A wave of familiarity crept over me as I read about a new musical in San Francisco: “Alexandra Flores is a newly graduated tech journalist in pursuit of the truth in the age of fake news and clickbait. Upon meeting co-founders of an artificial intelligence startup, Alex and her colleague discover there’s more to a company’s story than their press releases might suggest.” Apart from the fact I am not newly graduated, this plotline echoed much of my own life, and I felt like a love-struck New York gang member hearing about West Side Story.
South of Market: the Musical, named after a San Francisco neighbourhood popular with techies and tech companies, had a 10-day run last month. I really enjoyed the production — not least because Silicon Valley does not often mock itself. HBO’s Silicon Valley is a rare example of a show that does — and that was created by Mike Judge, better known for Beavis and Butt-Head than for the three months he spent at a tech company in the 1980s.
Nor is the industry known for its warm acceptance of more critical work. Mark Zuckerberg complained that Aaron Sorkin “made up a bunch of stuff that I found kind of hurtful” in The Social Network. And Googlers were offended by Dave Eggers’ dystopian picture of a tech company not quite like Google in his 2013 novel The Circle.
But perhaps the “Big Tech backlash” — the criticism that some tech companies have monopolies in their markets — is starting to make Silicon Valley see itself as others do. South of Market packs in references to over-privileged employees, with sparkling water stacked in the office fridge and cult workouts at the climbing gym. No aspect of Silicon Valley life (including the over-exposure of Mark Zuckerberg’s dog) was left unmocked — and the audience loved it.
Outside the theatre, though, real-life criticism levelled at the tech industry from Washington DC to London, combined with revelations of sexual harassment, has shaken some tech workers’ perception of what they do. Facebook, Google and Twitter are sending representatives to answer questions from politicians. Others such as Airbnb, Dropbox, Microsoft and Tesla are turning to the most Silicon Valley of answers: using software to improve their ethics.
Convercent, a software platform designed to monitor the ethical health of an organisation, has received a large number of customer interactions in recent months. Its founder Patrick Quinlan aims to simplify the area of compliance. Instead of 1,500 policies that no one will remember, Quinlan suggests that people should ask themselves how their decision would be judged by the “4ms”: your mother, your mentor, the media and your maker.
The platform uses data to show where a company has problems: combining details from employee hotlines, HR and expenses with information from outside, such as the local unemployment rate, which can affect how people behave at work. I am heartened that tech companies are looking for ways to improve their ethics but I am not convinced that data-crunching will always help illuminate problems. Sexual harassment was widespread but people were afraid to report it. And social networks were unable to spot Russian disinformation.
Perhaps stories — and songs — might prove just as effective in making people reflect on their role in the world. Some of the songs in South of Market make direct reference to they way indulged staff can lose touch with reality and how Silicon Valley is just as excited at the prospect of humans and machines supposedly becoming one, as the rest of the world is scared.
I found the closing song the most uplifting. Pat Blute, the musical’s producer, wanted the tech industry to look at its work through a “different lens”, acknowledging that “not all change is for the better”. At the end of the show, the workers belted out a song that Blute calls the “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah for the millennial generation”. The chorus goes: “Believe in yourself, but not too much. Why reach for the sky when the ceiling is enough?”