What Happened to Silicon Valley?
It’s been about a year since I posted my last article, “Looking for America.” Steve and I did finally find our new homeland. We moved to South Carolina in September 2022, arriving for good at our new home exactly one year, to the day, after we originally left on our first voyage of discovery in September 2021. It was a long and exhausting year, and I didn’t have any time for writing! Rest assured, I will write an article about the completion of our journey — to be titled “Finding America” — in the near future. In the meantime, though, I was inspired to write the article below, reflecting on what happened to Silicon Valley over the 45 years I lived there. Even if California’s fires, drought, and COVID policies disappeared tomorrow, Steve and I grew to realize that the part of the world we had called home for so many years had become out of alignment with who we are now and what we value.
Let me start at the beginning. Well, my beginning. I arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area during the summer of 1977, ready to start a PhD program in computer science at Stanford University. As was true then and is still true today, Stanford is one of the top three computer science schools in the USA, probably the world. I was the only woman in my entering class, and for a few years, there were only two women PhD students in the entire department. At that time, there was no undergraduate major in computer science (CS) and the department was housed in a small cluster of makeshift buildings on the outskirts of campus. Today, computer science is the number one undergraduate major at Stanford and the department is housed in a gigantic and rather grim building, Gates Hall, built with money contributed by — you guessed it — Bill Gates. Perhaps that alone says it all.
Way back in 1977, one of my classes required students to use punch cards for programming. For those of you too young to remember what that is, it means we typed our code into a typewriter-like machine that punched holes in cards, one line of code per card. The cards (called a deck) were then fed into the computer. Computer output was printed on long old-fashioned computer printout scrolls.
Luckily, PhD students back then also had the luxury of using computer terminals that communicated with a shared computer. Most of us did our programming at an old research lab located in the foothills near Stanford. We called it the “AI lab” because some of the AI (artificial intelligence) research was conducted there. The lab was truly a wonderland of hippie weirdness. Let’s face it — pretty much anyone into computers in those days was a long-haired nerdy hippie. And of course, in the late 70s (especially in the Bay Area), life was also about sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. The 60s were still very close at hand. In fact, after I arrived at Stanford, I discovered, much to my surprise, that one of my former undergraduate computer professors had lost his tenured position at Stanford because of an LSD scandal! By and large, though, things of that nature going on among us computer nerds was pretty innocent and experimental.
Nighttime at the AI Lab was all about programming into the wee hours on ingenious terminals that, unlike most computer terminals of that era, weren’t confined to displaying characters. Instead, they were more like TV screens, composed of bits (like today’s computer screens). But rather than offering full color, all you got was a black background with content displayed in bright green. Nevertheless, those terminals were unique in many ways. You could ask your terminal to map onto anyone else’s terminal and see what they were doing, and even map your screen onto a TV feed and watch TV in black and green.
There were many other wonders to be found in the lab as well. Wandering the network of halls, you might find very early robot arms being built and operated, experiments in generating electronic sound and music, and a vending machine rigged up to be computer-controlled and operated using a homebrew remote-control device. All of this was accomplished on one shared computer. Indeed, I vividly remember the delivery of one megabyte of new memory to the lab — a big physical disk the diameter of a car or even truck wheel. It was a huge cause for celebration! And best of all, we PhD students had access to email. We could communicate electronically with anyone in the department or at one of about twenty computer science departments and research labs around the USA. Very few people had access to email in those days.
Of course, there were plenty of pranks going on too. Because I was usually the only woman programming at the lab (the other woman in the department programmed elsewhere), it was definitely a bit creepy to receive an anonymous message telling me how sexy I was, or being told that someone was remotely spying on my terminal screen. Still, no one could imagine the kinds of spam and scams and pornography that go on today. After all, we were all just a bunch of harmless nerds. We all knew each other, and there were unspoken rules of etiquette.
So how did we get from there to where we are now? That was just over 45 years ago and the computer science world, at least at Stanford, felt very innocent and benign. Even just twenty years ago, when Google and Facebook made their appearances on the scene, everyone assumed that these organizations would be similarly enlightened and benign. Remember Google’s old maxim: Don’t Be Evil. That kind of sentiment and expectation harkened back to those early days.
