Date: 7/25/18 New Episode
 
Americans are obsessed with the pursuit of freedom. This ambition is core to our mythology and national identity. Of course we don’t always agree on what it means to be a free society or a free individual, and these different interpretations continue to fuel political and cultural divisions. Some people emphasize civil liberties, others focus on free markets, and still others argue that collective freedom must start with greater equality. But philosophies aside, we all strive for a system that limits the degree to which institutions of power can arbitrarily or maliciously impede our exercise of freedom. Throughout American history, each successive generation redefines what it means to be free, and what limits are acceptable.

This is why we find the story of Silicon Valley to be so fascinating. The Bay Area technology industry grew out of a culture that challenged the institutions that stood in the way of the pursuit of freedom. Silicon Valley idealism inspired a generation of inventors who created personal computers, virtual communities, and a vast array of digital services. Many of these tools – both products and ideas – were intentionally developed to augment and enhance human capabilities. The architects and entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley were sincere in their desire to make the world a better place. That idealism is what also made the tech industry so powerful and the source of a new narrative that updated the American dream: with innovative ideas, hard work, and a willingness to go for broke, anyone from anywhere can build a breakthrough company.

However, as Silicon Valley’s power has grown exponentially, that story is changing. Today’s tech industry is increasingly propped up by the data economy, which collects and uses an alarming amount of information about each of us, often without our permission or knowledge. The business models of Facebook, Amazon, Google, and its counterparts rest on systems of digital surveillance. Data is the currency of the digital age; while it can be harnessed to create powerful personalized experiences and efficient AI technologies, it also perpetrates a massive power imbalance. Data is what allows companies to disrupt industries and institutions, and create new power vacuums. With its algorithms, Silicon Valley is increasingly and covertly establishing the unofficial rules that govern society, without meaningfully acknowledging and addressing its newfound power. And with every passing day, Silicon Valley’s power seems to be eroding our democracy as well.

So is Silicon Valley still a vehicle for enhancing American freedom, or, paradoxically, is the Valley its greatest threat? This question lies at the heart of our entire Origins of Power in Silicon Valley podcast series. There is no simple answer, but if we want to imagine a better future, we need to first understand how we got here.

And we got here with a story. From the early days of the transcontinental railroad and the founding of Stanford through the Cold War and the counterculture, to personal computers, cookies, and VCs, Silicon Valley’s has sold a compelling story that is wrapped up in ideas of American freedom. This is the ultimate source of its power. And if we want to shape or check this power, it’s our responsibility  to once again reimagine what it means to build a free society and live as free individuals. Perhaps it’s time to craft a new story.

Music Credits:
Blue Dot Sessions - The Telling
Blue Dot Session - Velejo
Blue Dot Sessions - Fasterfasterbrighter
Lee Rosevere - Under Suspicion
Blue Dot Sessions - Zither Sprak
Blue Dot Sessions - Emmit Sprak
Junior85 - Dan5
Blue Dot Sessions - Drone Lemon
Tony Higgins - When I Dive it Just Feels Normal

Guests: 

Leslie Berlin and others.