- Sam Altman, one of the most powerful people in the startup world, says the debate about political correctness in San Francisco is bad for startups and smart people.
- His blog post on the topic drew heated reactions both from people who agree with him and from those who say his ideas are dangerous.
If Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator, wanted to start a furious debate with his latest blog post, he certainly succeeded.
In the post, published Thursday, he argued the climate of political correctness in San Francisco and Silicon Valley was “very bad for startups” and said it was easier to express controversial ideas in China than in California.
The essay, titled “E Pur Si Muove” – Italian for “And yet it moves” referencing a quip the heretic scientist Galileo Galilei said on his deathbed – drew swift and strong reactions from both supporters and detractors.
Here’s his point:
“Restricting speech leads to restricting ideas and therefore restricted innovation – the most successful societies have generally been the most open ones. Usually mainstream ideas are right and heterodox ideas are wrong, but the true and unpopular ideas are what drive the world forward. Also, smart people tend to have an allergic reaction to the restriction of ideas, and I’m now seeing many of the smartest people I know move elsewhere.”
He says ideas the San Francisco intellectual climate have rejected include “pharmaceuticals for intelligence augmentation, genetic engineering, and radical life extension.”
In Altman’s view, people who have criticised those ideas for businesses have cast the entrepreneurs behind them as “heretics,” like how the Catholic Church sentenced Galileo to house arrest for (correctly) saying the Earth revolves around the sun.
“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,” Altman wrote. “Of course we can and should say that ideas are mistaken, but we can’t just call the person a heretic.”
Altman runs the most prestigious tech-startup accelerator in Silicon Valley, Y Combinator, but in recent years has increasingly expressed interest in political ideas.
One of his experiments – related to the concept of basic income, in which every resident regularly receives a sum of money with no conditions attached – is a program that gives 100 people in Oakland, California, $US1,000 to $US2,000 a month.
And he had to shoot down rumours last year that he would run for governor of California.
Users can’t post comments on Altman’s blog, but many people who read his thoughts on political correctness were eager to respond.
Altman had defenders from the venture-capital and entrepreneurship worlds, but he also drew scores of critics in technology writers, activists, business professors, and even rank-and-file employees at big tech companies.
It got heated.
Sam. Really? Genetic engineering is a controversial idea. Bitcoin is a controversial idea. Putting them on the same footing as "gay people are evil" legitimizes the latter as something that is worthy of consideration and debate.
— EricaJoy (@EricaJoy) December 14, 2017
This @sama blog and the subsequent debate make me terribly sad. The people who are best positioned to be the solution to the degradation of discourse in America are part of the problem. https://t.co/WkDtUFqFfv
— Kevin Werbach (@kwerb) December 15, 2017
https://t.co/MwQVkU3RDA is representative of the absolute worst thing about tech culture – the idea that technological progress is more important than anything else
— Matthew Garrett (@mjg59) December 14, 2017
I’d love to see someone start an anon google doc to list these, for those of us not smart enough to have unspeakably good ideas.
If it can work for naming sexual harassers, it can work for this!https://t.co/8Ro1ZfES9U
— Parker (@pt) December 14, 2017
— Oral Panic (@aphyr) December 14, 2017
— Ann-Marie Alcántara (@itstheannmarie) December 14, 2017
Altman’s defenders said they felt constrained to pursue or express controversial ideas, and they cited the backlash to the post as proof of Altman’s point.
On Hacker News, Y Combinator’s message board, the post has more than 690 comments, many of them supportive of Altman’s argument.
An honest and sincere question: is there anyone you know with a different opinion on any social issue that you do not believe absolutely to be a vicious and evil bigot, or an enabler thereof?
— Benedict Evans (@benedictevans) December 14, 2017
The replies to this tweet do a pretty good job of making Sam’s point. https://t.co/SrauVAYYdO
— Andrew Lee (@startupandrew) December 14, 2017
Often when I see American Twitter and writers being vitriolic about some startup, I feel like the company should launch its products here in India instead. Bring the expensive bus, the expensive juicer, whatever. We won't lose our minds yelling about it. https://t.co/UwXQTIjnpv
— Firas Durri (@firasd) December 14, 2017
It’s like everyone he criticized just volunteered to prove his point in the follow-ups. https://t.co/wjwibW5qac
— George Staikos (@grstaikos) December 15, 2017
This. So much this. https://t.co/YV2rjbeeiq
— Tom Giles (@tomgiles) December 15, 2017
As a founder from Norway, Sam is describing something I've noticed too, and appreciate someone being principled enough to say it out loud
(Although I am perhaps more optimistic on SFs behalf) https://t.co/LcOjKoCeSD
— Sondre Rasch (@SRasch) December 14, 2017
My favorite part is the replies absolutely proving Sam's point https://t.co/CKOXwX6w0D
— Austen Allred (@Austen) December 15, 2017
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