Greg Ferenstein: “The Age of Optimists: How Silicon Valley will transform Political Power”


MALE SPEAKER: So welcome
to Talks at Google, to this afternoon we’re
very thrilled to host Greg Ferenstein, who is a
former political journalist for TechCrunch, where,
among his other skills, he taught mathematics to
journalists, which is always an important thing to do. And he’s here
speaking to us today about his latest thesis,
which arose out of some Medium posts and some articles for
TechCrunch, “Silicon Valley’s Political End Game,”
so this strange mixture of libertarianism and
progressivism we have here. And what does that mean? Where is it going? How does it impact the local
and national issues we face? So with that, please join me
in welcoming Greg to Google. Thanks. GREGORY FERENSTEIN:
Thanks for having me. I think I kind of want
to thank you guys, because I think 70% of all
of my internet experience is at Google itself–
Google Docs, Google, Google Maps, everything. My internet experience
and digital life is basically Google. So thank you. I appreciate it, guys. In 1981, the “Ottawa Citizen”
newspaper reported on a story from a University of
Carelton professor who claimed that if “teachers
don’t stand up to the growing invasion of computers
in the classroom, there’s a good
chance that literacy will disappear in 10 years.” Obviously, these were
not prophetic words. When I first began researching
the politics and philosophy of breakthrough innovators,
I started with what I knew wasn’t. And I knew it wasn’t pessimism. You would dedicate
your life to trying to improve the future if you
thought the outlook was bleak. And indeed, when I then
began systematically to interview
breakthrough innovators about their philosophy,
what was core to them, first and foremost,
above all else, they describe
themselves as optimists. We’re working with two
different devices here. Wikipedia founder,
Jimmy Wales, “I’m a pathologically
optimistic person.” Mark Zuckerberg,
“I’m an optimist. I think you need to be,
to be an entrepreneur.” “I may be the most
optimistic person I know. I mean I’m incredibly
optimistic. I’m optimistic,
arguably, to a fault, especially in terms of new
idea,” Marc Andreessen. Steve Jobs, “I’m an
optimist in the sense that I believe humans are noble
and honorable, and some of them are really smart. I have a very optimistic
view of individuals.” At first, I dismissed
this optimism as just kind of like hippie
frou-frou Silicon Valley. But then I learned
this optimism was just a rhetorical wrapper around very
specific business strategies and political policies. The motivation
originally behind this was that technologists,
all of a sudden, are becoming very influential,
at least according to “Forbes.” Over 80% of billionaires on
the Forbes 400 list under 40 come from technology. So whatever these
folks believe is going to exert an extraordinary
amount of influence over the future. So I wanted to answer
three questions. One, does the optimism of
information technologists have a unique worldview? Is it just that they’re
good at technology and they happened
to do politics, or are they somehow combined? Does this worldview help
them make technology? That is, is there something
about their politics and their vision
for the future that is behind and almost
a prerequisite for billion-dollar ideas? And the last is,
is this worldview shared by just a small number
of very rich and very successful people, or is it part of a
broader political movement? The answer to all of
these, I think, is yes. And because I’m
attention deficit and I assume my
audience is too, I will just go ahead and tell
you my thesis before I go on with the explanation. The world has
gotten more complex. As a result, it’s given rise
to the knowledge economy. The knowledge
economy has empowered a novelty-seeking
personality that has an extreme optimism
in information alone to solve problems. This is built on a
growing demographic of college-educated,
urbanized professionals, who represent an entirely
new political category. They are pro-government
and pro-market but believe the
government’s role isn’t to regulate capitalism, but
to invest in capitalism, to accelerate change
by investing directly in citizens to be more educated,
entrepreneurial, and civic. If you take away nothing
else, very simple, betting that information
will make the future has become a very
profitable belief system. And that essentially
is why optimists will inherit the earth. The rest is explanation. So starting with
the first question, what do these folks believe? The best explanation
actually came from the patron of this
organization, Eric Schmidt. He said, “there’s a particular
religion that we all represent, and it goes something like this. If you take a large
number of people and you empower them
with communication tools and opportunities to be
created, society gets better. The combination of empowerment,
innovation, and creativity will be will be our solution. And that is a religion
in-of-itself.” So the folks who make
