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There’s a name for tech’s attitude problem: toxic positivity

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 7/22/2020 By Owen Thomas

Welcome back to Tech Chronicle. If you want to read something that’s positively nontoxic, consider subscribing to this fine newsletter.

The other side of tech happy talk

Ever since people figured out how to transmute Silicon Valley’s home-brewed inventions into stock-market gold, there has been a steady business in monetizing Northern Californian optimism.

Technology is the cure for what ails you, and all you have to do is believe in its transformative power, or so the pitch goes.

Forget your troubles.

Come on, get happy!

Never mind that Judy Garland sang that particular anthem at a time in her life when she was particularly miserable. Or that the lyrics are about preparing yourself to meet your maker.

Actually, that’s all quite fitting for Silicon Valley’s obsession with disruption and destruction of the existing order and evangelical embrace of the new. It’s better on the other side of the river, we promise!

Yes, there’s some salesmanship involved in bringing new technology to the market, and some optimism required to found or fund a startup. But in recent years, that’s become its own kind of orthodoxy, where the only appropriate response to new technology, according to the insiders of Silicon Valley, is cheerleading. Criticism of technology isn’t viewed as rational skepticism by those for whom innovation has become a religion; it’s heresy.

There are signs of this toxic positivity everywhere. Take Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes, who dismissed whistle-blowers and journalists exposing her blood-testing fraud: “First they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, then you change the world.” This was shortly before the company fell apart under scrutiny.

Or Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s insistence that the undeniable environmental benefits of electric cars justify just about any of the questionable moves he’s pulled over the years. (Musk once told me he wouldn’t answer any of my questions about Tesla because I wasn’t sufficiently interested in painting a positive portrait of the company.)

Clap along, if you feel like happiness is the truth. (Other options are not presented.)

There’s a name for this that has recently emerged: “toxic positivity,” an insistence on happiness that is hurtful because it denies real causes for negative feelings. In Silicon Valley, this expresses itself as an always-be-hustling attitude; an embrace of growth hacking by any means necessary; ceremonious ostracism of doubters; and a conflation of mission and meaning.

Keeping your chin up is one thing. But forcing a smile on yourself or others is something technologists should reject. What we need now is radical pragmatism, not techno-utopianism.

Let’s remember our troubles, and others’, and get real about them. Maybe then we’ll have something to get happy about.

— Owen Thomas, othomas@sfchronicle.com

Quote of the week

“No one knows what the future holds. The immediate response was that we’d come out V-shaped, then U-shaped. Now everyone is being honest and saying we don’t know.”Austin Chamber of Commerce executive Leigh Christie, to Marker on the prospects for a tech recovery

Coming up

The CEOs of Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google are being called to testify before the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee on Monday.

What I’m reading

Shannen Balogh on eBay and PayPal’s payments split. (Business Insider)

Dominic Fracassa on San Francisco’s new business-tax compromise, which would not spare tech. (San Francisco Chronicle)

Skylar Woodhouse and Ben Brody on new lobbying spending records set by Facebook and Amazon. (Bloomberg News)

Tech Chronicle is a weekly newsletter from Owen Thomas, The Chronicle’s business editor, and the rest of the tech team. Follow along on Twitter: @techchronicle and Instagram: @techchronicle

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