The tech community, once known for being insular and resistant to outside interference, is facing an existential crisis as its members have begun to break ranks and call for fundamental changes at global companies like Google and Facebook.
Roger McNamee has been a Silicon Valley insider since Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was in nappies.
The venture capitalist has built a name for himself as a big-thinking investor and a kind of sounding board for some of the valley’s biggest names in the ’80s and ’90s, including Bill Gates.
McNamee remembers this period in Silicon Valley fondly, recalling how people like Steve Jobs promoted a kind of “hippie-libertarianism” that believed in tech’s ability to make the world a better place.
But starting around the turn of the millennium, these Utopian goals began to be usurped by greed, he says. So he was slightly taken aback when he met Mr Zuckerberg in 2006, and the then-22-year-old impressed him with his sincere belief that Facebook could help connect people all over the world.
“I wanted to believe they were different – and they really were different at the beginning,” he told.
Now, not so much – according to Mr McNamee.
Mr McNamee, who served as a mentor to Mr Zuckerberg for three years and was an early investor in the company, made headlines last year when he wrote a number of opinion pieces criticising Facebook for its role in the spread of misinformation in the lead-up to Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election.
“All the internet platforms are deflecting criticism and leaving their users in peril,” he wrote in the Guardian in January 2018, just months before the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke.
Since then, he says, little has changed.
“I don’t believe there’s anyone around [Mr Zuckerberg] who tells him what he needs to hear at this moment in time,” he says.
It’s not just Facebook, he says. Companies like Google, Amazon and Apple have all neglected their civic duties in pursuit of bigger profits. From Cambridge Analytica’s alleged election interference to YouTube’s role in spreading footage of the Christchurch mosque attack, a number of industry insiders have expressed concern about how today’s tech is impacting democracy.
At the heart of the problem is search and social companies’ reliance on advertising, which rewards content creators who shock and awe, says Mr McNamee.
“We need to understand that the business model that is shared by all these internet platforms encourages the worst elements of society,” he says.
Former co-CEO of BlackBerry, Jim Balsillie, says he is “surprised” by the lack of ethics he sees at companies today.
“We were aggressive, but we weren’t immoral or amoral,” he says.
“How can you be a tool for genocide? How can you live with yourself?”