Pishevar knows that not a bit of this ambitious new agenda can be accomplished without Washington’s help. Which means that the Valley has a major communications problem.
Until recently the general public seemed ready to forgive Silicon Valley its excesses—after all, we were getting such neat stuff—but one has only to look as far as the Valley’s own backyard to see that a less magnanimous attitude is taking hold: In recent months, protesters have blockaded the shuttle buses that ferry Google employees to and from Mountain View (and, once, in Oakland, shattered a shuttle window). Twitter’s headquarters was besieged by sign-wielding protesters on its IPO day, as was Facebook’s annual shareholder meeting. In January, TechCrunch writer Danny Crichton posted an editorial in which he argued that the tide of public support for Silicon Valley “has permanently turned.” “People across the country are starting to hate us, and that is not going to change anytime soon.”
A few tech notables have reacted poorly to being treated as villains. (In a spectacularly ill-conceived salvo in the Wall Street Journal, venture-capital pioneer Tom Perkins compared the tech backlash to the Nazis’ persecution of Jews.) Many more have taken the criticisms to heart. San Francisco mayor Ed Lee, who has spent much of his time in office trying to attract tech companies to the city, focused his State of the City speech on the need for more affordable housing. And in December, after Google-bus protests began, a group of 30 tech executives gathered to meet with Mayor Lee to discuss how to shape up as an industry.
“We have a long road ahead of us to get people to change their behavior,” Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff, one of the executives present at the meeting, admitted to the Los Angeles Times.
No one is more aware of Silicon Valley’s image problem than Sean Parker. Parker, the billionaire Facebook investor who was until recently most famous for having been played by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network and is now slightly more famous for having thrown a very expensive forest wedding, is often held up as the poster boy for the tech elite’s narcissism and self-indulgence, yet this son of a government oceanographer doesn’t share a disdain for the machinery of politics that is common among hackers, or the libertarian utopianism of Peter Thiel and Balaji Srinivasan.
Instead, Parker has taken an increasing interest in the machinations of Washington. He is a founding member of FWD.us and has helped form two political organizations—Votizen and Causes, since merged—with the squishily liberal aim of using the tools of the information era to unlock economic potential and foster better governance.
“All the talk of us building up PACs and super-PACs misses the key point,” Parker told me when we spoke by phone. “Number one, most people in Silicon Valley don’t really care about the political system. And number two, those of us who do care, it’s for idealistic reasons.
“Engineers tend to eschew politics because they think the system is totally broken. It’s too dependent on social capital and relationships,” he continues. The real value of FWD.us, then, is simply to help those disengaged engineers and start-up founders wake up to the political process. “It annoys my peers when I say it, and it’s vexing to the media: The special interests that have been invented by various Silicon Valley–oriented lobbying groups are basically dummy issues, trumped up to get Silicon Valley executives who have a glut of money involved in the process,” he explains. Once they’re involved on a basic level, the tech barons can start taking on bigger, systemic problems. But the small-ball causes, like the FWD.us effort to increase the number of H1-B visas available for skilled foreign workers, are just a warm-up round. “I frankly couldn’t care less about most of these issues,” he says.
Parker’s dummy-issue theory extends to ones he personally supports. Parker has been a leading backer of FWD.us’s immigration efforts, even helping to finance a documentary by and about Jose Antonio Vargas, a former Washington Post journalist who famously outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in a New York Times Magazine essay. When I ask him about his support for Vargas’s project, he surprises me by saying that he doesn’t think immigration reform is of paramount importance.
“To be taken seriously, and in order to get people engaging, in some cases we have to invent these issues,” he said. “Of course we would prefer more H1-Bs. Is it going to make or break any of our companies? Of course not.”
When Parker talks about the effects a fully mobilized Silicon Valley could have on the political system, he can sound like a crime boss plotting a heist. (“We need to put our heads together and seize control over this system, quickly and stealthily, before incumbent players wake up to what’s happening,” he told a SXSW panel last year.) But even if his strategy for engaging Silicon Valley’s latent progressives seems radically cynical, his politics are a mixture of left-wing populism and techno-utopian dreaming. He wants higher taxes on the rich and a stronger safety net for the poor. But, like Pishevar, Parker wants to set the tech industry loose on the nation’s problem spots.