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The Valley Politic

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High-Tech Diplomacy
Facebook investor Sean Parker, President Obama, and Shervin Pishevar at a round-table the last arranged with tech executives.  

Unlike some of his libertarian venture-capitalist peers, Pishevar doesn’t mind being lumped in with the Democratic Establishment. (After snacking with White House staffers, he’ll decamp to a bistro across the street for a meal with California attorney general Kamala Harris.) But he’s in the innovation-friendly wing of the party. Later, when I ask him about Washington’s attitude toward tech, he sounds more frustrated than hopeful.

“There’s a latency between the regulatory framework and the tech framework,” he tells me. “I don’t think they’re incompetent. It’s just hard for government to keep up.”

It doesn’t help that two of the com­panies Pishevar cares most about—Uber, where he’s a strategic adviser, and Tesla Motors, the electric-vehicle-maker started by his friend Elon Musk—have been battling with regulators for years. Pishevar believes start-ups are hurt by overcautious lawmakers, who discourage geniuses like Musk from putting their grand plans into action.

“If Elon needs billions of dollars to build Hyperloop”—referring to Musk’s idea for a high-speed transport system—“he should get it, Goddamn it!” Pishevar tells me. “There shouldn’t be any obstacle to Elon being able to change our world. It would be like going back to the Revolutionary War and saying, ‘You guys can’t fight the British because you’re not going to have enough capital to buy guns.’ To me, I literally don’t see a difference. This is a different kind of revolution, and my Thomas Jefferson is Elon Musk.”

Pishevar is, clearly, an emotional thinker, prone to hyperbole in describing his feelings about American democracy and the tech world’s place in it. His passion was born from his childhood in Iran, where he watched his father, a media official, get “marked for execution” by the Ayatollah Khomeini. His father fled the country just before the Iran-Iraq War, and Pishevar and his mother met up with him in the U.S. years later. Pishevar still cares about human rights. He’s planning to take a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to visit a refugee camp along the Syrian border later this year. His interest in making life easier for start-ups is part of the same global ideal, he says.

“It has to do with having bombs fall on me as a kid,” he tells me when I ask about his concern that overregulation is holding back companies like Uber and Tesla. “That kind of brought it home to me, why it’s actually important to have good government and a safe environment, not just to grow up but to build a platform that protects your rights and gives you the ability to pursue what you want in your life without a lot of obstacles. In some ways, overregulation is a form of dictatorship, too.”

As difficult as it might be for Pishevar to persuade Washington to take Silicon Valley’s concerns seriously, he’ll likely have a harder time convincing his tech brethren that they should take Washington seriously. Last year, when the federal government shut down for sixteen days, resulting in 800,000 furloughed workers and an estimated $2 billion in lost-productivity costs across the country, Chamath Palihapitiya, an early Facebook employee and venture capitalist, declared that it didn’t matter what happened in Washington because “where value is created is no longer in New York, it’s no longer in Washington, it’s no longer in L.A. It’s in San Francisco and the Bay Area.”

A week later, Balaji Srinivasan, then an executive at a biotech start-up, gave a triumphal speech in which he contrasted Silicon Valley with the rest of the country (which he dubbed the “Paper Belt”) and made the case, as technologists like Peter Thiel and Google CEO Larry Page had before, that the tech industry needed to “build an opt-in society, outside the U.S., run by technology” in order to fulfill its destiny free of government intervention. In December, venture capitalist Tim Draper proposed a new law that would split California into six smaller chunks, with Silicon Valley becoming its own state. All of this hubris and magical thinking cemented for many an image of Silicon Valley as a naïve bubble society that was prone to fits of, as Salon writer Andrew Leonard put it, “Russian-­aristocracy-before-the-revolution arrogance.”

The tech industry’s isolationism has seemed increasingly off-key in part because, unlike in the past, Silicon Valley now needs the rest of the country on its side. The low-hanging fruit of private-­sector innovation—meal-delivery apps, tablet accessories, computerized fitness bands—has been fairly well picked over. Today large tech companies are going after grander problems that will require approval both in Washington and from the public. Facebook wants to get the entire world online. Amazon wants to start using drone helicopters to deliver packages. Elon Musk wants to build a colony on Mars. And Google wants self-driving cars, large-scale robotics projects, and sweeping changes to sectors like health care and education.


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