PayPal founder and early Facebook investor, Peter Thiel, has been arguing for years that college is overrated and overpriced. Thiel believes in a better way of recognizing young talent and through his Foundation, The Thiel Fellowship, urges young entrepreneurs to drop out of college while pursuing their business dreams.

“College does not teach me what I need in the tech industry” and “there’s not enough time to work on my startup” are real quotes from dropouts in software engineer, Amy Chen’s article, Is Higher Education a joke? Or, are College Drop-Outs Glorified?, echoing Thiel’s beliefs.

Marshall McLuhan, pioneer in media theory and technological determinism, famously said: “we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” Thus, as 2017 comes to an end, we can’t help but acknowledge the need to measure the impact the drop out culture of Silicon Valley might be having on all of us and the open societies in which we live.

At Alto, we’re questioning if CEO-dropouts in Silicon Valley are prepared to look past the Valley’s ruthless business culture to grasp how their products and services are impacting human development. Are executives surrounded by the right teams and leaders with the empathy to understand such implications?

Dangers of the driven dropout

Mark Zuckerberg (Founder of Facebook Inc), Evan Spiegel (Founder of Snapchat Inc) and Jack Dorsey (Founder of Twitter) have more than being multi-millionaire internet entrepreneurs in common, they also share the fact that none of them finished university. Each one dropped out to focus on their businesses and we believe dropping out involves risks.

University provides a place for minds to become critical of oneself, one’s culture and the world at large. Dropouts run the risk of not always fostering these abilities and operating solely from the tunnel vision of realizing business goals, rendering cultural impacts invisible. That means:

  • Danger of not developing critical capacity to question implications of business strategy on a broad social level. The critical capacity to be self-aware and transcend business model to consider the impact technology has on human behavior.
  • Danger of overdeveloped IQ and underdeveloped EQ. Meaning entrepreneurs are brilliant coders, developers, computer scientists and even business strategists, but are they prepared to balance their hard skills with empathy and altruism?
  • Danger of brands lacking core values. With rigorous sales quotas and work ethic, companies in Silicon Valley risk existing and operating with the sole purpose of generating capital and destroying competitors – no matter the cost. These actions breed short-term strategies and product development blind to the long-term affects technology has on human development.

Why it never mattered – until now

Primary information source. There’s no denying the role digital technology and above all social networks play in modern communication. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google have acquired an extreme socio-cultural weight beyond any other commercial enterprises in human history and are arguably the primary sources of news and information for the earth’s population. Facebook’s flagship product, Newsfeed, has profound influence in the transmission of information and data shows the average person spends at least 50 minutes a day on Facebook and that Facebook is working hard to increase that time.

More than social media. Inspirational drop out stories like Jobs, Zuckerberg, Spiegel and Dorsey, glorified by media, meant people who did not have access to higher education could still create a business and become billionaires and this is certainly positive. The danger is that these companies have long surpassed their initial business ideas and have evolved into advertising platforms and news media distributors, algorithmically optimized based on user behavior to personalize content and increase user engagement. This puts users at risk because their interactions, while on social networks, are being shaped by software created to generate optimal message delivery and resonation. The subtle yet powerful effects of adverts and algorithms make social media much more than chatting with friends, but interactions designed to extract user-data, to perfect machine learning algorithms for product development and advertising. Echo-chambers of ideologies are thus created and exposure to diverse points of view are less frequent verse traditional media.

Facebook under fire. Now, if Facebook is one of the most relevant sources of information on the planet, where people spend almost one hour daily, it seems logical the company would be accountable for how its software is changing the way people consume media. Thirteen years after being founded, Congress put Facebook on the spot in a senate judiciary subcommittee hearing November 1st to review how their service was used to spread misinformation created by Russian Trump-allies during the 2016 elections.

2016 US election case study

Algorithms. Because users are so important to the Facebook system, algorithms don’t make editorial decisions, but rather mechanistic rankings based on clicks, likes and shares. If users stop clicking on a piece of content, the algorithms will adapt, over time, showing different results and rendering a message invisible, while making other messages highly visible based on user behavior. In his first public appearance denying the role fake news on Facebook played to influence voters during the 2016 election at the Techonomy Conference on November 30th, 2016, Zuckerberg simplified the mechanistic rankings and calculations of the Newsfeed algorithms as a “modern AI problem” overlooking the ability of Facebook’s Newsfeed algorithms to distort information and how users consume it.

Adverts. When news surfaced 470 fake accounts and over $150K in ads may have been responsible for the spread of misinformation that helped Trump become president, Facebook’s Chief Security Officer, made a statement outlining how the platform was used during the elections to avoid Facebook being legally responsible for the “misuse” of its service. Two weeks later, Zuckerberg released a statement on his Facebook profile expressing his regrets for having been “dismissive” about the accusations that Facebook could be to blame for the spread of fake news after he initially called the idea “crazy”.

Accountability. As information about the use of Facebook in Trump’s election continues to surface, Silicon Valley is being accused of undermining democracy and needing to put their souls back in their bodies, as tech executives and engineers are now stepping forward to admit they regret how their once unrelenting efforts to create and sell innovative software are impacting humanity.

Age old issue?

Written in 1458 in Renaissance Italy by trade merchant Benedetto Cotrugli, The Book of the Art of Trade, is considered one of the first how-to business books ever written.

Cotrugli, born into a family of traders, dropped out from his studies at the University of Bologna after his father died. However, Cotrugli spent enough time studying to develop a highly critical spirit. When he started working, he thought business people lacked intellectual and moral discipline

“It wasn’t just about pursuing a noble ideal,” Harvard Business School professor of management practice, Dante Roscini wrote in his review, “Cotrugli is addressing, in his book, the issue of responsibility to the community and who you are as a person, and if you followed this path, you would be more successful.”

The culture of Renaissance Italy had a strong emphasis on cultivating a holistic beings, while it seems Silicon Valley culture strongly emphasises business.

Measuring impact

At Alto, we strongly believe tech companies need to hire polymaths (see our TEDx Talk: The most important skills of a data scientist), equipped with knowledge beyond a highly segmented specialization, to be able to work with people from diverse backgrounds. As we consistently evolve our software, to collect billions of public social data points and refine our algorithms to derive insights for our clients, we hire talent with global perspectives, capable of transcending their cultures to relate to co-workers and customers with empathy, while using their hard skills to not only innovate, but create positive social impact.

Still we wonder, how could we better measure the impact of tech giants in our sector. How can we assess if the executives and boards of these companies are prepared to grasp how their products and services are impacting human development and our open societies?

These questions will certainly be an important area of focus for Alto in 2018. To learn more about Alto, please contact us here and sign up to our newsletter below.

Article written by Clarissa Watson, Head of Marketing