Coders Can Be Assholes

This is an excerpt from my new book, Chronicle of a Startup Town: Los Angeles.  It’s available now for pre-order on Amazon in a Kindle edition.

Coders can be assholes, as Vikram Chandra memorably wrote in Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, The Code of Beauty, and certainly with more eloquence that I might muster here.  Being the smartest kid in the room can turn you snarly. We’ve seen it with the young Bill Gates, certainly with the world’s most snarly vegan, Steve Jobs, who actually was not much of a coder, but pretty brilliant anyway.

Mark Zuckerberg seems to require legions of publicists to tone down his hubris. Travis Kalanick has done much to establish Uber as the world’s most irritating startup, and has hired a master spinmeister, David Plouffe, to sort it out.  I can see Plouffe’s fine hand in this pure genius move: Allying  the company known for enabling prostitution – Uber  even acquired the nickname Boober – with UN Women, a worthy organization that needed Uber’s money. A move like that makes me think of a clever game of chess where the pieces are public opinion, and the players have the often outsized personalities of startup founders and Garry Kasparov.

Coders create worlds that shape behavior. More often than not, they are making apps that control us, rather than the other way around. Power like that breeds arrogance and greed. It’s also fun to be a Master of the Universe, and the position seems to demand an abuse of power. It’s not a coincidence to me that there is a link between scandal plagued SnapChat CEO Evan Spiegel, (who was embarrassed when his Stanford University emails showed a predilection for sleaze), the defendants in the Ellen Pao sexual discrimination case against Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, and the sexual discrimination and harassment cases that have cropped up at Facebook and Twitter.

Those behaving badly are almost all men. They belong to an exclusive club of powerful, mostly young, highly intelligent, newly rich men who are used to getting their way.  They are the new tech assholes, and they are everywhere, raising real estate values in San Francisco, creating corporate campuses that fence out the real world, commanding legions of subordinates with a swipe gesture on their iPhone, or probably more likely, a hard touch on their gold Apple Watch.

Not all startup founders are like this, of course, because more and more of them are women. With startup success thus far has come with an unwelcome culture of male arrogance, but diversity within startup culture will save the ecosystem from itself. That’s why the formation of groups like The Women’s Venture Capital Group and #Angels are so important.  Not all startup founders are assholes, of course, because more and more of them realize that want they are doing with the world is insanely powerful, and they feel a sense of responsibility. They have propelled the act of doing business into an art form, a world changer, a human-shaper, mostly because of  the supercomputer we carry in our hands.

You might think the ultimate Black Box in this scenario is that supercomputer,  the iPhone, the Samsung Galaxy, or the unknown device that will overtake them both sooner than we might imagine. The Black Box is more likely something else entirely, something harder to grasp.  The Black Box, the great unknown, is what we do with that device – it is the acceleration of evolution, the resequencing of what it means to be human – it is us. We are entering a great unknown, driven by such seemingly trivial things as swipe right or swipe left to judge a fellow human, instantly ordering a meal or a car, or willingly allowing our sexuality to be reduced to mere pixels. To say it is weird doesn’t do it justice.  Elon Musk has suggested, only half-jokingly I believe, that we humans might be the biological boot loader for a machine takeover, the domination of machine consciousness.  Whether that will be Nirvana for humans and for machines, or only a bad Arnold Schwarzenegger movie is what makes the startup ecosystem so scary and so exhilarating.

Pre-order the book in the Kindle edition.