The Eternal Thanksgiving Dinner of Tech and the Press

Two New York tech creators discussing the Gawker case make a profound observation about Silicon Valley.

This is what happens when new institutions confront the status quo.
This is what happens when victorious upstarts confront the status quo.

The battle between the tech industry, in the form of Peter Thiel, and the press, in the form of Gawker, makes Paul Ford feel like he’s caught in “an eternal Thanksgiving dinner” where family members that have to sit together won’t quit fighting. The writer of Bloomberg’s “What Is Code?” and a former editor at Harper’s Magazine is known for an unusual software prowess among journalists. He also co-founded a product agency in New York City called Postlight.

As he puts it in a new episode of the agency’s podcast, Track Changes, he’s felt as though he was a member of both worlds for twenty years, so, in the latest episode, he and his co-founder Rich Ziade sit down to discuss Peter Thiel’s attack on Gawker (a case the Observer has covered extensively). The two end up making a profound observation about the nature of Silicon Valley.

“Silicon Valley does not like negative press coverage, but it likes power,” Ford says in the episode.

Since, as we’ve previously reported, it’s hard to surface content in podcasts via search, and because it is at the very end of the episode, we’re quoting it here as a way to encourage you to check out the whole conversation.

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Early in the episode, Ford begins to pontificate about a brewing ideology out of tech’s epicenter. “Silicon Valley tends to be a real monoculture, no matter how much it proclaims that it’s not,” he says. “It’s a little left, it’s a little right, but there’s a kind of like utopian vibe of infinite progress.”

He later adds, “There’s a slowly simmering ideology of individual rights, technology as this incredibly enabling force and that the world gets run by essentially a Google spreadsheet.”

When it really gets interesting, though, is when the pair comes to consensus around this idea that Silicon Valley’s insularity is made easier having grown up in a place without other significant power centers. Here’s that exchange, edited for the key points:

Ford: Silicon Valley has decided that it will be the place that produces the answers. And I feel that that model of culture… I know a lot of people out there and they are as smart as can be, and they can focus on platforms and technology in a way that I’ve never been able to do in my life. And they can just go. They can build enormous things that touch hundreds of millions of users. And everything here [in New York City] is muddier, stickier, there are more competing forces. Government, media and businesses are all in the room yelling at each other on any given day in New York City.
Ziade: There’s a status quo, there’s a lot of power and it’s distributed… I think Silicon Valley basks in the blank slate. They shattered a lot of other industries. But Zuckerberg had nothing, nothing around him. There was no competing force saying: “You are not going to infringe on my territory.” It’s hard for me to start a magazine here. It’s hard for me to penetrate fashion, to get into the industries. What I respect and I admire about the valley is about that blank slate.

In short, Ford and Ziade argue, tech companies spend their first several years either creating a wholly new space in the world (like social media did) or “dropping an atomic bomb” on another industry, as Ziade puts it (like Uber and Airbnb have been). Once companies have triumphed, tech titans resent entering into other spheres of power (like politics or the media) where the space isn’t empty and the other players can’t be disrupted away.

In this particular case, some of the resentful people in question have millions of idle dollars to spend on their discontent.

The Eternal Thanksgiving Dinner of Tech and the Press