breakthrough technologies and help them along
are cognizant that they have a distinct world view. So when I delved deeper into
Eric’s and other people’s idea that somehow citizens,
just through empowerment, could make the world
a better place, I found that their philosophy
was founded on two main ideas. First, as Reid Hoffman
told me, “if you’re working towards
progress, your future will be better
than your present.” That is change is
inherently good. The very nature of change
makes things better. Now, change can often be
bad over the short term. You can have a bad
20 or 30 years even. But eventually, if
you just keep trying, if you just keep
changing and disrupting, eventually things get better. This is the first
tenant of optimism, or at least described
by Silicon Valley. So then I took
what I was learning from Reid Hoffman and
other folks, and I said, is this just the very
wealthy in Silicon Valley, or is it technologists
more broadly? So I’m a former writer for a
tech blog called TechCrunch. They have a database of every
single startup founder ever. I found their email addresses
and randomly emailed them to take a battery of
40 political psychology questions, which
became what I think is the first representative
political opinion poll of what Silicon Valley believes. And I peppered them with
some of these statements. Indeed, when you ask, is change
inherently good or productive over the long term,
80% of tech founders say yes– near unanimity. That number is unheard of in
political opinion polling. You rarely get numbers that big. When I compare
that same question to a survey done of the general
population, only 48% of people agreed that change inherently
over the long run is good. Now, this gets into why
the Valley’s generally kind of considered libertarian–
this kind of free market ideology, anything goes. Let’s change as
quickly as possible. When you compare tech
founders with Libertarians and Democrats, they
look like Libertarians on a couple big issues. They’re not as big a
fans of labor unions. They tend to believe that
labor unions, especially teachers unions, tend to
protect the status quo and prevent organizations from
experimenting and piloting new things and moving into
the future very quickly. So about 29% of
tech founders think that labor unions are
good for the economy, and 21% of Libertarians. On the flip side,
they’re radically pro-free trade– NAFTA, TPP. They want capitalism everywhere. And that’s where this myth that
the Silicon Valley is generally Libertarian comes from. That would be true, except for
the fact that Silicon Valley, as a whole, is arguably the
most liberal industry on planet Earth. 83% of donations in the
2012 presidential election from top tech firms, like
Google, Facebook, and Amazon, went to Obama
versus Romney– 83%. If you look at all
donations back to 2008 from every single tech
founder and investor, 63% went to Democrats. In my survey of tech
founders, about 7% identify as Republican. So clearly, if we
want to understand what tech founders
and Silicon Valley believes, thinking that
they’re Libertarian was missing something. Why are they such a big fan
of the Democratic party? And this I learned,
when a Libertarian icon in the Senate, Rand
Paul, announced his presidential candidacy
and came to San Francisco. And he got up on stage. He was really excited. He wanted to warm up the
crowd, and he led with this. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] -Is there anybody out here from
the leave-me-alone coalition? Not that many. [END PLAYBACK] GREGORY FERENSTEIN: Right? He said, is anyone out here from
the leave-me-alone coalition? No one clapped, and
it was really awkward. Leave me alone, get
government out of my life is central to the
Libertarian philosophy. And yet it was not
popular in San Francisco. This led me to do
some more questioning. So one of the central
tenants of Libertarianism is that there is a
conflict between government and citizens. On the flipside,
Democrats tend to believe that there’s a conflict between
citizens and big corporations. The richer corporations
get, the less citizens have. Tech founders, as a
group, overwhelmingly believe that there’s is no
conflict between business, corporations, or citizens. At 61%, they say everyone
has a role in society, and they can all work
together, compared to just 20% of the public. They have an optimism
that collectivism and interdependence is possible. When I dug deeper
into that theory, I learned that a popular term
in the Valley is what’s called “non-zero sum economy–”
a non-zero sum economy. The idea that you can build
things that benefit people. Even if some people
benefit a little bit more, you raise the tide for everyone. The core of this
popular non-zero sum meme in Silicon
Valley is that what is good for you is good for me. What is bad for you
is also bad for me. So I asked this question,
does everything people do, including their
personal decisions, like whether to be
educated or eat healthy, affect enough other
