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The culture wars have come to Silicon Valley

It is under the scanner for penalising people who express dissenting opinions

Nick Wingfield | NYT 

Peter Thiel, Billionaire investor, Silicon Valley
Peter Thiel (pictured), an investor and member of Facebook’s board of directors, was told he would get a negative evaluation of his board performance for backing Donald Trump. (Photo: Bloomberg)

The culture wars that have consumed politics in the United States have now landed on Silicon Valley’s doorstep.

That became clear this week after on Monday fired a software engineer, James Damore, who had written an internal memo challenging the company’s diversity efforts. The firing set off a furious debate over Google’s handling of the situation, with some accusing the company of silencing the engineer for speaking his mind. Supporters of women in tech praised But for the right, it became a potent symbol of the tech industry’s intolerance of ideological diversity.

Silicon Valley’s politics have long skewed left, with a free-markets philosophy and a dash of But that goes only so far, with recent episodes putting the tech industry under the microscope for how it penalises people for expressing dissenting opinions. Damore’s firing has now plunged the nation’s technology capital into some of the same debates that have engulfed the rest of the country.

Such fractures have been building in for some time. The tensions became evident last year with the rise of Donald J Trump, when a handful of people from the industry who publicly supported the then-presidential candidate, faced blowback for their political decisions.

At Facebook, Peter Thiel, an investor and member of the social network’s board of directors, was told he would receive a negative evaluation of his board performance for supporting by a peer, Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix. And Palmer Luckey, a founder of Oculus VR, a virtual reality start-up owned by Facebook, was pressured to leave the company after it was revealed that he had secretly funded a pro-organisation.

Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at University’s Stern School of Business, said Damore’s comments carried additional weight to people on either side of the political spectrum because he was an engineer at Alongside other giants such as Facebook, and Apple, these companies “are seen as pillars of our society”, Galloway said. “Controversy and statements that emanate from these employees take on a different heft.”

The technology industry has long marched in lockstep on issues such as supporting immigration and diversity, even though their companies remained largely male, white and Asian. But last year’s election of — with his broadsides against political correctness, his coarse language towards women and his actions to restrict immigration and deny climate change — seemed to threaten many of those ideals.

At the same time, Trump’s words may have made dissenters in the tech industry more comfortable about speaking out. “Trump, in a sense, licensed people to express what some people would call politically incorrect thoughts,” said Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia University’s Business School. “Then there’s the other force that a lot of Trump’s policies go against the inclusive ideals these companies espouse.”

Some prominent figures are concerned there is too much political conformity in the tech industry. On a podcast in May, Marc Andreessen, the venture capitalist, said he knew of only two supporters in Silicon Valley, Thiel and Luckey.

“What does it do to somebody when they feel like they literally can’t express themselves,” said Andreessen, a board member who backed Hillary Clinton last year.

© 2017 Times News Service