Silicon Valley faces a moment of reckoning amid end-of-days feel for tech world

Jennifer O’Connell: There is an end-of-days feel to recent news reports from the tech world

When future historians of late-stage Silicon Valley 2.0 attempt to identify the moment the hubris peaked, they should take a look at, the website for those covertly juggling their full-time tech job with a second, and sometimes a third, top-secret “burner job”. One poster on the site boasts he is holding down five remote tech jobs simultaneously and still manages four hours’ gaming every day.

The advice offered to those planning a bit of career polygamy boils down to this: do a mediocre job. If you can’t achieve mediocrity, you’ve no business among the overemployed.

Arguably, this isn’t the reckless and morally dubious behaviour of a generation of greedy, manipulative slackers so much as the entirely rational response of a workforce dehumanised by the gig economy. Who could have foreseen that the net effect of treating your employees as disposable commodities, to be cancelled like a Netflix subscription when you decide you can no longer afford them, is that a few will behave accordingly? They’ll take your money and nurture your relationship with all the long-term loyalty of the cashier at a McDonald’s drive-thru.

It is even more difficult to argue with this logic, now that the world’s biggest tech companies are suddenly experiencing a collective realisation that – oops! – they accidentally over-hired by roughly 15 per cent during the pandemic. Meta, which coincidentally planned to splurge $10 billion in 2022 on the metaverse, Mark Zuckerberg’s dystopian corporate hellscape vanity project, followed its first announcement of 11,000 lay-offs with news earlier this month of another 10,000 cuts. Google announced it was cutting 6 per cent of its workforce and was rewarded with a 6 per cent bump in its share price. Stripe, Intel, Amazon, Microsoft, Twitter, Intercom and Salesforce are all letting people go.


Unfortunately for humanity, the tech world has yet to meet a costly, morally dubious idea it didn’t want to rush headlong into

The contagion is spreading to those providing ancillary services to tech – this week, more lay-offs were announced by consultancy firm Accenture (19,000 jobs, of which 400 will be in Ireland) and jobs platform Indeed (15,000). Things have been quieter lately on Career polygamy probably loses its gloss should you find yourself on multiple performance improvement plans.

Silicon Valley is facing a moment of reckoning after over a decade of hubris, greed and general bollocksology. There is an end-of-days vibe to recent news reports from the tech world: round after round after round of job cuts; the collapse of the tech sector’s clubby Silicon Valley Bank; the unsettling vista of tech libertarians pleading for protection from the US Government; the tech world’s failure to predict that habits forged during a global pandemic were not sustainable; the background thrum of calls for antitrust regulations and tightening of data security, privacy and cybersecurity regulations.

The shining promise of artificial intelligence was meant to provide a timely distraction. The excitement lasted entire minutes before descending into fears about disinformation and how the technology may be used to fuel hate. Or – worse – whether the technology itself might end up hating us. In a 2016 study by the Future of Humanity Institute at Cambridge University, 50 per cent of AI experts rated the chance of human extinction because of our inability to control AI at 10 per cent or higher.

One-third of AI researchers in a 2015 study at the University of Oxford agreed it could cause a catastrophe as bad as all-out nuclear war. To paraphrase Tristan Harris, former Googler turned conscience of Silicon Valley: would you take a flight if 50 per cent of the engineers responsible for building the plane put the odds of everyone on board dying at “10 per cent or greater”?

The promise of technology is still pure; if only humans wouldn’t keep getting in the way

Unfortunately for humanity, the tech world has yet to meet a costly, morally dubious idea it didn’t want to rush headlong into. And so here we all are, mindlessly checking in our luggage and cheerily taking our seats on board AI Airways – because, look! ChatGPT writes cute poems.

Big tech is facing an existential crisis, and that may be no bad thing, especially as we teeter on the precipice of a digital revolution whose consequences are unknowable. The jury is still out on whether the massive technological advances of the past 15 years have represented a net positive for humanity, or the precise opposite. Sure, they have made the world smaller, faster, more efficient, more productive, and brought unfathomable wealth to a few. They’ve also eroded our attention, destroyed our capacity for empathy and nuance, turned us into the product, widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots, filled us with disinformation, exposed a generation of children to pornography and violence, and set us on each other like rabid dogs. The promise of technology is still pure; if only humans wouldn’t keep getting in the way. The really scary thing will be what happens when the technology arrives at that same conclusion.

The pathologically upbeat citizens of Silicon Valley are framing the current crisis as a glitch, a correction, a reset. However you spin it, it’s going to be painful for Ireland in terms of falling corporate tax take and job cuts. But there’s too much talk about the negative economic implications of tech downturn, and not nearly enough focus on the longer-term societal ones. In human terms, a slowing of the tech juggernaut is no bad thing.

With the tech sector’s gift for a clunky, joyless reframing, Mark Zuckerberg has dubbed this Meta’s “year of efficiency”. Analysts hoovered that up; Wall Street loves a good jobs cull.

The latest news from Menlo Park is that as well as axing 21,000 staff, Zuckerberg is quietly killing off the metaverse and “turbocharging” work on generative AI. A year of efficiency? Please. How about even a moment of self-reflection?