people to justify government intervention? A near majority, 49% of
founders believed that. Only 20% of Libertarians
and 60% of Democrats. That is they think
interdependence is part of society,
that we are connected. And so now we have a working
definition of optimism. There is always
a better solution that benefits more people. I think most reasonable
people, at this point, would be asking
themselves, what is the connection between
technology and politics? You’ve shown me a
lot of correlations. But what do the two have
to do with each other? I kind of want to
make the case to you that technology is if not
mostly political, inherently political. If you build a missile,
you build it for a reason. You’re trying to
protect the country. Hawkish people, who are
fearful of other countries or terrorists, build
military technologies. If any of you guys
know any Bitcoin folks, the anonymous
crypto currency that is an alternative to
money, the community started out hyper Libertarian. They wanted to free the
economy from the confines of the government and its
control over the cash supply So what I did is I
found a way to predict someone’s political ideology
from the products they built. I looked at every single public
political donation, Federal Elections Commission, and I
matched that to tech founders. And I found that,
indeed– you might have troubles reading the slide. But this is the
political orientation grouped by startup category. If you work in finance,
in cyber security, you’re more likely to
be a hawkish Republican or a Libertarian, which is
kind of what we thought. The most liberal category
in all of startup land, or one of them,
social networking. Why is that the case? Why is a social network
political at all? And that’s what I
find fascinating, because the actual
politics of Silicon Valley and technologists
and tech workers are so distinct from our
traditional categories, we don’t even recognize
that a social network has, in fact, a policy analog. The way I want to show you that
is the differences between My Space and Facebook. If you can remember all the
way back in internet history, back to 2006, My Space
was king of kings. And they had an idea
that social networking was about expression. On the left here, you
see– or it’s you’re right. You see a My Space page. You could do whatever you want. You could make it annoying. You could have auto play music. My Space didn’t care. They encouraged this. When pornographic
stars were kicked off of earlier social networks,
they invited them on My Space. Do whatever you want. It is a Libertarian
expression paradise. And the culture of
their users ate it up. There was a phrase that went
viral, before we kind of knew what viral meant, in 2006
on My Space that said, “don’t judge me.” This is what people plastered
all over their profiles. It was so popular
that it spawned its own kind of gaudy t-shirt
and like rhinestone, the Don’t Judge Me t-shirt line. Zuckerberg and co had
a different philosophy. Zuckerberg said,
“on My Space people got to do whatever they
wanted on their profile. We always thought
people would share more, if we didn’t let them
do whatever they wanted, because we gave
them some order.” Facebook had a North Star. Sheryl Sandberg,
“Mark really does believe very much
in transparency and the vision of an open
society and an open world, and so he wants to
push people that way.” So one of the early
things that Facebook did was they did auto
tagging of photos, and they eventually turned
that into the newsfeed. And if you remember, there
was a massive backlash. Zuckerberg personally
had to make a statement on the
front page of Facebook, or in people’s [INAUDIBLE]. He’s like, I get it. You’re worried about privacy. You’re worry about
what’s going on. But we have this
vision for the world, and we’re going to continue
doing the newsfeed. And we’re going
to continue trying to push people to
share more information, because he believed–
and this is often made fun– that just getting
people to share cat videos or what they’re
doing at a wedding or what they believe
or an article, just sharing information was a way to
make the world a better place. Doesn’t seem very political. We know it is because one
of Facebook’s first users was this guy, Harvard University
Professor Robert Putnam. Putnam became famous for
this idea of social capital. It’s a theory that says
the best way to improve the governance of a city,
to make people healthier, to make economies more equal,
to make the bureaucracy more efficient is simply to
get people to hangout more on an informal basis–
bowling leagues, book clubs, rotary clubs. He found this in a
25-year-long study of Italy. And he wanted to know why
some sections in the north, like Amelia, were
much more prosperous and equal and healthy. And after 25 years of
studying every variable in political science, he
found one simple pattern. In the north, there
was more community. Specifically, people
just hung out more. That simple fact
