taxi dispatch that would be more equitable and useful than Lyft or Uber, but it would be hard to build it as quickly because it would require working closely with complicated regulatory systems that protect various public interests. VC culture dismisses this work as hopeless and not worth doing, and that’s where I see warped Gen X assumptions showing.

Andreessen is far from alone. Jamie Siminoff’s company Ring (acquired by Amazon) and Nirav Tolia’s NextDoor have done as much to actualize a low-trust, surveillance-based public sphere as any government agency. No one knows how old Satoshi Nakamoto actually is, but his presumed 1975 birthdate fits with his work to create an unregulated money system untied to any government (Bitcoin’s current CEO, Roger Ver, is an Xennial). And Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites are set to provide an entirely commercial broadband infrastructure at the possible cost of many publicly-supported space research goals and everyone’s access to a dark night sky.

Scared Gen X men (mostly) have never lost the sense of a private money reprieve from a promised hellscape. The dot-com boom coincided with a dominant analysis of the Cold War’s end that put the victory squarely in terms of capitalism rather than democracy. You need only look forward a decade to 2001 and the presidential exhortation to express patriotism by going shopping after 9/11 to see the persistence of this idea.

One way to respond to the Reaganite degradation of government and other public-sector institutions is to 1) get yours as fast and with as many zeroes as you can and 2) tell yourself you’re doing right and find motivated reasons to believe it. The idea of privately exploring space and privately colonizing Mars or other worlds as backups to Earth fits right in with this worldview. So does disrupting public goods (like money or transit) that you believe are doomed anyway. Collective action to preserve and improve these common goods requires coordination across centuries-old institutions—that’s not easy to address through software, or without deeply human organizational work that Silicon Valley culture dismisses as “soft skills.”

I’m not declaring my generation hopeless. Andreessen calls himself a tech optimist and I’m as much of one, albeit in a slightly different direction. And there are many others. Ellen Pao, the VC associate whose 2012 discrimination suit against management at Kleiner Perkins put one of the first dents in horrifically gendered VC culture, and who later went on to turn Reddit from one of the internet’s cesspools into one of the best and safest places for every kind of information, is also Gen X. So are several early leaders of my own subfield, civic technology—Jennifer Pahlka, Matt Cutts, and Everett Harper to name just a few. Technology has tremendous potential to support more just and equitable models of public administration and collective effort—if (and this is just as much an if with private-sector software) it’s top-quality tech built by people willing to consider externalities and invest in partnering with institutions.

Perhaps surprisingly, the pandemic has had the side effect of moving the public-serving implementation of technology forward. Vaccine registration websites, imperfect as they were, got the bulk of the US a shot in under six months. Court hearings over Zoom have reduced no-show rates, an intractable problem in legal administration for decades. A coalition of journalists and volunteers using modern tech and data tools kept the country informed about case rates when the Trump administration refused to do so. I’m not surprised. I’ve been involved in related efforts for years. It’s taken humility, but more importantly I’ve had to set aside my childhood fears about society’s demise and learn to work with instead of against institutions. We’d be much better off if my VC age-mates would too.

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