How things have changed! Now those who control the big tech companies and the many biotech companies of the Bay Area (most of them spawned from Stanford) are essentially our overlords, exerting extreme forms of control over our society and influencing our beliefs and behavior in profound ways. Most people are unaware of how dangerous this all is — what is coming our way or is already here. We are lulled by the convenience of having computer devices and systems as ubiquitous parts of our lives. So clever, so clever, our master controllers! They have even convinced us to pay for Big Brother to spy on us! Indeed, the incorporation of all this technology into our day-to-day lives and the changes it has wreaked are accelerating so fast that we can barely notice and assimilate what’s happening to us. Think about it: everyone staring into their smart phones all day — phones that are simultaneously tracking our behavior. And what about the devices so many people eagerly attach to their bodies in order to monitor health statistics — information that could easily be relayed elsewhere.
These changes were gradual at first. Personally, I was generally unaware of how vast they had become. I was living out in the foothills near Stanford, raising my kids, working at a research lab, and not really paying attention. But when one of my sons went to Stanford in computer science in 2006, I started to get a glimpse of how different his experience was from my own. Things became even more noticeable when he began to work at Google. For example, the Google hiring process was very mechanical and impersonal, with coding tests being conducted remotely. Gone were in-person interviews and letters of reference. After being hired, he wasn’t even told in advance what team he’d be working on; instead he needed to “sell himself” to a team upon arrival. One day my husband and I came to the Google campus to visit him. I was shocked to find “coding advice” on the back of the toilet stall doors. Not only were there no longer private offices for employees, but they couldn’t even poop in peace!
So who are these people running us all ragged? Actually, I know several of the people who became titans of tech. They were among my peers back in the day. They came to my parties. Many of them became mega rich, in contrast to me and my husband who stuck to research labs and pay checks. In my experience, most of the people who scored big actually mean well. Although some of them have vast power, sitting on national committees and running universities, they aren’t bad people. They truly believe that the high tech world they are creating is positive, for the good of mankind. And I’m sure that is true of most of the biotech researchers too. More is better, right? Bio-engineering is all for our benefit, right? Right??
Sadly, I believe that things have indeed turned a very dark corner, and that it all boils down to a few key things: naivete, money, hubris, and power. They form a kind of progression. Let’s consider the first — naivete.
I have seen incredible and surprising naivete among my old compatriots regarding the ethical implications of what they are creating. They may pay lip service to “ethics,” but they have no real idea of the personal impacts their creations are making on the average person, or how that person perceives their computerized life. In essence, the tech titans are living in ivory towers, with Silicon Valley being one big overarching tower. For example, ask the average computer illiterate person and they will tell you that the decisions made by AI are infallible. When I mentioned this to one of my prominent AI researcher friends, they were quite surprised. Every AI researcher understands the limitations of AI. This disparity in perception is quite dangerous, because our technologically uninformed politicians and businessmen make similarly uninformed decisions about the use of AI that could wreak havoc upon our lives.
Allow me pause here to talk a bit more about AI. While I didn’t do my PhD in AI, I spent most of my working career doing research in what is now considered “old AI” — that is, failed AI. Back then, we were trying to create programs that (we believed) mimicked human reasoning and perception from first principles — through logical reasoning. Essentially, we assumed that our brains (and therefore the computer programs that we were building to mimic them) worked according to logical principles — A implies B, B implies C, therefore A implies C. Unfortunately, this approach proved to be largely a failure. It could only work on small problems or when confined to very specific types of tasks and information.
Today’s AI is nothing like this. It is really just about statistical manipulation of large datasets. For example, Google or Facebook “mines” all the data that you provide to it through your behavior. Then, AI algorithms attempt to find statistical patterns within this data. For example, an algorithm might discover that you tend to search for particular products. Naturally, they then use this information to advertise those kinds of products to you. However, from the various patterns that the algorithms notice, they also start to make guesses about relationships between things. For instance, they might guess what political party you belong to, based on the fact that you tend to buy certain products and have certain friends. They might then use this information to sway your voting pattern. Of course, the algorithms might guess wrong, and that’s the danger of today’s of AI. It sees patterns and makes guesses that seem statistically correct — that is, they may usually be correct. But if the underlying data is flawed or weak, the patterns and guesses may be all wrong. Garbage In — Garbage Out, as they say. AI is thus very far from infallible. And yet, our computer illiterate society is making serious decisions about how our lives are controlled based on AI. Scary.
