We’re Leaving | This isn’t about politics, it’s about the tech bubble

This isn’t about politics, it’s about the tech bubble.

Yesterday, the people of Britain, (a small island off the coast of mainland Europe), my home, voted in a referendum to decide whether we should remain part of the European Union. The result was close:

  • Leave – 17,410,742 – 51.9%
  • Remain – 16,141,241 – 48.1%

We’re leaving the European Union.

I voted In, most of the people I know on social media voted In.

Personally, I hate this outcome, but totally respect the people on both sides of the argument who have articulated their views clearly and dispassionately. It is a shame there are so few of them on either side.

Reality distortion

I live in Cambridge, England. Cambridge is the university that Babbage studied at (he read mathematics by the way, not computer science, because Dr Who had not been invented in the 19th Century so there was no time travel). It has a long history of academic and entrepreneurial excellence, it is well educated, minimal unemployment, generally wealthy. On my journey to work from my home, to the office and the station I did not see a single ‘Leave’ poster. There was one outside a house near Addenbrookes, the local hospital, for Leave. In the end, only 73% of voters in Cambridge voted to stay.

It’s too easy to be swayed into thinking your view is ‘correct’ and the consensus because everything you see, read and hear around you is trending towards the same view. I think we all as voters, have surrounded ourselves by people with views that are similar and end up dismissing the views of the people you don’t hear about until someone says something stupid or outrageous.

The Referendum

One of the things that this referendum seems to have ended up being about is the people in power, relied on the backing of the establishment to develop an argument that went along the lines of, ‘All these clever people and organisations say this is the right course of action, trust us’. The simple fact is that this was as much a vote against that emotionally detached, economically reasoned, orthodoxy, preached by the people in power that they knew best for everyone without listening to the real issues that people outside Westminster are faced with.

The Leave camp ran a very clever campaign that managed to key into the real fears of many people in the population who are less interested in whether the GDP may change by a couple of grand, less interested in what will happen to their pensions – many of them don’t have them and far more worried about competition for jobs, their culture being threatened, being told what to do. In a country where many people feel ignored by the politicians that run their country, a debate that highlights the idea that the real power is held even further from their homes, with politicians and Eurocrats that are unelected, is highly compelling.

A single issue referendum is rarely a good way to encourage rational, reasoned debate about anything and many voters I know on both sides vote for rational/irrational reasons they perceive to be in their own interest. Many of these are not to do with the EU.

I still don’t think it is right for society – in Britain and further afield. I feel incredibly sad today.

I believe it was absurd that we should have had a referendum on this that was called by David Cameron, British Prime Minister, in an effort to get himself and his party elected last year. He was more aware of the feelings and tensions in his own party that he experienced everyday in his own party bubble than the mood of the public. He has now resigned. He shat in his own bed and made what could become a huge strategic mistake in the interests of short term tactics.

My only small hope for a better future is that if, as seems likely, this will prompt other members of the EU to hold their own referenda, that the EU will get its act together and reform some of the things that are bad about it. It does great things. It does terrible things. If, by leaving, it is forced to change, then something good may come out of it. I hope we can be part of it for the greater social good of us all.

WTF?! Why should tech care?

We should all remember that we all live in our own bubbles. Not just political ones, we are increasingly guided by the world we experience for ourselves, not the world that exists in reality. In Silicon Valley, rich technocrats scoff at the backwardness of the rest of the world in the name of efficiency, it is good for everybody!

Uber

Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber, for example:

On meeting with regulators: “Some city-council people are really awesome, but most are uninspired. I meet with them as little as possible.”

On disruption and another Uber rival — taxis: “It’s not Pinterest where people are putting up pins. You’re changing the way cities work, and that’s fundamentally a third rail. We’re in a political campaign, and the candidate is Uber and the opponent is an as—hole named Taxi.”

On Ayn Rand and “Atlas Shrugged”: “I like the book. Do you have a problem with that? … I just think it’s a great story of somebody who stood up for what they believe in.”

On Uber as a service: “Uber is efficiency with elegance on top. That’s why I buy an iPhone instead of an average cell phone, why I go to a nice restaurant and [I] pay a little bit more. It’s for the experience.

(My emphasis on the final words. It is nice that people like Travis Kalanick can afford to pay a bit more for the experience. Not everybody in the world can unfortunately).

So is Travis Kalanick some kind of freedom fighter?

