Silicon Valley Needs Counseling for Its God Complex

By Mike Elgan  |  Posted 2014-11-28 Print this article Print
Valley God Complex

As people increasingly rely on Facebook to maintain their relationships, Facebook is in the position to decide who you keep up with and who you forget about.

Facebook's criteria for deciding who you're close with are a tightly held secret. You can't know why you never hear from your old friend or why that person you barely knew in high school now dominates your News Feed. Those reasons are best left to a higher power (Facebook's pantheon of engineers).

There are many examples of Facebook's God Complex. One emerged in June when the world learned that Facebook conducted a psychological experiment on about 700,000 users. The experimenters deliberately manipulated News Feeds to make users sad or happy to see if they would post accordingly (they did).

Facebook's God Complex makes them comfortable manipulating people's personal relationships and mucking with their moods.

Cupid was a God—the Roman god of desire, erotic love, attraction and affection. Now there is a company named OKCupid that behaves as if it was a capricious God of Roman times.

Back in August, OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder openly bragged that: We experiment on human beings! (OKCupid is a data-driven dating site.)

In one experiment, the company deliberately lied to its users and matched people when their own algorithms showed them to be incompatible just to see what would happen. The loves and lives of those little people down below exist to satisfy the curiosity of the Gods on Mount Olympus, apparently.

The valley is also turning its God-like attention to replacing nature with new food creations. As I wrote in this space in October, tech entrepreneurs are working on creating "meat grown in a lab from cow stem cells, artificial salt, 3D-printed fruit and beverages that can nutritionally replace all solid foods."

Google announced last month a project to embed nanoparticles configured to detect diseases in the bloodstream of human beings. They want to heal the sick by upgrading blood itself.

The idea is that a pill would contain special nanoparticles, which would bind themselves to bodily cells and scan for problems. A wearable device would collect data from the particles as they coursed through your bloodstream and provide that data to your doctor.

It's clear that Silicon Valley companies have a God Complex, by which I mean they tend to boldly assert a deep influence on, control over or to monitor of the public in a variety of ways without a shred of humility or sense of trespass.

People are often viewed as mere mortals to be trifled with or exploited with no feeling of obligation to ask permission or inform.

But my belief about why they do this is probably the opposite of what it appears to be. Rather than feeling omnipotent, I believe Silicon Valley companies tend to feel small and obsessed with the fear that they may have no lasting impact at all.

Every one of these companies began as a startup, one among many with the odds stacked against them. Each laboriously applied huge effort in small teams to discover some idea or set of ideas that could be implemented in a way that would impact people in ways that help them make money.

Companies like this can grow big and powerful almost overnight. It all moves so fast that these teams continue to see themselves as scrappy underdogs even as they succeed. They trust themselves or their motives and genuinely feel they have no ill-intent. Meanwhile, they're pressured from all sides to "push the envelope" in whatever way will give their company an advantage.

It all adds up to something that feels to outsiders like a God Complex.

So my advice to all tech companies is this: Come down from your illusory Mount Olympus and treat your users, who are sometimes called customers, as fellow mortals who deserve your humility, respect and consideration.

Technology may give you God-like power. But the public is the real power. And if you don't treat users and others with respect, they will smite you.


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