of Northern Italy made them a much better society. And now governments around the
world– sometimes with the UN– it is a policy, a public policy,
to get people to hang out more on an informal basis. Social capital as
a political theory has been replicated
dozens of times, sometimes experimentally. They find out if you
share informal things, things get better. Facebook was the technological
manifestation of that policy, and a rather optimistic
policy at that. You want the world
to get better? Just have people talk more. Ultimately, it’s an
informational philosophy. People share information
about government services or what people are doing wrong
or right in their neighborhood, and they also exchange empathy. They get to know each other. So if Silicon Valley
represents an entirely new political category,
people often ask me, what does this look like in
an actual policy, modern day? Google’s backyard,
San Francisco. One of the distinct
beliefs that I learned about Silicon Valley
was they believed that cities, bringing people
to cities, was a moral good. Often the San Francisco
housing crisis is often kind of couched
in terms of tech people just wanting cheaper
rent, and Google not having that have to pay
higher salaries because that’s the only way that
their workers can afford to live close to campus. And if you’re not familiar
with the San Francisco housing crisis, although I
assume most folks in here are– or the Bay Area
housing crisis, for those watching online–
only 8% of housing is now affordable
in San Francisco because the city has tried
to protect its suburbs and won’t allow buildings
to get taller or more dense. They’ve just
literally restricted a lot of dense buildings. Even if you can’t buy
a home, median rents have skyrocketed
about $4,000 a month. Thousands of people have
been evicted from their homes from landlords who
see that they can now sell a relatively inexpensive
home for over $1 million or $2 million. So as a result, you have
this massive conflict between technologists and some
renters who want to build more, and critics who say that
Google and tech companies and the rest of the creative
class that are coming in just want to take over the city. For 6,000 years of
technological history, cities have been the birth place
for information technology. Writing likely happened around
the time of Mesopotamia, when people gathered for the
first time in such large groups that they began to
have grain surpluses, and they couldn’t account
for what everyone had. So they had cuneiform
tablets, and they made little tick marks. And that’s how they
were able to keep track of who had what food and items. Complexity,
especially in cities, is the birthplace of many
information technologies, and it’s been that
way for 6,000 years. So to believe in
cities isn’t just to believe you
want cheaper rent, is to believe that
one of the best things you can do for humanity
is to bring them to cities. This is what San Francisco looks
like as an affordable city. That’s a simulation I did based
on econometric estimates of San Francisco with almost double
the housing stock it has now– 200,000 more units. Now we know that,
I think– well, I’ve made the case that
information technologists, Silicon Valley, and
urbanized professionals have a distinct
political category. And we know what it kind
of looks like in policy. The title of the talk
is “Why Optimists Will Inherit the Earth.” It turns out that
the dividing line, at least within the
Democratic Party, over people who are more
optimistic about change, a little bit more
collectivist in orientation, a bigger fan of free
trade, and investment orientation of
government happens to be college education. The more college
educated you are, the more you tend to
believe in this philosophy. Over the last decades,
if you can see the slide, the share of people voting
in Democratic elections, or presidential elections
that are Democrats, are college educated
have grown a lot and are now the
majority of voters. This radically
altered the leadership of at least one party. The picture you see above
is congressional leadership. So the blue areas represent
leaders in Congress who were at one time
very popular, measured by when they introduce a bill,
a lot of their colleagues sign on. It used to be Union County–
the middle of the country. But as urbanized professionals
and college educated people went to the cities, it split. 30 years later, the leadership
is now on the coasts, think Nancy Pelosi in San
Francisco, Hillary Clinton in New York. This is how systematically the
people who are most optimistic built technologies. They made some money. They wanted to move to cities. They became a majority of
voters and large donors. And at least in one
party, it is now shifted more towards
that orientation, towards a more investment
orientation of government. I’ll leave why I
think it’s going to be the most influential. This is a map of every
major information technology ever invented,
all the way back to the Macedonians. When I began studying the
