Big Tech Has Helped Trash America

The chaos of the last two weeks offers an opportunity to rethink the role of technology in our lives.

Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Of all the myths we have about America, perhaps the most potent one is found in the age-old question we constantly ask ourselves as a nation: Can we start over?

It’s a concept at the heart of tech, whose entrepreneurs hold on to the unshakable idea that even in the worst dregs of failure there is an opportunity to push the restart button, opening up new and dazzling possibilities.

I can’t tell you the number of times in my long career covering technology that I have been on the receiving end of the quote by Thomas Edison that entrepreneurs drag out when their start-up has crashed: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Well, in the last two weeks, we have found out the true cost of all those ways that won’t work. Digital hate and misinformation finally jumped out of the screen and into the real world, in the form of a mob that attacked the Capitol after having been incited to violence by the president.

And technology played a major role. Few will now deny that the miraculous tools that Silicon Valley has invented have been badly perverted.

And so, we are in the midst of the most consequential days ever for tech. The biggest companies finally took steps to clean up their platforms. The various moves by Apple, Google, Facebook and, perhaps most especially, Twitter — which finally threw President Trump off its platform for good, after repeated and escalating violations — have been alternately celebrated and decried.

You might be surprised to learn that after years of warning that it would come to this, I had only one thought: Can we start over?

I hate myself a little for saying that, having spent a lot of time predicting this inevitable earthquake for tech. But the ransacking of the home of Congress — just one mile from where I live — was so extreme that it reminded me of what first drew me to cover tech.

It was a hopefulness that the powerful inventions could be used to better the human race and unite people in ways that had long eluded us. Such a sentiment seems far-fetched today, as another popular old computer phrase took precedence: Garbage In Garbage Out, which basically means: bad input produces bad output.

And tech has certainly helped trash the place — the place being America.

Hence, the need for reinvention, which I discussed with Mayor Francis Xavier Suarez of Miami last month. It seems like an eternity has passed since our conversation — yet it still resonates.

I had called the peppy pol because of the spate of attention that the Florida city has gotten recently after a bunch of well-known Silicon Valley investors — like Keith Rabois and Shervin Pishevar — had relocated there from the Bay Area to begin anew.

Remember “Miami Vice,” the TV crime drama set in Florida that was an ’80s phantasmagoria of white suits, fast speedboats and a whole lot of artisanal beard stubble? Now, decades later, consider the latest trend: Miami VC.

Mr. Suarez, a young Republican rising star, has garnered a lot of attention lately by using social media to market his balmy city as the next great place to start over. It all began early in December when a longtime investor suggested on Twitter that Silicon Valley should move to Miami.

“How can I help?” Mr. Suarez replied, employing a can-do, come-on-down brio that is in stark contrast to the growing disdain cities like San Francisco have developed for tech culture.

Mayor Suarez loves you, tech bro, he really loves you.

He kept at it for weeks, with a series of pithy and adorkable comments on Twitter, trying to take advantage of the wholesale re-evaluation many tech firms are having about staying in the Bay Area, given that the pandemic has spurred a rethink of remote work.

Of course, Mr. Suarez knows that creating the next Silicon Valley has been tried and has failed many times over the last decades — remember Silicon Prairie? Silicon Desert? Silicon Beach? Recreating that iron triangle of venture capitalists, a major world-class university and tech giants is far-off for Miami, and perhaps futile, too.

“I want to use energy and enthusiasm for Miami by engaging people and changing the narrative,” Mr. Suarez said to me, saying he saw an opportunity, calling Twitter the best tool to garner interest in helping him bring more innovative companies to his city.

“Our Sand Hill Road is Twitter,” Mr. Suarez said, referring to the main drag in Silicon Valley. “It was like me going to a beehive and shaking it.”

It seemed a little stuntish only a couple of weeks ago, perhaps just an attempt to use the platform to generate some positive news. That felt especially true after Mr. Trump had so badly warped the same platform with his hatred and bile and lies — so, so many lies — that ended in the Capitol attack.

But now I see the shaking of the beehive as perhaps the strongest metaphor we can hold on to if we want to make tech into a gift for humanity, to create a new locus for innovation just by changing the scenery and the makeup of the participants.

Perhaps by distributing talent all over the country, perhaps by dispersing the power from a homogeneous concentration in one place, and perhaps by allowing different kinds of people to thrive, this time of Covid and civil unrest might give us a chance to pull something fresh from the destruction.