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Give Silicon Valley a break

May 21, 2015, 5:49 PM UTC
In this photo taken Tuesday Feb. 3, 2015, a man rides through his bicycle through the campus at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Photograph by Eric Risberg — AP

Silicon Valley is teeming with ill-mannered tech bros whose childhood participation trophies have led them to boast about how their mediocre startups will change the world. It’s insufferable. Silicon Valley is also full of sincere geniuses who wake up every day to work hard on solving serious problems that could indeed change the world. It’s inspiring.

Both of these Silicon Valleys exist. Or, rather, they co-exist. And often the dichotomy blurs. For some reason, however, this complexity is being ignored with increasing regularity, in favor of black-and-white caricatures that would be more appropriate in HBO’s parody of Silicon Valley than in media analysis of the actual place.

To be sure, I understand the impulse to bash with broad strokes. Particularly as an East Coaster who reads tech sites that drool over West Coast entrepreneurs as if they’re dying of xeroderma. But for every Clinkle or Yo that is cited as emblematic of Silicon Valley’s vapidness, there is a company like Metabiota that is developing software to help predict and prevent the outbreak of deadly diseases. Is Metabiota not solving a “big” enough problem? If successful, does it not “matter?”

Or what about the countless networking and software companies that are, at their core, trying to improve the efficacy of communications? You know, that little human endeavor that in past generations has resulted in everything from the printing press to the carrier pigeon to the telephone to the Amber Alert? Are those efforts disposable, just because some may be quixotic or callous?

Remember, over 1,800 California companies raised venture capital last year alone. In history, only around 200 on-demand services companies (i.e., “Uber for x”) in California have ever been funded. The perception and reality don’t match.

Most startups will fail, and even a majority of the successes will only end up having a minor impact, if any, on wide swaths of people or geographies. But that would be true even if every single startup in Silicon Valley was focused on curing cancer (which, by the way, plenty are). Does the existence of Clinkle somehow tarnish Metabiota? Is a community’s output diminished because its inputs include an over-representation of narcissists and sycophants?

To me, it isn’t.

Silicon Valley is far from perfect because, well, because it’s a real place. It should always strive to improve and be held to account, particularly in areas of equality, charity and relevancy. But to use its flaws as an excuse for ignoring its virtues is lazy and unfair. And it does a disservice to those who legitimately are working to change the world.

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