history and the philosophy of those who invented
big technologies, they sounded like
Silicone Valley folks. Socrates, who, with
Plato and Aristotle, invented the academy, some of
the first official schooling, said, there is only
one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance. Socrates was killed
for that belief. Centuries later,
Charles Babbage, who created one of the first
programmable computers, said, knowledge is power. Babbage wasn’t killed, but
he wasn’t a very wealthy man, and the government,
at the time, decided not to invest in the project. They didn’t see any
future for a computer. Sean Parker, founding
president of Facebook, told me it’s the hacker
ethic that a lot of problems in the world are
information inefficiencies. And he’s a billionaire. The growing complexity
of the world will, for the first
time in human history, allow this very ancient
ideology to become either the most powerful or
a very powerful influence over the world. And that is where optimists
will inherit the earth. MALE SPEAKER:
Through your research and through your
interviews, is it a matter of the sort of big
voices carrying the most weight? I’m thinking of the folks
who want to split California into six different states–
the Libertarian paradise to be established in
international waters. How does that impact
the studies you found with the overall
progressive mentality of the Silicon Valley? GREGORY FERENSTEIN:
So I don’t know where the myth that Silicon
Valley was Libertarian came from. I suspect it fit into
a kind of narrative, speaking as a writer. It was easy to say,
OK, these folks don’t like government regulation. And they’re big
fans of capitalism. And they also like money. Therefore they must
be Libertarian. And so these kind of
like weird projects, like trying to split
California into six states or create a floating city
of the coast of California that doesn’t have any US
government regulation, it fit into that narrative. And so it was given an
outside voice in the press. What you didn’t
see was, in fact, that almost all donations
from top tech companies go to Democrats in
presidential elections. So I think what happened was it
was just the media picking up on a narrative that wasn’t true. AUDIENCE: To what
extent do you think people are fooling
themselves about knowledge and what they really
consider knowledge? Like there’s a lot
of knowledge in, say, the third world that probably
isn’t thought about very much in Silicon Valley. There’s knowledge that
is not optimistic, say unions are seen
as like complaining. So that knowledge seems
to get discounted. I think knowledge here
is seen as optimism and seen as knowledge that’s
around Silicon Valley. Do you think that’s true? Do you think that the knowledge
is really narrower than really all knowledge, I guess? GREGORY FERENSTEIN: Well, I
think, just philosophically, the idea that most
folks, when they start a company or at least
information technology companies, they have this
kind of general theory that whatever knowledge they’re
putting out into the world somehow makes it better. In the case of
Facebook, they believe that people sharing information
and pictures of their family would create more
connections between people. People would develop empathy. We would be a more bipartisan
nation, things like this. When it came to Twitter,
the founders of Twitter told me that it started out
as kind of like an information broadcasting service, where one
of the founders was on a BART. And if he experienced
an earthquake, he would want to let everyone
know that he was OK, right? So when I say
information, it’s tackled like one product at a time,
and it’s one bill at a time. So the idea of cities building
very dense and tall cities, the idea is that you can invite
people of all income brackets into the same area. They can enjoy the same
schools and job opportunities. And you can invite smart people
from all over the country to work in the most
productive companies. I mean, I’m using knowledge
kind of writ large, but it’s tackled one policy,
one product at a time. I don’t know if that
answers your question. AUDIENCE: Yeah, I’m not sure. But just to pick up on
the city, so the idea is people could all
come together in a city. But the actual reality is
the rentals have gone up, and so it’s people
have to leave the city, and it’s becoming more of
a monoculture in that sense and in some way. GREGORY FERENSTEIN: And
that’s because San Francisco systematically refuses
to build more housing. More people could live here,
if it was denser and taller and you could
build faster, there wasn’t as much
regulation around. That would solve, I think,
that monoculture problem. Seattle, the New York
area, much more diverse, because a more
diverse set of people can afford to live there. And that’s why solving the
San Francisco housing crisis is very core to the technology
political philosophy. And I will just say this–
thank you for bringing that up– that if you’re interested
in solving the crisis, you can go to
