This op-ed appeared in the New York Times July 15, 2018.
“Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) is an associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, the author of “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest” and a contributing opinion writer.”
Silicon Valley moguls seem to believe they can fix most anything, and they appear befuddled when their attempts to do so aren’t met with unbridled enthusiasm.
The tech billionaire Elon Musk was among the millions of people captivated by the plight of the 12 boys and their soccer coach recently trapped in a cave in Thailand. But Mr. Musk didn’t just follow the story on the news and social media; he has vast resources, so he also tried to help.
He directed his engineers to build a miniature “submarine” (basically a sophisticated metal cylinder) that he hoped could be used for the rescue. He shared videos of the submarine with his 22 million followers on Twitter. And he received widespread media coverage and encouragement from his many fans.
Mr. Musk’s desire to help was commendable. But when the head of the rescue operation, Narongsak Osottanakorn, declared that Mr. Musk’s contraption was impractical for the task at hand — a task that had been completed, at that point, by some of the world’s top cave divers — Mr. Musk responded with irritation. He insisted on Twitter that leaders of the operation had in fact welcomed his assistance and that Mr. Narongsak was not the “subject matter expert.” He also expressed frustration that he was being criticized while trying to help.
Instead of venting, Mr. Musk — indeed, Silicon Valley as a whole — can perhaps see the Thai operation as a lesson. This was a most improbable rescue against the longest odds. Safely navigating 12 kids and one adult, many of whom were not swimmers, through a dangerous cave relied on a model of innovation that Silicon Valley can and should learn from.
The Silicon Valley model for doing things is a mix of can-do optimism, a faith that expertise in one domain can be transferred seamlessly to another and a preference for rapid, flashy, high-profile action. But what got the kids and their coach out of the cave was a different model: a slower, more methodical, more narrowly specialized approach to problems, one that has turned many risky enterprises into safe endeavors — commercial airline travel, for example, or rock climbing, both of which have extensive protocols and safety procedures that have taken years to develop.
This “safety culture” model is neither stilted nor uncreative. On the contrary, deep expertise, lengthy training and the ability to learn from experience (and to incorporate the lessons of those experiences into future practices) is a valuable form of ingenuity.
This approach is what allowed the airline captain Chesley Sullenberger to safely land a commercial airplane on the Hudson River in 2009 after its engines were disabled. Captain Sullenberger’s skill and composure were, of course, a credit to him personally. But they also rested on decades of training and learning in an industry that had been government-regulated and self-regulated to such a degree that hurling through the atmosphere in giant metal cans at 35,000 feet is now one of the safest ways to travel.
By contrast, Silicon Valley moguls seem to favor spending money on improbable but impressive-sounding long shots. In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, donated $100 million to New Jersey schools as part of a multiyear plan to improve them. The centerpiece of the plan was teacher evaluation and charter schools, but it didn’t work well. Some aspects of the plan even made things worse. Education is a complex topic, and making a lot of money in tech is not a qualification for solving educational problems.
Silicon Valley also tends to ignore problems in its own house. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has declared that space exploration is one of the main things he should spend his money on. But poorly paid workers in Amazon warehouses, who work under grueling conditions, may have other ideas about how Mr. Bezos might best spend his money.
In the case of Mr. Musk and his submarine, the Thai authorities understood that they needed to let the expert cave divers plan and direct the rescue operation (and Mr. Musk, to his credit, said he would take the lead from the divers). But the kind of publicity Mr. Musk created can take on a life of its own and exert undue influence.
I don’t mean to dismiss the role of technological innovation. Maybe in the future, some version of Mr. Musk’s contraption could be useful. But that would require long-term development, testing and collaboration with a variety of experts — not just a handful of Mr. Musk’s engineers.
If Silicon Valley wants to help the world, there is a lot it can do, starting with making its own products safer and its own companies more just. Perhaps most important, it can develop respect for hard-earned expertise in areas other than its own.