Mezzo Cotto: Y Combinator President Defends ‘Really Bad and Wacky Ideas’By
Silicon Valley is caught in a culture civil war over what to do with bros with unpopular opinions. In an essay titled “E Pur Si Muove,” which is Italian for “And yet it moves,” Y Combinator President Sam Altman argued Thursday that San Francisco had grown too repressive:
“Earlier this year, I noticed something in China that really surprised me. I realized I felt more comfortable discussing controversial ideas in Beijing than in San Francisco. I didn’t feel completely comfortable—this was China, after all—just more comfortable than at home.
That showed me just how bad things have become, and how much things have changed since I first got started here in 2005.”
This thought has been a long time brewing. Altman took over Y Combinator from Paul Graham, the startup essayist who, in what he says was a long-planned move, stepped back from his role at the firm around the same time that the people of Twitter were turning against him.
When I was a newbie reporter at technology news site the Information, I interviewed Graham for a profile of his wife, Jessica Livingston. During our interview, Graham said the pipeline problem was the real reason that there weren’t many female founders—at the time, a fairly mainstream tech industry view. He told me, “I’m almost certain that we don’t discriminate against female founders because I would know from looking at the ones we missed.”
Valleywag (R.I.P.) helped really blow up his remarks. Graham’s comments about women became a viral topic of conversation. And it may have been a pivotal moment when a powerful Silicon Valley figure’s unpopular view actually had a consequence. Valleywag, VentureBeat and other tech industry blogs cited the comments when Graham handed over the reins to Altman a couple months after the controversy.
Graham said Friday that the controversy didn’t factor into his decision to leave, but it did cause him to rethink his timeline. “I wouldn’t quit YC just because a mob was after me on Twitter over a misquotation. I’ve had so many mobs after me on Twitter, both before and since that one,” Graham wrote in an email. “In fact, the Twitter mob not only wasn’t what caused me to leave, but actually caused me to stay longer. I had been planning to announce at the beginning of January (at the beginning of the YC batch) that this would be my last. But the controversy was still going then, and I didn't want people to think I was leaving because of it, so I delayed the announcement till later.”
But Graham’s view clearly mattered because he was in a position to recruit more female entrepreneurs. Since he left, Y Combinator has made a real push to recruit women. It’s a clear instance where taking someone’s opinions seriously had a positive result.
I do worry that Graham’s virtues—his prowess for identifying promising startup ideas and for crafting koans of startup wisdom—were lost in the shuffle. But they kind of had to be for Y Combinator to feel the public pressure to change. (Willett Advisors, the investment arm for the personal and philanthropic assets of Bloomberg LP founder and majority owner Michael Bloomberg, is an investor in Y Combinator startups.)
Altman is also close to Peter Thiel, who supported Donald Trump’s run for the presidency and who helped sue Gawker out of existence—another example where someone’s opinions are backed up by actions. These opinions matter.
There are cases where people have valid unpopular opinions, no matter what the masses think. In fact, Altman lists a few examples, which undercut his main argument: Galileo’s views prevailed, even as society came crashing down upon him. Some Christians still can’t get over Darwin, but his ideas won out. Good ideas have more pathways to reach the public than ever before. The potential for backlash remains. Today, it’s the mob more than the church that’s fighting new ideas. But the mob can learn and embrace new ideas. After all, Tech Twitter seems to agree the gender problem is more than just about the pipeline. That’s a change.
There’s a related but distinct phenomenon: Twitter can be a toxic place to have a conversation. Certainly, I’ve had plenty of thoughts that I’ve decided to discuss with friends before tweeting. But that’s a matter of Twitter being less iterative than some tech people would like it to be. It’s a publishing platform. A single tweet can go viral. Thoughts expressed there by public figures are taken seriously.
That same line of thinking can apply to Altman’s view more generally. In his blog post, he wrote: “This is uncomfortable, but it’s possible we have to allow people to say disparaging things about gay people if we want them to be able to say novel things about physics.” In the past, Silicon Valley figures could express half-formed thoughts because the industry wasn’t yet a true global cultural power and fewer people were paying attention.
Now what happens in San Francisco has global resonance. Half-formed thoughts are taken seriously. The world has come to expect Silicon Valley to act like a grown up. The technology industry is now responsible for its beliefs—whether or not it’s ready to be.
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