affordableSanFrancisco.com, and I am going to be
helping out with others who are doing campaigns to
actually introduce legislation that allows San Francisco
to become denser and taller and build more quickly. AUDIENCE: So you mentioned
the non-zero sum game outlook of technologists. And for things like material
benefit, health care, that is absolutely true. But for political power,
there is a fixed amount of political decision making
which happens in the world. And disparity in political
agency is growing as well. This has been complained about
by both the Bernie Sanders supporters and the
Donald Trump supporters, this growing populist
movement that is saying they have no voice
in the governance of the world. How do you see the growing
power from the politics of the technologists interacting
with this populist movement? GREGORY FERENSTEIN: What I
see from the civic sector of startups is trying
to empower more voices. So if you look at change.org,
Sean Parker’s and Matt Mahan’s brigade, what
they’re trying to do is build technologies that
allow people with out much money to influence politics. So change.org– you don’t
need to give any money. All you need to do
is sign a petition. And if enough people do that,
it gets media attention. Some people believe
that helped at least influence the Boy Scouts
decision to accept LGBT scout leaders. So I think it is the hope of
many people in Silicon Valley that their technology will
distribute political influence more evenly. AUDIENCE: What
happens when you talk to people who are not in
Silicon Valley about this who don’t have a favorable view? How do they react
to this philosophy, and what do they think of it? GREGORY FERENSTEIN: So I think–
when I say Silicon Valley, I mean kind of a cultural
movement, so broadly urbanized, educated professionals. That’s a lot of people. Not everyone agrees with it, and
everyone has their own issues. So traditional
Democrats, especially out of like the
Bernie Sanders camp, fear inequality of any type. They think if you are rich and
you’re part of a tech company, inherently what
you’re going to do is just try to empower yourself
and screw everyone else. And so what they want
to do is they want to limit technology companies. They want to slow growth,
whether it’s Uber and Lyft, through regulations
and redistribute like power and money. That’s generally
the reaction I get. They do not believe,
or at least they have a resistance
to believe, that you can be a big corporation
or a widely used product and be generally
good for most people. Power inherently corrupts. That’s kind of the orientation. And against that, there’s
not a lot you can say, because to be a
popular tech product, you need to be used
by a lot of people. To have it be sustainable, it
needs to make a lot of money. You can win them
over on some issues, like housing in San
Francisco or education, if you make education cheaper,
like Udacity and Coursera, top universities in the
world which were once reserved for very wealthy
people who could afford Stanford and Harvard. Now everyone can take
their classes for free. So I think on some
issues you’ll win that crowd over–
philosophically probably not, but on the issues, yes. I don’t know if that
answers your question. AUDIENCE: What about rural
conservatives, same question? GREGORY FERENSTEIN:
Rural conservatives– maybe just because I don’t
have a lot of touch point with rural conservatives,
but I haven’t seen a lot of complaints
from that camp. So I don’t know. I have no idea. If I hear, like if someone
pings me on Twitter and says, I’m a rural conservative. I don’t like you, then
I’ll be able to engage with that person. Or if anyone listening online
is a rural conservative, email me, tweet at me. We’ll have a conversation. AUDIENCE: You mentioned
you based a lot of this on this survey that you did. Now was there controls? Because that’s somewhat of
self-selection as to who returns the survey. Perhaps it was just
all the Libertarians. Perhaps it was all Democrats. How did you do
controls for that? GREGORY FERENSTEIN: Well, so you
can’t do controls in a survey. All surveys– all
political opinion surveys– unless you like strap
someone down and torture them until they answer questions,
are, by definition, voluntary. What you hope is that you get a
broad enough sample of people, and that the people who answer
your question– I guess what you hope is that the reason why
someone answers your question is independent of their
political ideology. So if you believe that if you’re
more Libertarian or culturally conservative you’re more
likely to answer any opinion poll, than yes, it’s a problem. Just speaking kind of broadly
about public opinion polling– political opinion
polling– I think some surveys show
that conservatives are popular in some
states, and liberals are popular in other states. So just answering a
survey seems to be independent of your
political ideology. I tried to sample
enough founders. I sampled about 144. The margin of error was
about plus or minus 7%. AUDIENCE: I guess like
