Silicon Valley Isn’t a Meritocracy. And It’s Dangerous to Hero-Worship Entrepreneurs

February 11, 2014 at 1:08 am 12 comments

An important and interesting position, that I first learned about from the work of Caroline Simard.  There is significant evidence that Silicon Vally is not a meritocracy, but there is significant advantage to the people in power there to maintain the myth.

But if the tech scene is really a meritocracy, why are so many of its key players, from Mark Zuckerberg to Steve Jobs, white men? If entrepreneurs are born, not made, why are there so many programs attempting to create entrepreneurs? If tech is truly game-changing, why are old-fashioned capitalism and the commodification of personal information never truly questioned?

The myths of meritocracy and entrepreneurialism reinforce ideals of the tech scene that shore up its power structures and privileges.

The myths of authenticity, meritocracy, and entrepreneurialism do have some basis in fact. But they are powerful because they reinforce ideals of the tech scene that shore up its power structures and privileges. Believing that the tech scene is a meritocracy implies that those who obtain great wealth deserve it, and that those who don’t succeed do not. The undue emphasis placed on entrepreneurship, combined with a limited view of who “counts” as an entrepreneur, function to exclude entire categories of people from ascending to the upper echelon of the industry. And the ideal of authenticity privileges a particular type of self-presentation that encourages people to strategically apply business logics to the way they see themselves and others.

via Silicon Valley Isn’t a Meritocracy. And It’s Dangerous to Hero-Worship Entrepreneurs | Wired Opinion |

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  • 1. Peter Norvig  |  February 11, 2014 at 1:30 am

    James Flynn argues that a Meritocracy is impossible — or at least is incompatible with the idea of democratic freedom. The argument is that “Meritocracy” means everyone has an equal chance, and the successful are rewarded. But unless you abolish freedom, the successful are free to spend their rewards on given unequal advantages to their family and in-group.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  February 11, 2014 at 10:05 am

      Did you hear the RadioLab podcast that discussed the Flynn Effect? I have a blog post coming out post-SIGCSE, considering the possibility that we’re actually becoming more capable of thinking abstractly than we were 100 years ago.

      My wife and I have become regular viewers of Downton Abbey, which describes the fall of the British aristocracy. I wonder sometimes if we have a similar kind of technological aristocracy in the United States — those who understand technology do well, and they make sure that their children have similar opportunities (similar to how you describe Flynn’s argument). Since less than 10% of American high schools offer computer science, it easily remains a scarce resource, and the privileged retain their privilege. But the British aristocracy (for the most part) fell. Why? In some explanations, land became taxed more heavily than the aristocracy could bear, and their labor pool dried up as the working class moved into better opportunities. I suggest that giving everyone access to computing education would be a first step to get past the unequal advantages, so that others could get access to better opportunities.

      • 3. Mark Miller  |  February 11, 2014 at 5:36 pm

        It’s not clear to me that the elite in Silicon Valley have access to the same advantages they may have once had. When I was at the Rebooting Computing Summit in ’09 I sat next to a computer teacher from a high school in Mountain View, CA., and his mouth dropped open (along with a few others at my table) when I told him that the computer teacher at my high school in little ‘ole Boulder, CO. had a CS degree (this was 21 years earlier, though she had only retired maybe a couple years before then). I may be remembering incorrectly, but my impression was he didn’t have a CS degree, and neither did any other high school computer teacher he knew.

        • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  February 11, 2014 at 5:41 pm

          I highly recommend Philip Guo’s blog piece on privilege:

          • 5. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  February 11, 2014 at 9:26 pm

            I had a different reaction to the post on “technical entitlement”

          • 6. Mark Miller  |  February 11, 2014 at 11:03 pm

            What Guo’s article brought to mind was how fortunate I was that when I was a pre-teen computer programming was considered “computer literacy,” and there was a societal push that said, “computers are the future.” So there were tools around that the public could access for free, or for low cost.

            It was rather common for libraries to have at least one microcomputer that patrons could sign up for time on, and every computer came with Basic. It was through this that I got to witness others using computers for programming. It also helped in terms of access, because to get a decent computer setup then cost at minimum $800. My single mom couldn’t afford that. I didn’t see a computer in a school until I got into Jr. high. I didn’t get my first computer until I was almost ready to go off to college. At the same time, the local library got rid of its microcomputers. By the time I got to college I had been programming for about 6 years. No one in my immediate or extended family, or even my friends, prodded me to get into it. I gravitated to it on my own. What provided that opportunity, for which I am very grateful, was using computer time that others generously offered to all comers.

            Given that we have a new environment now, where computing is pretty ubiquitous, it brings to mind the effort, to create public places where anyone can come along and try their hand at programming in a safe environment. It also brings to mind something Alan Kay quipped at Rebooting Computing re. the iPhone: “I wish they’d let people program the darn thing,” by which I think he meant “program on the darn things!” I’ve since heard there are possibilities for programming in isolation on mobile devices, but there are still problems with sharing code between them.