  • This is the man who proclaimed in December 2014, Uber will create over 1,000,000 jobs in 2015 alone.
  • The same man who runs a company that is fighting lawsuits against Uber drivers who try to secure employment rights through the courts claiming the drivers are contractors.
  • The same man who runs a company that is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in driverless cars.
  • The same man who is working with partners, funded by Goldman Sachs, to offer drivers subprime loans so they can get cars to drive for Uber.

Let’s see how that goes. He and his early investors will probably make money. It is less clear that others in the project will, including consumers if he achieves his aim of taking over the taxi industry.

Travis Kalanick is spoiling for a fight, rather like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.

In the case of Uber, Travis Kalanick wants to destroy the taxi industry in the interests of efficiency (and his personal wealth and power). Travis Bickle, the Vietnam vet wants to rid the streets of scum. What’s in a name?

Peter Thiel

The subprime story above incidentally, links to a Gawker article, a media company now in Chapter 11 because Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal and Facebook Billionaire, has personally, secretly, calculatingly, been bankrolling litigation against the company (including the Hulk Hogan ‘sex tape’ that Gawker released because he has a personal vendetta against the company for outing him in 2007). When he was identified as the source of funding behind this and several other lawsuits against the company, he described it as his greatest act of philanthropy. No one should be outed, Gawker should not have done this, or many other things it has done in my view.

I’m left very scared however about the consequences of very wealthy people, with personal agendas or even vendettas, and money to burn, being able to decide on the fate of jobs, industries and the lives of people that they will never, ever be able to understand or empathise with. In the case of Peter Thiel, the people that work at Gawker, their families.

The Software Bubble

Everyone in the software industry is very lucky to be there. As software ‘eats the world’, we are all typically, highly educated, highly paid, highly motivated and very, very lucky. The Travis Kalanicks and Peter Thiels of the world are very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very lucky. We would do well to remember that not everyone is so fortunate. Not everyone is in the situation we are in, this is not a simple meritocracy as many claim. White men still dominate the industry. We are removed from the rest of the world in ways that we cannot imagine. We should not be surprised when people react badly to to this, rise up against it, rebel, revolt. We should all take time to think about what we do, why we do it and how it affects people, not the ones we hang out with every day, but the rest of the world. They matter  as much as we do and we ignore ‘them’ at our peril.

We have a responsibility to do so. If we don’t, we shouldn’t be surprised if it comes back to bite us in ways we cannot imagine. We have a duty to society to improve the lives of everyone, not just ourselves.

This is one of the things that drives us at Business of Software, the people in our community are thoughtful, intelligent and generally want to use software to make the world a better place. We might be leaving the European Union, but we will remain committed to playing a small part in trying to make that happen.

Here’s our ultimate BREXIT playlist.

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3 responses to “We’re Leaving | This isn’t about politics, it’s about the tech bubble”

  1. Clarke Ching says:

    Nicely put Mark.

  2. Mark I share both your sadness and optimism that something better will emerge from these ashes. I had to move my family to Spain recently since I did not have the economic credentials to be allowed to live in the UK. My wife has now been granted by a five year Visa to live in the EU as the partner of an EU Citizen. I am personally grateful to the laws that have been created by EU that help bind us together in peace. Without these laws we would be headed back to Ukraine where Russia is waging war. The front line there is very scary and looks much like the trench warfare of World War 2. It is certainly rather strange that 2 years after the first people died under a European flag fighting for a better future filled with “European Values”, “Rule of Law”, “Human Rights” and so forth is now being torn down by one of the strongest members I am all for reform and improvement but if we allow the EU to collapse I am pretty sure that the front line will advance from Ukraine. I hope you and your family are well and I hope to see you sooner rather than later.

  3. Micky says:

    There is a certain irony in the fact that over 50 yrs ago the UK granted freedom and independence to its African colonies and that finally it has voted for its own independence.

    The mining industry can teach us some valuable lessons on this topic. When I started work as a geologist in Zambia in the mid 70’s most ol the skilled work was done by expats, nowadays most of the work is done by locals.

    In the UK it is currently the reverse most of the skilled work was initially done by locals and now alot of it is done by expats from the EU.

    African govts now insist that mining companies as part of the “social contract to operate” have to use locals where ever possible

    It looks like the growth opportunities due to Brexit are training locals and teaching them skills for the modern world.

    The problem if course is no one wants to spend money training an apprentice who can then be poached as they are then useful.

    The Welsh govt has a training programme in place that pays start-ups to take on and train tech staff – the irony is that programme is actually funded by the European Community !