Here’s an illustrative case. This summer, the union that represents workers of Bay Area Rapid Transit—BART, San Francisco’s commuter rail system—went on strike for four days after talks broke down on wages, pensions, and health care. The strike was annoying to commuters and costly to the region; one estimate put lost productivity at $73 million per day. In an interview about the tech industry’s reaction to the strike on the public radio show Marketplace, Sarah Lacy, the founder of the tech-news startup Pando Daily, made a clumsy statement about BART workers. “People in the tech industry feel like life is a meritocracy,” Lacy said, walking right into Valleywag’s punch. “You work really hard, you build something and you create something, which is sort of directly opposite to unions.” (Disclosure: I wrote a column for Pando Daily for a few months after its founding, though I know Lacy about as well as I know Biddle—i.e., mainly from the Internet, not real life. Also, in 2008, I wrote a positive review of Lacy’s first book.)
“Sarah Lacy Is a Free Market Monster,” Biddle stormed, and went on to put a lot of crazy ideas in her mouth. “How dare the transit workers have made life inconvenient for the only people who really matter, the ones who are changing the world with their startups?” Biddle imagined Lacy saying. For Lacy and her “techno-libertarian” friends, “The BART strike is yet another case study in the failure of public goods—fresh agar for startups to colonize,” he declared. “Is college unaffordable? Go to an internet school. Or don't go at all. Subway unavailable because of a labor dispute? Just take a private car, dialed in via iPhone app.”
From a single clumsy quote, Biddle extrapolated an entire storyline about techies keeping nontechies down. That narrative didn’t match the facts. Lots of people in the Bay Area—not just tech heavies—were down on the BART strikers. Every single poll conducted about the strike—even the ones by union-friendly polling groups—found public opinion strongly against the workers’ demands. So, at best, Biddle was half right: Yes, techies didn’t like the BART strike—but that was only because pretty much everyone didn’t like the strike.
Biddle’s idea that Lacy was advocating for BART to be replaced by private cars was also false. In a Pando Daily piece published a few days before Biddle’s—one that he references but doesn’t link to—Lacy argued that “there need to be real options if you want people to ditch cars” and suggested that San Francisco’s city government should do more to foster public transportation. What’s more, Pando Daily has actually been one of the more vociferous defenders of city government and city infrastructure against libertarian interlopers like the car-hire service Uber. Last October, when New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission forced Uber to pull its taxi service in the city, Pando Daily called Uber’s reaction “downright adolescent.” This was an unpopular position. (Even Slate couldn’t muster enough contrarian passion to fight Uber.) But Pando Daily pressed on. Last December, in a sprawling attack on Uber’s libertarian disregard for city regulations, Carr—Lacy’s close friend and Pando contributor and thus supposedly a member of her techno-libertarian goon squad—skewered Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s Ayn Randian politics. Carr vowed to quit using Uber “while the company’s founder continues to celebrate the ugliest face of capitalism.”
Right—so Lacy published a stirring paean to big city government. If she really is a “free-market monster,” she’s a pretty toothless one.
And let me add one brief word about Valleywag’s central premise—that the tech industry is infested with Ayn Randians. It’s bogus. I understand why this myth persists; some of the industry’s biggest luminaries, like venture capitalist Peter Thiel, are proud libertarians. But they’re not representative of most people in the industry or even most tech executives. According to every metric, most people in Silicon Valley are Democrats. They vote like Democrats, they donate like Democrats, and they certainly talk and eat and shop like Democrats. If one of the hallmarks of libertarian politics is an aversion to taxes, you’ll strain to find that here. Just last year, residents of San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties—the epicenter of the tech industry—voted for a tax hike on the wealthy by double-digit margins. People here routinely vote for more money for public infrastructure. In 2008, 78 percent of residents of Palo Alto—home to many tech execs—voted for a $378 million school bond. You don't see that in Rand Paul country.
I don’t bring all this up just to show that Biddle sometimes gets things wrong. We all do. Rather I want to point out that, in straining every story through Valleywag’s anti-tech filter, he tends to miss the deeper, more interesting issues lurking beneath the quick hits. For instance, if car-sharing services become legitimate replacements for public transport, will they drain funds for buses and destroy public transportation? Which other tech innovations might have unexpected boomerang effects on the public good? And—why do Web users say that they care about privacy yet never act that way? And—is tech promoting inequality or reducing it?
I wish Valleywag would take on some of these real issues. I’m not saying it has to become Wonkblog. But I do think it can be funny, snarky, and substantive rather than strident for stridency’s sake. I know it’s fun to mock techies. But as Marissa Mayer’s kid will soon find out, even the biggest playhouse eventually becomes monotonous.