Jun 17, 2023 - Economy

Silicon Valley's contemporary divides

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Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

In an essay published June 6, famed venture capitalist Marc Andreessen pushed back on much of the industry’s efforts focused on so-called artificial intelligence “safety” — the opposite view of many of his peers.

Why it matters: VCs and entrepreneurs are often lumped into a monolithic “Silicon Valley” umbrella. But there are growing divides within the industry on a number of topics that are likely to shape the future.

What they’re saying: While prominent AI companies like OpenAI and Anthropic have evangelized about the need to bake guardrails into the tech as early as possible, Andreessen warned his audience: “don’t let the thought police suppress AI.”

  • And he’s not alone: Elon Musk has publicly talked about wanting to start an OpenAI competitor whose tech has less left-leaning sensibilities.

But not everyone agrees. Investor Ron Conway, for example, has been convening AI company execs in Silicon Valley and policymakers in D.C. to discuss issues such as safety.

  • Asked last month whether he’s worried some opponents might try to undermine efforts in that area, he told Axios he’s not: “These goals are too noble — it’s the right thing to do.”

Other main divides include:

China: Silicon Valley’s divide over China came under the spotlight when the explosive rise of video app TikTok gave way to concerns over the Chinese government’s ability to access user data.

  • A number of investors and entrepreneurs are deeply concerned about U.S. competition with China when it comes to tech achievements and power. They’re also averse to letting Chinese companies’ tech freely access the American market.
  • Nevertheless, some U.S. companies can’t quit China’s lucrative market (cue Apple and Tesla), while some firms continue to invest in the country’s startups. Sequoia Capital, for example, will still own a stake in TikTok’s parent company despite its newly announced split from its Chinese subsidiary.

Remote work’s future: Despite Silicon Valley leading the charge on sending employees home at the beginning of the pandemic, and enabling work-from-home thanks to the myriad tools tech companies built, a number of executives are changing their tune.

  • Last month, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman proclaimed: “[O]ne of the tech industry’s worst mistakes in a long time was that everybody could go full remote forever, and startups didn’t need to be together in person, and there was going to be no loss of creativity.”
  • Still, a number of investors and CEOs are sticking with more flexible approaches to the workplace, especially when it comes to accessing a wider pool of candidates.

Politics: The 2016 presidential election highlighted the reality that the tech industry includes both Democrats and Republicans, but the 2024 election cycle is already bringing new splintering.

  • A group of vocal investors are rallying behind Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign for the Democratic nomination — another case of contrarian VCs supporting a long-shot candidate (though in Donald Trump’s case, the bet paid off in 2016).

Be smart: To be fair, there have always been a variety of views within the tech industry; the existence of divides isn’t new.

  • What does change are the specific issues and stances over time, and how they shape the industry’s impact on the wider world.
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