Hollywood: the old celluloid dream factory; and Silicon Valley: the new digital dream factory. One, the optimistic and confident America, as reflected in its great epic films and the appearance of its captivating and magnetic actors and actresses. The other, the technological and pragmatic America, which until yesterday had believed with blind faith in the promises of Silicon Valley (and the companies nearby) “to turn the world into one community” (a la Facebook) and make all the knowledge of the universe accessible to anyone, free of charge. Google’s own commitment is encapsulated in its philosophy with a motto as peremptory as it is effective: “Don’t be evil.”
Now, in this tormented end to 2017, the two powerful dream machines, which have contributed to much of the collective imagination of Americans and even the rest of the world, are seeing their reputation collapse simultaneously through scandals and incidents of varying kinds — from the sexual abuse claims against Harvey Weinstein to the Russian interference in American elections, as well as using the web to spread disharmony across U.S. society. Differing incidents but with similar outcomes: They reflect the perverse effects of power and the concentration of power even outside of politics. The illusion that women (not only in the cinema) are respected for the position that they have achieved in society collapses before the behavior of Harvey Weinstein, as it does by the silence of the “unblemished” actors and the princes of the “politically correct” such as Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, as well as the silence of Hollywood’s most powerful and committed female figures, such as Angelina Jolie, Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep.*
Sex scandals are as old as cinema itself, from the stories of the great producer Howard Hughes to the attempts of other Hollywood moguls to abuse Shirley Temple, then still a child, to more recent cases like those of Roman Polanski or Bill Cosby. Yet the revelations about Weinstein are on a completely different scale. These revelations are falling like meteorites on a world which until now believed itself to be not only emancipated, but progressive; a world painted in pastel colors like that of “La La Land.” The world of technology, too, has its problems — principally sexual discrimination, as opposed to abuse. However, if we regard cinema as selling dreams, the digital economy is a reality that penetrates deeply into many aspects of our lives and is crucial for the organization of the states. Silicon Valley companies grew out of the California counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, a carefree climate of freedom epitomized by the Beat Generation. Gradually, however, they’ve become a purely capitalist tool with their libertarian-inspired practice replaced by liberalism.
This is completely understandable and legitimate with regard to market mechanisms. However, while these companies changed their DNA, becoming giants and sometimes monopolies with endless power over even our thoughts, collective public opinion about them and their policies has long remained that of companies committed to “making the world a better place.” In such a climate, surely it’s impossible to introduce stakes and rules. However, everything has changed in recent months with new warnings about the following: the impact of technology on entire sectors of jobs at risk of disappearing (including professional sectors); the demolition of what little remains of individual privacy; and cases of sexual and ethnic discrimination in the theoretically ultra-inclusive world of Silicon Valley.
However, it is mainly “Russiagate” that has brought winds of change. Public opinion continues to love the iPhone and digital services offered by Google, Facebook and Twitter, but the public is now discovering with dismay that these companies have done nothing to prevent the pollution of news broadcasts over social networks by surreptitious foreign stations. The media have begun to scrutinize Silicon Valley, which, while continuing to promise utopia, is still doing business in areas devoid of rules, and capable of undermining the very foundations of our democracy.
Branded by the “Big Tech” engineering culture as an obsolete world in light of the great prospects of the digital democracy, Congress is now waking from its slumber.
*Editor’s Note: Before this story was published, both Jolie and Streep had commented on the scandal.
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