historically the Democratic Party has, I think, of as like
having in mind the concerns of working class people. And it seems like this new
movement within the party seems like very meritocratic
and is OK with inequality. And how do you see
the future playing out in terms of like kind
of the Bernie Sanders camp of the Democratic
Party, I guess, and the people who
seem to be looking out for the interest of
working class people and the more
meritocratic side, that seems to just want
to empower people but may not look out for people
who are like super motivated and driven to capitalize
on those opportunities? GREGORY FERENSTEIN: So that’s
a really good question. I’m glad you asked it. I’m going to give it a little
bit of a lengthy answer. But I’ll try to keep it short. So I once thought this ideology
was pretty tied to income. If you made a lot of money
and you were highly educated, you tended to
believe this thing. I was wrong. I started doing surveys– thanks
to the Google Surveys team actually. They’re great– of gig economy
workers in San Francisco. I was able to filter
people who worked for Uber and Lyft an InstaCart
and TaskRabbit. Gig economy workers
have a political profile much closer to tech workers,
than people who tell me they’re in a union. This makes sense. They have a more
entrepreneurial lifestyle. They are bigger fans of
high-skilled immigrants like tech workers, because
high-skilled immigrants help create the products
that give them a job. On presidential
candidates, they’re bigger fans of Hillary Clinton
than Bernie Sanders, who potentially could be the
person to regulate technology, if he ever got to be president,
more so than Clinton. Because they live an
entrepreneurial existence, they’re more like tech
workers, and they need a similar role for government. It turns out that
this has happened before in Democratic history. The original
progressives, people who called themselves
progressives in the Democratic Party, go
all the way back to 1840. Originally, the Democratic
Party as a whole was against free trade. This was before the United
States had much of a free trade agreement at all. And when the government tried
to introduce more free trade principles, the bill failed. When the new high-tech
industry of the time in the 1840s, the railroads,
partnered with low-skilled farm workers, who wanted to
sell their goods abroad, they banded together a
high-skilled industry and a low-skilled industry
to fundamentally change America’s economic stance
to the rest of the world. This is happening, I
believe, 150 years later, with tech workers
and gig economy workers, the same alliance
just different policies. That was a long answer. Thank you. AUDIENCE: I’m wondering about
this urban versus rural theme you have though, because I have
a feeling it’s a little bit too biased towards like high
density big cities and so on. When you actually
look at the places where most of the major
innovations are coming from, I think it’s actually suburbia–
University campuses, suburbia, and so on, and they’re
not very dense. So like obviously
we’re at Google. It’s not that urban. If you look at the
other companies– Facebook, all the
big heavy hitters, like even recent ones– WhatsApp
was Mountain View downtown, I think. And if you go further
back, like if you look at the history
of Silicon Valley, IBM invented basically just
this corporate campus something in the South Bay. And if you look
through the history, my point is that cities
are not a prerequisite for– I mean dense,
high-density cities are not a prerequisite and probably not
the best place to really move the need with innovation. And San Francisco has
certainly some startups, and I think the
scene has shifted more toward San Francisco
in recent years, but I’m not sure of the
cause and effect there. So maybe you can talk
about this a bit. GREGORY FERENSTEIN: No,
that’s an excellent question. The idea is that especially
Silicon Valley, when it started in the ’60s and then
kind of grow, ’70s and ’80s, tended to be a little
bit more suburban. So why are cities necessary? So there’s two
responses to that. One is, relatively
speaking, the Bay Area is still extremely
dense, compared to the middle of the country. Where I’m from, Omaha,
Nebraska and the rest of these, even though it
doesn’t look as dense because there’s kind of
single family home houses, there’s a lot of them. And no one really has
big yards here, right? So compared to the rest of
the country and in New York as well, still relatively dense. The other argument is that
even if all of the invention is kind of happening
in the outer suburbs of major metropolitan regions,
a lot of the technologies are built for folks living
in cities to solve city problems– Google Maps, right? The idea that you
need to look at a map because you don’t know
where you’re going is a city phenomenon. When I lived in Omaha,
I didn’t need a map. I knew where I was going. I went to basically the
same places every day. Airbnb– the idea
that you would need to sleep on someone’s
