Rory Sutherland

The weird world of Silicon Valley

The weird world of Silicon Valley
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Which is more diverse: London or Devon? That’s not a trick question. London is much more diverse than Devon. But let’s tweak the question slightly. Which is more diverse: a pub in London or a pub in Devon? Here the answer is not so easy. Though low in ethnic diversity, a pub in Devon might contain a more representative mix of ages, educational backgrounds, earnings, wealth, sexual proclivities and political opinions than a pub in central London.

London, for all its vaunted diversity, is a place where you can practise extreme homophily — spending your time exclusively with people nearly identical to you. People largely socialise with contemporaries from work. Social life is delineated by age and education more than in smaller cities or towns. Even when Londoners turn on the television, they see news reported from London by people who share exactly the same world view as them, interviewing other such people in order to confirm that this world view is broadly right.

We often blame social media for creating this echo chamber. But the fact is that it arises in any environment where you get a similar group of people concentrated in close proximity.

When a group forms, its distinguishing characteristics become more pronounced over time as people strive to signal their tribal affiliation — in accordance with Cass Sunstein’s Law of Group Polarisation. The result is that people in such groups confidently adopt universal beliefs which few people would arrive at independently. (Elite London opinion itself is an incoherent cherry-picked mixture of vicious neo-liberal meritocracy and naive egalitarianism. It is considered a severe injustice if, say, one TV presenter is paid 20 per cent less than another, but the fact that he or she might earn 30 times more than an experienced researcher is taken as a given.)

Trump supporters and Brexiteers have a point when they argue that the world’s big decisions are made by an unrepresentative group of people with a set view of the world. Quite simply, it is not what they think that bothers people, but the fact that they all think the same way.

But if you think London, say, or the political establishment, both suffer from this echo-chamber effect — and they do — try visiting Silicon Valley. I was there a few weeks ago, and in some respects it is the most glorious place in the world. But it is also far, far weirder than you could ever imagine.

Just one illustration: in the carparks of the large tech companies, you see little petrol tankers driving about. What the tankers do is fill your car with petrol while you are at work — to save you the three minutes it might take on the drive home. I love convenience more than anyone but, seriously, if you had asked me to list my top 10,000 potential improvements to my life, this would not have made the cut. How strange must a culture be in order to think this is a really good idea?

The answer is very strange indeed. And one that clearly thinks the improvement of human life somehow boils down to time optimisation. Do we really want our lives optimised in this way? In my irrational way, I quite like petrol stations. If this is what artificial intelligence ends up replicating, give me human stupidity any day.

And perhaps this should worry us even more than the homophily of the political class. Because soon the algorithms, processes and pre-structured choices by which our lives are run will be decided in places like this. To reword William F. Buckley, I think I might sooner live in a society governed by the regulars of a Devon pub than in a world designed by the graduates of Stanford University and MIT.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK.