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The End of Silicon Valley Idealism

It isn’t surprising that Elon Musk and Travis Kalanick have accepted advisory positions in Donald Trump’s administration — but it’s far from normal. Welcome to big tech’s “practical” moment.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

On Wednesday, a brood of major tech executives — including the leaders of Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook — waltzed into Trump Tower, following in the steps of Kanye West and countless Goldman Sachs employees for a ceremonial ring-kissing.

As unnerving as it was to see blurry photos of America’s tech titans dashing to PEOTUS’s gold-plated elevator, it was also a fitting metaphor for the tech industry’s fast-crumbling facade of idealism. Most of Silicon Valley’s rulers have always argued that they’re here to make the world a more democratic, equal, accepting place. But despite the fact that Donald Trump has insulted and threatened their users and businesses, they are willing to — as longtime VC Chris Sacca recently said — “legitimize a fascist” if it means maintaining a profitable company. Silicon Valley has always been more opportunist than it was idealist, it was just a lot easier to pretend otherwise until now. President Obama liked to pluck data scientists and IT professionals from their cozy corporate jobs and put them to work addressing bureaucracy within certain government institutions. But none of the brilliant minds he nabbed were actually telling him how to run the economy. Advising the president while running a billion-dollar company is a lot different than hiring tech experts to “disrupt” from within.

And that is the very helpful, if melancholy, lens through which we should view the news that Uber CEO and cofounder Travis Kalanick and Tesla/SpaceX CEO Elon Musk will join the now-18-member group that makes up Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum. Silicon Valley’s biggest names may be willing to power through a meeting for the sake of corporate diplomacy. But as Twitter analyzes Tim Cook’s grimace from the Trump meeting, the influence of the advisory roles that Kalanick and Musk have accepted is getting overlooked. It will give them the opportunity, according to the Washington Post, to “meet with the president frequently” and offer their expertise. This process is notably different than the strategy Obama employed to integrate Silicon Valley’s smarts into the government.

On the most basic level, the addition of Kalanick and Musk makes sense. The forum is a Harvard Club of ethically ambiguous CEOs, including General Motors’ Mary Barra and JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon. If anything, they will be able to discuss the unfortunate decline in quality of Per Se’s waitstaff in great detail.

But it’s clear that both Kalanick, a ruthless disruptor of traditional markets, and Musk, a poster child for the boundless possibilities of innovation, are additions meant to explicitly represent Silicon Valley. On a more granular level, they are also the two most prominent Robot Car Kings in the world right now. How they could influence Trump’s policy? The best way to read the Trump tea leaves — which, to be clear, remain only vaguely helpful when dealing with a leader who is thought to make decisions based on CNN chyrons — is to examine the tech titans’ business philosophies and records.

Trump right-hand man Peter Thiel — a tech investor famous for his murky moral center — once called Uber “the most ethically challenged company in Silicon Valley.” That’s in part because the premise of Uber is to both upend an existing infrastructure of paid transportation, and replace it with a model that takes no official responsibility for the drivers that work for it. In July of last year, noted forest-dweller Hillary Clinton even subtweeted the company in a speech, declaring that the gig economy was “raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future.” Uber’s enormous growth and scale has left its market value hovering around (a disputed) $60 billion — while its drivers are so desperate to hit ride quotas that they’re peeing in jars.

As marginal as those estimated 1 million worldwide driver gigs might be, Uber’s aggressive investment in automated cars signals they might not be around for much longer. Especially when the man directing these decisions once likened himself to “the Wolf”—the Pulp Fiction fixer who step-by-rational-step makes a dead body disappear. In his own business dealings, Kalanick seems to have no problem advocating for a workforce’s loss if it results in his company’s gain. And as someone who once said Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was one of his “favorite books,” Kalanick would likely advocate that the government take a laissez-faire approach to companies like his as it squeezes worker benefits.

Musk is not nearly as controversial or criticized as Kalanik, but he does rely on the government’s hands-off cooperation for his company’s success. Tesla, an electric car company that wants to sidestep car dealers by selling its cars directly to clients via showrooms or online, has fought to loosen state law in this space. The entire premise of SpaceX, other than ultimately colonizing Mars, is that a private company can build a spaceship more efficiently than the government can. (All the while, Musk’s companies have benefitted from government contracts and incentives, including SpaceX’s recent $83 million contract with the Air Force to launch a next-generation GPS satellite, and a slew of tax credits and loans from state governments — something that might encourage Musk to bite his tongue around Trump when it comes to personal passions like climate change.)

If Musk and Kalanick have anything in common when it comes to business sense, they favor a certain cold, hard industry efficiency over a measured and gradual policy that could save aging or low-skilled workers their jobs. If they have the president’s ear, a more automated economy — whether that plays out on the floor of an Indiana Carrier factory or behind the wheel of a Volvo XC90 in Pittsburgh — seems like an inevitability. These men want to believe that Silicon Valley’s warped concept of meritocracy can exist across all of America. And who can blame them? It’s easy to be an optimist when you’re also an opportunist.