couch– one, there would be
enough couches, B, there would be that
many people to support an entire industry only
happened because of cities. So a lot of the new
technology, especially the sharing economy–
Craigslist– all happened because there was so
much complexity and so much stuff in the system that someone
needed to simplify it and help people share resources. In small towns, you can
do that analog style. You just know everyone. So that’s generally why
cities are important. On the data side,
economics, there’s a Berkeley professor
named Enrico Moretti. He calculated that housing
restrictions in three cities– San Jose, San Francisco, and
New York– kneecaps national GDP by 10%, because there’s a lot
of talented coders in the world. If a coder in Oklahoma
can move to Mountain View and work at Google, they’re
are a lot more productive than any company they’re going
to work for in the Midwest. AUDIENCE: So with
something you said earlier, kind of alluded to something. You don’t really know that
many rural conservatives. This is a growing trend. Not the not knowing of
rural conservatives, but the ideological
purity of social groups. Social networks
are growing larger, but they are becoming
described as echo chambers. Do you see this is
a trend which is related to the technologists
continuing, declining? What do you see the future
path of the composition of social groups
and how it relates to what you talked about? GREGORY FERENSTEIN: I would love
to be optimistic on this one. I am not. I do believe that ultimately
people who are optimistic are going to shape the future. Hence the presentation. By the internet is a
very large echo chamber. If you look at– let’s just
take Donald Trump supporters. There are websites that cater
to them– Breitbart.com, to some extent the
blaze.com, Fox News. Even though they are incredibly
popular– tens of millions of readers, some of the
largest and most powerful news organizations on the
internet– they are rarely quoted by mainstream
media– “Washington Post,” “New York Times,” and even some
of the more liberal outlets. An entire movement was
built to elect a president, and it was considered a joke by
most of the mainstream media. Not because they
necessarily disagreed, but because they
had so little touch with the other half
of the country, that they didn’t even
realize it existed. If we are to solve this
problem, we will likely have to bridge those groups. I don’t know how to do that. That said, still an optimist. MALE SPEAKER:
Well, on that note, thank you very much for
speaking with us today, and we look forward
to hearing more about your research
in the future. GREGORY FERENSTEIN: Great. Thanks, guys, Thanks, internet.

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4 thoughts on “Greg Ferenstein: “The Age of Optimists: How Silicon Valley will transform Political Power”

  1. Good talk. I learned a lot — and now I'm a bit more optimistic about the influence of social networks.

  2. I loved your talk and I found it highly engaging. I'm a teacher with liberal politics myself. I'm also obsessed with tech and I'm fascinated by Silicon Valley culture. While I do find advantages to the teachers unions as they protect teachers who have consistently received low pay, have long working hours (nights, weekends, and summers aren't really existent the way many perceive), and have additional regulations/demands placed on them yearly. However, teachers unions have not done enough to increase salaries or fight off unnecessary regulations, but have done plenty to keep poor performing teachers employed. Either the power of teachers unions needs to be lessened or their focus needs to shift. More autonomy in the classroom is a good thing. Project and Design Based Learning are necessary for helping more children become critical thinkers and innovators.

    On another note, I'm going to be another one of those annoying Bernie supporters that you will find all over social media. I wouldn't say Bernie Sanders is not a traditional Democrat as he is one of the only openly socialist politicians in the US. Also, you'll find that among individual donations, some of the largest donations come from employees of tech companies. Considering the fact that Bernie Sanders' strongest base is the Millennial base, I doubt most of them would push against innovation in tech. I think Bernie Sanders supporters, especially Millennials are more combative towards the banks, oil, big pharma, and other industries that aren't necessarily as innovative or treat their employees fairly. And I think there is probably a divide among Millennials for products such as Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, etc. You might have some that are against the sharing economy because of the damaging effects towards taxi drivers, etc. However, there are plenty that heavily use and rely on those products. Those products are cheap and convenient solutions increasing access for all.

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