The same well-meaning naivete of the Silicon Valley computer elite is also true within the biotech sector. One of my moments of awakening to this occurred when I was listening to a Stanford radio interview as I was driving home one day. The interviewee was a CRISPR researcher doing work on gene editing. The interviewer asked if it would soon be possible for a person to grow a tail. Yes, said the researcher, very soon. The interviewer then asked if this was ethical? The CRISPR scientist replied, “Well, if someone wants to grow a tail, why not?” I almost vomited right there in my car. Of course, the researcher also hastened to add, “Well, the real reason we are doing this research is to cure diseases.” But was he so naive that he didn’t think about what his research might also be used for? Indeed, who was actually funding his research? It’s only a short hop from people with tails to genetically engineered super soldiers, cloned human slaves, and designer babies. Is there any limit to what’s permissible or wise? Sadly, this trajectory is now what Stanford and so many other universities are so proudly and naively all about.
Next comes money. The quick riches to be found in Silicon Valley are known world-wide, which is why so many people move there. When you think about it, California — the Golden State — has always been about easy money. Think Hollywood or the California gold rush. While there may have been get-rich-quick scheming going on back in 1977, money was not what most of us nerds were thinking about. When you walked the streets of Palo Alto in those days, the conversations were all about creativity and fun and experimentation. Today, when you sit at a restaurant in Palo Alto, all the twenty-somethings are talking about their stock options and signing bonuses. And sadly, the divide between the mega-rich and the poor in the Bay Area is growing wider. The main street that runs in front of Stanford University is now lined with the motor homes of the homeless. Home invasions of the rich and mob-theft at nearby stores have become commonplace. Service people who work for the wealthy now have to drive two hours each way to find affordable housing. The big tech companies have not shared their good fortune to alleviate these systemic problems, including growing infrastructure problems. The rising tide of Silicon Valley has not raised all ships.
Next comes hubris. What happens to a person who becomes an instant billionaire at age 30? Do they feel like they just lucked out, won the lottery? Maybe. But they will likely start to think that their sudden riches are well deserved. They will believe that they are smarter and more daring than the average person. Maybe. But are they truly superior, wiser? Not at all. After all, how superior and wise are the suddenly-rich and talented young movie-stars of Hollywood? The train wrecks of their lives are written in the tabloids found at every supermarket checkout counter.
In my experience, the riches bestowed upon the Silicon Valley elite often results in them believing that their success and knowledge renders them the best arbiters of what’s best for the global population of the world. Even the kindest and most well-meaning among them can display this quality. They believe they are so smart and so informed that they, after all, know what is truly best for the world at large, for the every day person. They are also convinced that technology provides the only answer to the world’s problems. They couldn’t possibly fathom leaving important decisions about mankind’s future trajectory to the unwashed ignorant masses. Instead, the line of thinking goes more like: “We will save the world with our technological superiority and smarts. We know what’s best for the common man. We are so wise and caring, we wouldn’t do anything to harm them. We are entitled to this role as controllers of information flow, climate control, health policy, and more. Politicians are generally idiots who don’t understand what we understand. The masses can’t be trusted to make these important decisions for themselves.” This attitude belies both hubris — believing they know and understand more than they actually do — and condescension.
Unfortunately, the tech titans have (naively) forgotten an important thing: smart is not the same thing as wise. And in my experience, true wisdom is something quite lacking among so many of the tech elite, my old peers among them. I believe that one reason for this is that almost all of them are at least disinterested in, but usually downright disdaining of, any form of spirituality. Theirs is strictly a materialistic world, and atheism is the general rule of the land in Silicon Valley.
