Silicon Valley and the tech industry are generating enormous wealth, creating more jobs and opportunities, and radically reshaping our world. Our iPhones, tablets, and laptops allow us to become more independent and self-reliant, while at the same time allowing us to make more meaningful connections with other people. Apps and social media allow people around the world with similar interests and passions to connect in real-time, allowing the individuals most passionate about an idea or project to collaborate. In this regard, Silicon Valley allows for more people to connect, succeed, and profit.
According to critics, however, even though Silicon Valley is creating more jobs and opportunities, it is a matter of some concern that these opportunities are not open to everyone, that the tech industry suffers from inequality of opportunity. In a recent article in Wired (“Silicon Valley isn’t a Meritocracy. And it’s Dangerous to Hero-Worship Entrepreneurs”), Alice Marwick observes that to work in the tech industry it helps immensely to come from wealth and to have attended a prestigious university; above all it helps to be white, heterosexual, and male. For these reasons, she argues that we should be critical of Silicon Valley instead of praising and admiring it. Silicon Valley, she says, plays into the “power structures” of capitalism: to gain wealth and success one must already be wealthy or have substantial connections.
While it is true that individuals born into wealth and privilege have an advantage over those who are not, they do not have an unfair advantage. Where one ends up in life also depends on whether one has made the right choices. If one is born to wealthy parents who have backgrounds in engineering one will have the opportunity to attend better schools and to learn more skills than one who does not have the same parents. But one must choose to take advantage of those opportunities. If an individual chooses to party and burn through all of his parent’s money he will not benefit from his upbringing in the long run.
The tech industry is a rapidly accelerating, competitive industry. An idea one person has one day could the very next day be made obsolete by someone else’s idea. In the tech industry, it’s not enough that competitors be educated, they also need to make the right choices.
Suppose that two individuals both want to start the next big-name tech company. Both attended Harvard, both have connections, and both are smart. So imagine that the first person decides to leave Harvard to start his company; the second doesn’t. The first had to make a difficult choice. If he had stayed at Harvard he would likely have gotten a well-paying job after graduation. But then the idea for the company he wanted to start would become obsolete. The second individual stays at Harvard and upon graduation secures a well-paying job. But as result, he doesn’t create the multi-billion dollar company called Facebook.
Mark Zuckerberg’s choices were fundamentally responsible for his success. Of course to succeed in the tech industry he also had to be qualified—he had to have something of value to offer the investors who gambled on his idea for a social network. To be a programmer one has to have extensive knowledge of computer science, which individuals who cannot afford college would not have the opportunity to learn. An individual’s educational background can indicate to an employer whether he has something of value to offer the employer. But the fact remains that those who choose to make the most of their opportunities deserve the jobs they are awarded.
If an employer doesn’t consider someone’s educational or technical background and instead hires someone to promote diversity or social advancement, how can he know if the hire is of value to him? To run a successful business, an employer has to hire the best and most competent individuals. If there are not as many qualified women as men it will not benefit an employer to hire equal numbers of men and women. The decision to hire “unequally” isn’t unfair: people deserve a job only if they have skills and knowledge which will be of value to an employer.
According to Marwick it is even unfair to reward entrepreneurs who are assertive, competitive, and self-reliant, because these are “male-oriented” traits. But all jobs demand certain characteristics and abilities, whether the candidate is male or female, black or white, straight or gay. To deserve a job individuals have to fulfill the demands of the job. If a job requires being assertive, those who fill it must be assertive, regardless of sex, race, or sexual orientation.
Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg, executives of two of the biggest tech companies, have succeeded because they are assertive, competitive, and self-reliant. Both of these women chose to gain the knowledge and develop the skills—including the character traits—that are necessary for success in the business world. They chose to “lean in.”
Marwick criticizes Silicon Valley for being so exclusive, but its competitive environment is what makes it so successful. Silicon Valley is creating new technology that decreases rapidly in price with every advancement made, which is much more than can be said of academia (where Marwick works). To go to college one has to spend anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 a year, which is not practical for even most upper-middle class students. Yet for a couple hundred dollars students can buy a laptop and Internet access to Coursera, Khan Academy and other MOOCs, and gain equal, if not greater amounts of knowledge, opportunities, and connections than they would gain from traditional higher education. Why then is Silicon Valley being criticized for not providing enough opportunities?
Think of it this way: entrepreneurs could give up some of their resources so those born less well-off could live in greater comfort now, or they could invest their resources in their company, in their ideas, at their profit, and create whole new industries that allow us to not just live comfortably, but to live better. What do you think is the right choice to make?
Eric Rosenberg is a journalism student at Columbia College Chicago.