            I’ve long thought that removing programming capabilities from computers that the public or students in a school can use was a mistake. Some might ask why that’s needed, since so many people have digital devices, but how many people know that programming exists as a positive possibility with them? The vendors tend not to advertise it, even though one offers free tools for doing so (I’m thinking of Microsoft).

            I don’t know whether this would lessen the biases that Guo observed, but I can say for me and many others of my generation it made it possible for us to gain access to computing, bypassing some of the privilege that would’ve otherwise shut us out.

            As for the differences in treatment that Guo saw between males and females at MIT, I don’t have enough information to make a blanket judgment on it, but if his portrayal covers all the facts I’d say that’s unacceptable. I can’t see where gender has anything to do with the ability to deal with the material, though there may be differences in how technical issues are perceived between them, but not in ways that would justify disqualifying based on it.

            • 7. Mark Guzdial  |  February 12, 2014 at 10:30 am

              My point was that you and the folks in Silicon Valley had and have privileges that most high school students in the United States don’t have. The numbers are 30K US high schools and 2K AP CS teachers. There are very few high school CS teachers. Most schools have none. Having any teacher at all beats out the vast majority of schools and students. I agree with Kevin’s critique of “technical entitlement” in that it’s not at all useful to blame those who have privilege, or to try to hold back those that do have privilege — critiquing or limiting those who had access doesn’t create opportunities for those who don’t have access. Whether your CS teacher had a CS degree or not is a relatively small matter compared to having a teacher at all or not.

          • 8. Mark Miller  |  February 13, 2014 at 1:29 am


            There were a lot of points made in Guo’s article, so I went “fishing” for a point in the context you were creating with your post.

            The point I was making is that I had many teachers, not just the official ones at the schools I attended. I’m probably not painting the picture well, and it may be difficult for people to imagine now, but what I was trying to get across was the larger picture of what was going on outside of school at the time, which I called the societal “push” (I should’ve called it a “pull” instead). There were myriad people and resources available for someone who was interested, because society thought it was important.

            Neil deGrasse Tyson has been talking about this in relation to NASA and space exploration. (See: “We stopped dreaming.” This is quite dramatic, but I think it’s a nice conglomeration of relevant quotes on this topic.) He’s made the point that wanting to create more math and science teachers to encourage kids to go into those subject areas is a worthy pursuit, but it’s not enough by itself. It’s like pushing on a thread. If there is not the “pull” by society that the pursuit is important, then the “thread” is going to get “shoved” by centimeters, not kilometers.

            Some of my best teachers in just trying to get my sea legs in programming were kids who were around my age, but who were more experienced. The only way I met them was through a program at my local library that funded the acquisition and maintenance of publicly available computers that were available to all comers. Another benefit of that was I had the opportunity to witness someone programming when I didn’t intend to see that, which gave me the chance to get interested. Another resource I had were computer magazines, which I could pick up for a few bucks in the magazine aisle at any grocery or book store, or check out for free from my public library, or from my school’s library, which contained full source code, and articles written by the authors (with guidance from the magazines’ editors), explaining what the programs did. There were electronics kits sold at Radio Shack, one of which I remember covered logic gates and primitive computing.

            By the time I took my first programming course in the 8th grade I had been doing it on my own for a couple years, and I had already gotten past many of the mistakes beginners make, and I did this without owning a computer. The new thing the course exposed me to was Logo (this was only to teach procedural programming, not mathematics, though a little of that seeped through). It covered Basic as well, but most of that was review to me by then.

            I only had contact with the computer teacher at my high school because she ran the computer lab after school, and the computer club, which participated in the American Computer Science League every year. The courses she taught at the time were for beginners, which was total review to me, so I didn’t take them. I participated in the after school computer club because the ACSL problems were pretty challenging. The educational materials that came along with it (which was covered in written tests) taught some computer science subject matter, and served as a gentle introduction to the field.

            We didn’t have AP CS. A friend of mine at the same high school I attended designed his own study course, for which he received credit, and then he took, and passed, the AP CS test.

            I think you know as well as I do that schools teaching programming was not unusual back then. I’ve already talked about the reasons for that.

            My “privilege” (there were others who were clearly more privileged than myself at the time when it came to knowledge of computing) was to be around when society considered pursuits like this important, and provided the means (albeit limited) by which people could be exposed to it, which created communities of support around it. The fact that I had contact with a computer teacher in high school was a factor in the path I took in college, and that was somewhat important, but in terms of my overall education in computing up to that point it was not significant. There was a wealth of opportunity outside of school for that.

            I think that’s what’s missing in this argument. People get tied up in “who gets what” when what they’re really arguing over is scarcity. I don’t hear too many people asking why the scarcity exists, perhaps because considering the question makes us feel powerless. I think Tyson is closer to an accurate answer.

