The Failed Promise of Silicon Valley

Tech was meant to help us transcend our most intractable problems. What went wrong?

Amazon is rife with counterfeit and fakery. Facebook has been blamed for the dissemination of conspiracy theories and ethnic hatreds, and for allowing user data to be manipulated to influence elections. Uber can’t turn a profit even as its “gig economy” model undermines the notion of the steady job. YouTube’s algorithms sway restless young people to the most extreme racist right. Hand-held computers link us to the massive tech giants lurking in the background. There’s a whole genre of first-person essay about trying, and failing, to break addiction to the iPhone.

This was not how it was all supposed to turn out. For many years, Silicon Valley and the machines that came out of it were presented as personally, economically, and socially transformative, agents of revolution at both the level of the individual and the whole social order. They were democratizing, uncontrolled, anarchic, and new. Most of all, they were supposed to be fun—to open up a space of play and freedom. How is it, then, that just a few decades in, we find ourselves trapped in a dreary spectacle that seems to replicate the old patterns of exploitation and dominion in almost every sphere, but with a creepy new intimacy?

Margaret O’Mara’s book The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America traces just how our uneasy present deviated from what was promised at the outset.

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