Reopening debate opens tech rift
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
The debate over reopening the economy splits Silicon Valley, like every other community in the U.S., in two. But in place of the usual blue state/red state, Democrat/Republican divide, tech's argument is between technocrats and libertarians.
Why it matters: The pandemic has only amplified tech giants’ power, ensuring their mindset and choices will play an outsize role in shaping how the U.S. reopens its economy. Nailing or bungling that process could save or cost the nation thousands of lives and billions of dollars.
The big picture: Tech's most influential companies and leaders were among the first to send workers home when the pandemic hit, and the industry's "trust the data" mindset has shaped their response.
- Big tech CEOs like Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella have presented measured positions on how and when a careful return to work makes sense, consistently leading their peers in other industries in pushing back estimated reopening dates.
A leading voice throughout the crisis has been industry icon Bill Gates, who has devoted much of his philanthropic career to public health and long warned of the dangers of a pandemic.
- In talks and articles, Gates has urged Americans to trust scientific experts and proceed with caution.
- Gates recently wrote: "Ultimately, leaders at the national, state, and local levels will need to make trade-offs based on the risks and benefits of opening various parts of the economy. In the United States it will be tricky if one state opens up too fast and starts to see lots of infections."
Yes, but: As the weeks of shutdown drag on and the economic price of the coronavirus crisis soars, a dissenting tech faction has coalesced around a "damn the virus, full speed ahead" sentiment.
- Elon Musk led the charge with an expletive-punctuated tirade labeling shelter-in-place orders as unconstitutional and a "forcible imprisoning of people in their homes" during a Tesla earnings call last week.
- He said: "To say they cannot leave their house and that they will be arrested if they do, that's fascist....Give people back their goddamn freedom."
- Musk's position set off sympathetic echoes among some well-known venture capitalists, including Adam Draper ("time to free us for the sake of progress") and Jason Calacanis.
- Thursday on the Joe Rogan podcast, Musk doubled down on his stance: "We should not give up our liberties too easily. I think we did that, actually.... If you are at risk and wish to take a risk with your life, you should have the right to do that."
- Reality check: Individual risk-taking during a pandemic often puts others at risk, too.
Between the lines: CEOs of companies that deal in physical goods (like Musk's Tesla) are feeling sharper pressure to reopen fast than those who run software empires that can operate more smoothly and safely by remote.
- Jeff Bezos, whose Amazon straddles these two worlds, has mostly laid low in this debate.
Our thought bubble: Musk's "free America now" argument is a corollary of the industry's cult of the founder, which celebrates the visionary individual who bets on a personal vision.
- Libertarianism — an ideology that runs deep in parts of the tech world — stresses individual rights over community responsibility. That puts it at odds with public health practices for fighting epidemics, which lose effectiveness unless broadly followed.
The bottom line: Founders and VCs are gamblers and risk-takers, but most people are not. Laws and customs usually aim to balance individual rights with group needs. Most tech CEOs share the public consensus to give our collective needs some extra priority right now.