Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are having their Hollywood moment. Could this change the way America perceives the tech industry?
American ingenuity is a value we grew up believing in. The American mythos of technologically advanced startups and their dazzling founders is an unbroken chain, from Edison to Jobs to Zuckerberg. They make us feel good about the entrepreneurial spirit that sets our nation apart from the rest of the world. But now that Hollywood is giving us a peek at some of the most venal leaders and dramatic implosions in the tech industry, tech may be losing its luster.
“Super Pumped,” which debuted in February on Showtime, features Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Uber’s founder Travis Kalanick. There are plenty of shady moves to dramatize: Uber’s leaders proposed to spy on critical reporters, modified its algorithms to evade law enforcement, systematically cheated drivers, and forced out a woman engineer who charged sexual harassment.
Later this week on Apple TV+, you can get a peek at “WeCrashed,” with Jared Leto as cofounder of the coworking space startup WeWork. Neumann’s frequent drug use, reported by the Wall Street Journal, is the backdrop for a plot where his extravagant spending, combined with outrageous accounting practices, blows up his company’s public offering.
Hulu’s “The Dropout“ dramatizes the most outrageous fraud in Silicon Valley history. Amanda Seyfried plays Stanford dropout and Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, darling of the business press. On the path to a puffed-up billion-dollar valuation, her paranoid story includes bamboozling government regulators, machines that were programmed to deceive business partners since they never actually worked, and hints of romance with the company’s much older president, Sunny Balwani.
Like it or not, Hollywood, much more than the news, defines our perceptions of business leaders. How do you feel about bankers and financiers, for example? If you inherently distrust them, could your perception be colored by portrayals like the evil banker Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, the felonious addict and stock manipulator Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, or the bevy of unethical characters at the center of The Big Short? We suspect that banks and financial companies are corrupt and out to screw us, not just because of news headlines, but because we’ve seen it on the big screen.
When it comes to tech, contradictory perceptions face off within each of us. The business press trumpets the latest announcements from Amazon, Facebook, and Apple as miracles, and we, the consumers, actually get to try out, buy, experience, and embrace these baubles. Many of the shiny new toys, from Google Maps to Alexa smart speakers to Zoom videoconferences, are free or inexpensive. Telsla’s Elon Musk, Amazon’s former CEO Jeff Bezos, and Apple’s late Steve Jobs and his successor Tim Cook are held up as modern-day titans.
Now – ironically delivered across the Internet by streaming media – we’re getting a backstage look at how the tech sausage gets made. We see the workers ground to dust, the deception, the “vaporware” promises and the indulgent excesses of tech creators. We see how their ambition brushes aside societal harms: “gig” workers and warehouse laborers with no health insurance struggling to make ends meet, white-collar employees ground down by brutal hours, and our national political division stoked by the same tools we all use to keep in touch for free.
The Edelman Trust Barometer, a massive worldwide survey, found that in late 2021 technology was the most trusted of all industries, ahead of education, healthcare, manufacturing, and retail. We want to believe in tech. We’ve given them the benefit of the doubt. Their sins are all over the news, but those articles are easy to ignore as they trickle out a bit at a time.
But Hollywood portrayals are different. We see the reprehensible behavior, the indulgence, the lack of concern for the consequences of what these creators have unleashed. The portrayals may be dramatized, but they land far more effectively than scandals sandwiched among articles on politicians’ latest peccadilloes and war in Ukraine.
Tech’s benefit of the doubt is in danger. We’ve been fooled over and over again, and now we get we get to see real Hollywood talent showing just how it’s done. Our faith is waning.
When it comes to public opinion, politicians are followers. They know you love your tech. But if you lose faith, they will, too. And they have tools: hearings, regulations, anti-trust. Tech’s romance with the American Dream is fading. It’s about to become another smokestack industry. And smokestacks get regulated.