Winflare

The tech world is becoming more political, and not everyone likes it

“Seventeen agencies, all in agreement… they concluded with high confidence that the Russians ran an extensive information war campaign against my campaign to influence voters in the election.”

This is Hillary Clinton uncensored, speaking on a stage, railing against Russia and the Trump administration, playing to her base, and generally urging the world to #resist.

This wasn’t a political rally or event, though. Clinton was headlining the Code Conference, an annual tech event where leaders from Silicon Valley and the greater tech world congregate, typically to talk about the latest innovations, ideas, and gadgets.

Not so much this year. From minute one of the conference the theme was politics, politics, politics. From New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet’s justification for covering everything President Trump tweets to Transparent creator Jill Soloway pushing to “topple the patriarchy,” political discussion was front and center for three straight days at the luxury Rancho Palos Verdes resort just south of Los Angeles.

That conversation mirrors a larger one about what the tech world’s role is in the current political climate. Tech has always been political, of course — the debate around net neutrality, to cite just one example, didn’t just spring up on Nov. 9 — but now it’s urgently political, or at least it feels like it, with the debate over issues like diversity and immigration dominating the discussion at events like Code.

“It was the same at Techonomy. All everyone wants to talk about is politics,” a Code attendee, who wanted to remain anonymous, told me.
The political tech reality

There’s lots to talk about. Between barbs about “covfefe” and alleged Trump-Russia collusion, Clinton spoke thoughtfully about the shortcomings of social networks, and how they likely played a role in swinging the election in Trump’s favor. Addressing the specific problem of fake news and polarized audiences, she pointed the finger at Facebook and to a lesser extent Twitter, sympathizing with the complexity of the issues, but that they needed to “hurry up” and fix them.

Just a few hours after Clinton finished up, Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs, joined California Senator Kamala Harris on stage, ostensibly to discuss Jobs’ recent efforts to help reform U.S. immigration policy, although the discussion drifted into discussions of political truth and encouraging the crowd to stay “woke.” And in perhaps the most brazen example of political advocacy, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards closed out the show by making the case for her organization’s political survival.

Not that it was all safe Silicon Valley liberal points of view. Baquet gave a frank assessment of American newsrooms, accusing them of being too left-leaning to truly represent the sentiment of much of the country. He defended his decision to hire controversial right-of-center climate commentator Brett Stevens and point-blank admitted he wished he had more reporters with conservative politics in the Times’ newsroom.

Commentary from high-profile investors Marc Andreessen and Reid Hoffman had similar themes, with Andreessen excoriating Silicon Valley for not paying attention to Donald Trump’s “deplorable” base until after the election. And Republican Evan McMullin’s Stand-Up Republic aims to fight threats to our self-rule, whatever form (or party) they take.

Speaking to conference attendees, many were excited and impressed with Clinton and happy to hear mostly left-wing politics put in the context of the tech world. Others preferred the raw honesty of Andreessen and Baquet, and felt the the conference, and Silicon Valley in general, could have made more of an effort to include other points of view.

But there was a third, arguably more frustrated group: Those who wish all this political talk would just go away.

“I come [to Code Conference] to get inspired by new ideas, and I come to meet the people who are creating those ideas, and I don’t see that politics fits into that kind of opportunity,” Norman Winarsky, co-creator of Siri and current advisor to SRI Ventures, told me.

Winarsky isn’t alone. I heard similar views from several attendees, though no others wanted to go on the record.

That attitude is understandable, although it appears at odds with the tenor of many tech companies, which have recently taking very forceful public stances on the Trump administration’s climate change and immigration policies.
When tech companies take sides

The truth is a little more calculated. There’s a fine line between voicing strong political stances and becoming an activist, and each company makes that calibration differently. Too silent and you’ll be publicly shamed like IBM and Oracle were for not speaking out on the Trump travel ban; too activist and you risk alienating a big chunk of your customers, which helped lead to Ellen Pao’s exit as CEO of Reddit.

There’s no better recent example of this calculus than Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ wishy-washy stance on net neutrality. Speaking at Code, Hastings gave probably the most middling support for net neutrality he could have, saying he believed in it but that it wasn’t his company’s “primary risk profile.”

Balancing Netflix’s punt and the recent statements on the climate and immigration, a template for a tech company taking political action comes into view: acting mostly out of self interest, vocal once a decision has been made, but — above all — cautious.

That’s certainly been the formula for a long time, but the difference now is the current heightened political climate, which is forcing those calculations more and more often. Every time the administration takes action, there’s more pressure — from customers, the media, and employees — for companies to respond by taking stands, and with each stand comes a risk of customers heading for the door.

It’s enough to make a tech CEO wish it would all just go away.

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