        • 9. Mark Miller  |  February 12, 2014 at 12:06 am


          Re. “technical entitlement”

          I remember Laura Didio bringing up this complaint in the late 1990s. What she said seemed to suggest (though I could be remembering wrong as it was so long ago) was that those who were ahead needed to be slowed down to allow the later beginners to catch up. I don’t subscribe to that philosophy. That’s a recipe for stifling the education of some, and boring them. Encouraging advanced students to help beginners is one thing, but saying, “You’re too far ahead. You need to slow down, because your advancement is unfair to the others,” is sending the wrong message.

          When I got into computing there were always kids who were way ahead of me in skill. Always. The difference with my experience was that they tended to not make a big deal about it. They’d want to show what they did, but not to intimidate, just to share. One of the rewards male programmers, in my experience, sometimes seek is to have others appreciate their accomplishments, because they put in hard work to get there. In the process they may hear some criticism, which they can then use to try to improve on what they did. If there is one-upsmanship going on just to show superiority, I’d suspect something unrelated to technology is the cause.

          As for taking a computer class and always being the first to raise my hand and answer the teacher’s questions correctly…guilty as charged… I did that in one of my Jr. high’s computer courses. It got so “bad” that at one point we had a sort of “teacher-student conference” with myself and a few of the other students. One of them was exasperated, wondering why I took the course since it seemed so easy for me. The course was divided into two parts. One had some programming in it (beginner stuff), the other focused on applications like word processing, spreadsheet, and databases. I said I took it for the 2nd part, because I was pretty ignorant of those things, but to be a part of the class I had to take the first part, of course. We came to an arrangement where if the teacher asked a question and I raised my hand the teacher would ask, “Anyone else want to answer the question?” If someone else did, he’d call on them first, just to even things out. If they answered wrong, he’d eventually get around to me. I didn’t mind, and the other students seemed happy with it.

  • 10. Raul Miller  |  February 11, 2014 at 11:08 am

    Certainly an element of truth here.

    On the flip side, there’s also opportunity costs, and family issues and social issues. Taking myself as an example, my skin color happens to be white. But – in part because of my family background – I am extremely reluctant to take a management position.

    I am not at all concerned with the skin color or gender of the people “above” me, except to note that some of the best people I’ve met have not been white male, and some of the stupidest have been white male (but I have also met the occasional white male who was just leaps and bounds more competent and harder working than almost anyone else I have met).

    Anyways… social change is slow, and maybe we have to overshoot a few times before we can hit our social targets. But, for now, that means that anyone wanting me to work as “management” is going to have a lot of convincing to do. I’d rather work on something tangible, and I honestly do not get the lure of riches or management. Why would anyone want that when they could be having fun solving problems themselves?

    I’d much prefer working for female management (and/or black management and/or native american management and/or …) than having myself as a manager, assuming the person was good with people. I’d also much prefer working in a shared responsibility model than in a sole responsibility model. Responsibility is important, but the sole responsibility model is I think a relic of the industrial era and not something that can work in a collaborative setting.

    But this probably also means we need to come up with some other way of reasoning about success than “meritocracy”.

    “Meritocracy” carries, for me, an implication that “merit” is some kind of linear thing – that you can have more of it or less of it. But only one person can be “best” at any one thing, and rating people on a linear scale is inherently self defeating.

    Put differently, perhaps the best way to deal with metrics and metric-like concepts (“meritocracy”) is to ignore them. Or, since that is utterly impractical, to have so many of them that the effect is similar?

    Still, I also have to recognize that other people will have different priorities than my own. And that’s great, if I can mostly ignore them.

    That said, in dealing with leaders (remotely), I have noticed a single defining characteristic of leaders: they are really followers. They listen, they are constrained by the people “underneath” them, but they really try and listen to everyone (which is incredibly difficult when everyone is pulling in different directions). But I figure that if I am to be a follower I don’t need any special management position to do that.

    Why would anyone want that kind of position? I don’t get it.

  • 11. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  February 12, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    I think that the availability of CS education in the US is very related to social class and wealth. Locally, only one public school has a CS course—and it is a charter that requests a ~$2K donation yearly. If parents want their kids to learn CS, they have to either teach them themselves or pay fairly large amounts of money for private school or tech camps. (My son got a lot from me, a couple of summer camps that weren’t worth what they cost, and a couple of courses from a private school.)

    But science and engineering education in the US has for a long time been mainly the responsibility of parents rather than schools—I know I learned far more math and science from my engineering father than I got in school (until I got to college). I suspect that the students finishing engineering and science programs show enormous over-representation of children of scientists and engineers, but I’ve never seen any studies that bothered to look at the education of parents other than crude college/no-college sorts of info.

  • […] that the tech industry is a meritocracy, where the most capable get the most credit and best pay.  It underlies the entrepreneur’s belief that the successful entrepreneur gets there because of his or her hard work alone.  But it’s […]


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