Making fun of Silicon Valley executives for expressing half-baked ideas at tech conferences isn’t all that interesting, since tech conferences (and, really, “thought leader” confabs in general) are kind of the world’s biggest fish/barrel situations. But I can’t let this quote from Sam Altman, the president of Silicon Valley start-up accelerator Y Combinator, slide by unnoticed, because it’s a good example of the ways in which tech leaders talk about their own economic contributions vis à vis the rest of the country.
“All the growth in the economy right now is in tech, and the only thing that is working is tech,” Altman said from the stage of TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference today.
I wasn’t in the room for Altman’s talk, but there’s simply no way that statement is true.
Here, for example, is what’s happened to manufacturing jobs in America in the last four years:
Here are jobs in mining, logging, and oil and gas exploration:
Here’s “food services and drinking places”:
And on and on. The point is: Yes, Silicon Valley is a high-growth industry. But there are lots of high-growth industries in America today — and not all of their gains are attributable to tech.
I spoke to Altman this afternoon, to give him some chance to clarify his remarks. He said that he “[takes] a pretty big view of tech,” and that since some of the growth in old-line industries is attributable to new innovations — like, say, the invention of fracking, which opened up more natural gas reserves — it’s fair to say that those gains are from tech, too. But even defining “tech” as broadly as possible can’t fully account for what’s happening in low-tech sectors such as food service. Those gains are a product of dozens of other factors — some policy-based, some purely economic — and tech is only a minor contributor.
I’m sure Altman is a nice guy who means well, even if I don’t agree with many of his ideas about fiscal and economic policy. And from where he sits — at the center of the most famous start-up accelerator in Silicon Valley — it probably does look like tech is the only part of the economy where growth is happening.
But when technologists praise their own by insulting the non-tech economy — like calling it the “paper belt,” or implying that it’s not where value is created — it actually hurts their long-term goals. For the tech sector to fulfill its ultimate aims, it needs to recognize the good things that are happening elsewhere in the economy, and do what it can to help those things happen faster and more efficiently. To do that, it would help to stop tooting its own horn.