The trouble with startups

The Concordian Politics Blog

HBO’s new show “Silicon Valley”  spoonfeeds viewers pretty much every stereotype about the Innovators and Risk Takers of Palo Alto. Within its first two episodes, we see huge amounts of money being thrown around, a house referred to as an “incubator”, and the coder-friendly limp sweatshirts previously poked fun at in “The Social Network.” But the show provides more than a showcase of the cringeworthy antics of the socially awkward Silicon Valley crew.

Within the show, startups are frequently said to have the capacity to change the world. However, in a (very slightly) less overt way, the show points out that a vast majority of these new ideas aren’t meant to make the world better at all. Instead, they are a means by which individuals may further their own careers and bolster personal wealth. In Silicon Valley, new ideas can bring rapid and extraordinary monetary returns. Because of this, everyone is trying to out-create and out-innovate each other, leading to solutions for problems that don’t really exist in the first place.

Stanford student Chi Ling Chang wrote about this from the heart of Silicon Valley with her article “On Changing the World.” Her main critique is that most startups build to build rather than build to change. “The ‘problems’ that emerge out of need-finding (rather than need-solving) exercises tend to be very first-world, and in part this is because the ideas that are rewarded here in Silicon Valley are those that solve ‘problems’ faced by a very narrow demographic—ours,” she says.

She points out, and I agree wholeheartedly, that there are certainly startups with the intention to bring change. There are those that look to change the world for the better, to increase the standard of living for individuals, and to truly engage the less fortunate. These are the startups that ought to be celebrated, and ideally, financially backed.

This isn’t what we see borne out in reality, though. It is those who can create something kind of cool but really unnecessary who reap the greatest rewards. Perhaps it’s the Bootstraps Mentality of America that prides individuals on making massive amounts of money off of little up-front investment and maintenance. Perhaps it’s the newfound obsession with useless technology. Perhaps it’s something else, or a lot of something elses. Whatever it is, we’re taking pride in apps and miscellaneous other programs that do little to truly affect the world for the better. Rather than looking at true benefits, we’re looking at financial bottom lines, large monetary gains, and increased shareholder values. This has led to the overwhelming and frankly nauseating self-congratulatory nature of the Innovative World of Startups.

The amount of money in the air of Silicon Valley is deeply disconcerting. These aren’t job creators who stimulate the economy and keep the wheels of America turning. Rather, Silicon Valley attempts to serve as a vacuum, taking money from across the country and the world to put it into the pockets of a select group of individuals. The homogenous group of New Money white men in their 20s and early 30s who had an upbringing privileged enough to allow them to focus their attention on startup skills are cashing in. Let’s stop championing this group until they show that they’re bringing something helpful to the world.

I won’t give up hope on startups just yet, and I absolutely believe that there are many examples of startups that are truly changing the world for the better. We need innovators and risk takers in the world. But far more than that we need the socially conscious, the empathetic, and the determined yet humble. Unfortunately, these kinds of people aren’t vastly increasing shareholder values. That’s why my outlook remains bleak. It’s impossible at this point to imagine the end of the wealthy-yet-worthless startup model. We live with a system that rewards the people who are not truly giving back.

Maybe we can use HBO’s jabs at Palo Alto to cope with this reality.


  1. surprise, there’s money in technology. of course anyone with “startup skills” (ie, basic programming knowledge) is going to try and cash in.

  2. I have never once heard anyone on any end of the political spectrum suggest that “Silicon Valley [is] a vacuum, taking money from across the country and the world to put it into the pockets of a select group of individuals.” This perhaps better describes Washington’s rent-seeking economy or the machinations of Wall Street financial firms, but it most certainly does not describe the creative people and corporations who have fundamentally transformed the world from their home base in Silicon Valley. If you have in mind smartphone apps – for example – as your template of what startups do, I’d really recommend reading about the diverse range of work that both startups and established corporations do in Silicon Valley, from pioneering biomedical technology to the fundamental architecture of the Internet that has penetrated virtually every corner of this planet.

    As a side note, *even if* you think that smartphone apps are evidence of vacuum-like “waste” in the economy, they still satisfy widespread demand for such things, just as your consumption of an HBO series modestly but directly contributes to the existence of a large and powerful media conglomerate.

  3. So what are the chances you wrote this article on a Mac?

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