This segues nicely into another emerging phenomenon in Silicon Valley: transhumanism. It’s a word and concept new to most people — the almost religion-like philosophy that advocates for the merger of human and machine. Transhumanists desire to incorporate computers and computational abilities into their bodies. Although this idea is new to most people, it’s actually been percolating for quite a while. In fact, my first experience with the transhumanist phenomenon goes back to my AI lab days in the late 70s. One night, as I was wandering the halls, I started talking to Hans Moravec, a robotics researcher at the lab who later wrote the book Mind Children. Hans said, “Amy, in 50 years, we will be merging with computers.” At the time, I thought this was ridiculous, impossible, nonsense. How wrong I was, and how accurate were Hans’s predictions!
Fast forward to 2009. My younger son started college and his quiet and reclusive roommate announced that he was a transhumanist. I looked up the term and thought, “Well, gee, a harmless nerd.” Around the same time, my husband and I were invited to a birthday party in San Francisco of an old friend of mine from back in the 1980s. The party was filled with young computer entrepreneurs; my husband and I were the oldest people there (we were in our late 50s). As the evening wore on, we were regaled by these people declaring their near immortality. They were busy freezing their eggs and sperm and maintained that they would live to be at least 1000 years old! When we told them that we didn’t mind getting old and that aging was an important part of the human experience of life, they were practically filled with revulsion. As we walked back to our car that night, we remarked on how weird and deluded these people were and chalked it up to nerdity in over-drive. Now I realize that these are the people in control of Silicon Valley, and by extension, all of our lives.
This brings me to the last factor in the big change: the quest and lust for power. Think about it. What happens to a person who has become insanely rich and filled with hubris? Not only do they believe they deserve power, but they begin to crave it. As the old saying goes: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That’s why we now have the unelected and self-appointed tech elite making policy decisions for the USA and the rest of the world, and becoming part of international bodies of control like the World Economic Forum. They are even using their power to manipulate the media and elections. And while most of the tech elite aren’t intrinsically “evil”, I’m sure that there are nefarious players among them. I can name one or two suspects. These people were generally disliked way back when by me and my peers. Though they usually weren’t the smartest among us, they were definitely the most power and money hungry. And it is these folks who quickly rose to the top of the heap.
And lest you think that the intoxicating smell of power is available only to a small minority of the mega wealthy, you should know that even not-so-rich young programmers can easily get a whiff of it in Silicon Valley. For example, you might be surprised to learn that big changes to the software that influences your life — Google search, Facebook, etc. — are often made by a small team of young programmers, sometimes fresh out of college. A small “cute” design decision can cause all kinds of change and wreak havoc on many people’s lives and emotions. That’s huge power in the hands of young people in their twenties. Consider the no-doubt trivially implemented (and likely not-well-thought-out) incorporation of the “like” button in Facebook.
So what’s to be done? Can this juggernaut be stopped? Can we change course? I’m sad to say, maybe not. The computerization of our lives and even our bodies is much like a steam roller. It all began rolling very slowly and imperceptibly many years ago, but it is now barrelling down on us at speeds most of us can no longer control.
Perhaps the best we can do is become aware of it and get out of the way as best we can. There may also be places in the world and groups of people that block it from encroaching upon them. That’s one reason I am writing this article — to boost awareness and inculcate a different kind of consciousness that doesn’t give up one’s humanity and privacy in exchange for convenience.
So please don’t populate your house with Alexas and other “smart devices”, created just to spy on your every word and behavior. These things aren’t just “convenient”, they are making money off of you and could easily be used to control you. (How will you feel when your “smart thermostat” refuses to heat or cool your house because of some “infraction” that you never dreamed possible?) And please do everything you can to preserve the use of cash — the only way (besides barter) to conduct anonymous transactions. In particular, work to stop the extremely dangerous conversion of our savings to e-money (a rather imminent development). Such systems could easily be used to control and monitor your spending and behavior and will likely lead to a Chinese-style social-credit-system that can “disappear” an “incorrectly behaving” person from functional society, now without the need for messy gulags and death squads.
Ultimately, of course, I hope that all of us wake up to what’s going on before it’s too late. Legal and political decisions could still be used to mitigate the damage in localities that decide to do so — there are some efforts to do this in some areas of Europe. The future is definitely uncertain. But at the very least, become aware now. The changes that crept up on Silicon Valley happened in a way that even I, a person who spent most of my adult life working and living there, was unaware of it. I hope this article serves as a wake up call for you.