Silicon Valley’s problem is not an excess of frat-house behavior. It’s much worse.
Fresh-faced Stanford grads yapping about their startups. Ruthlessly capitalist billionaires in their 50s. Soulful, shaggy-haired billionaires in their 40s. Greedy venture capitalists. Earnestly liberal social media critics. New York political candidates who don’t work in tech.
What do all these disparate characters have in common? They are all routinely, casually labeled “tech bros.” A term that once mocked a particular Bay Area cultural phenomenon has become an all-purpose epithet. In the process, it has lost whatever analytic value and rhetorical punch it once had. If tech bros are everywhere, then they are nowhere.
The tech bro is, of course, a species within the broader bro genus. Generic bro-ishness is properly understood as a form of performative male camaraderie, typically involving an ostentatious commitment to partying and a mildly ironic preppy aesthetic. Bros are the opposite of hipsters: aggressively conformist, intentionally unfashionable, proudly loyal to institutions (whether it’s Penn State or Deutsche Bank). With its roots in fraternity life, bro culture can include a darker undertone of misogyny, although the textbook bro is more buffoonish than menacing.
“Tech bro” was a logical adaptation of the concept, as a generation of overwhelmingly male college grads who before might have sought their fortunes on Wall Street flocked to high-paying jobs in San Francisco. To many Bay Area residents, the term conjures a specific image: a 20-something guy, usually white, in all likelihood wearing a quarter-zip Patagonia fleece vest branded with the logo of his Silicon Valley workplace. (These vests are also popular with his cousin, the finance bro.) This quintessential tech bro appears to have few interests outside his high-paying job, Bitcoin, and perhaps biking. Callow and callous, he is an irresistible target of mockery, blamed for driving up the cost of living in San Francisco while deadening its spirit with his acquisitive lifestyle and cultural cluelessness. While not necessarily sexist himself, he is an emblem of the boys’ club culture that permeates the tech industry.
The tech bro meme hit a nerve in a city jolted by an influx of wealth and commerce, and in an industry where very young men held outsized influence while women felt like second-class citizens. All along, however, there was a certain ambiguity to it: did tech bro, like finance bro, refer to the industry’s rank and file—no one calls Lloyd Blankfein or Steven Mnuchin a bro—or to its C-suite? The answer was both. That cocky 24-year-old getting drunk in the Mission could be an entry-level Facebook engineer, or he could be Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel, who in 2014 became the world’s youngest billionaire just a few years removed from sending emails to his Stanford frat brothers featuring lines like, “Hope at least six girls sucked your dicks last night.” (One can see why he would go on to invent a disappearing-message app.)
Somewhere along the line, however, the tech bro label began being asked to do too much. It is used to mock the pretensions of Silicon Valley’s upper crust: thus Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, a middle-aged man who has been in the Bay since the Clinton administration and is far from the stereotypical transplant, becomes a tech bro when the subject is his strange diet or world travels. It is applied to straightforward displays of sexism: When the Google engineer James Damore was fired for publishing an internal memo suggesting that workplace gender disparities stemmed from biological differences, it was hard to find an article on the subject that didn’t label him as a tech bro (or, alternatively, a Google Bro.) Don’t get me wrong: the male dominance of the tech industry is a problem. It’s just one that calling everyone a tech bro does little to illuminate. The term is even invoked when the very fate of American democracy is at stake. “Don’t make social media tech bro billionaires the arbiters of truth,” declares one recent op-ed headline. In short, “tech bro” has become the go-to term for any man in tech who merits criticism. As the industry’s reputation plummets ever further, that gets closer and closer to any man in tech, period.
The problem here is not that it’s a stale cliché, stretched nearly to the point of meaninglessness, although that is true: If you’re using the same phrase to dismiss everyone from Donald Trump-loving libertarian Peter Thiel, who used his riches to drive the publication Gawker out of business, to the super-liberal Andrew Yang, who has argued for public funding for local journalism (and who, again, does not actually come from the tech sector), it’s a sign of some lazy thinking.
The bigger issue is that, at a certain point, the term tends to obscure and even trivialize important issues. It implies that the harms caused by technology platforms are attributable somehow to a character flaw, a certain level of personal impishness or immaturity, when in fact they are much more systemic. If Mark Zuckerberg ditched his hoodie for a suit and tie, that would not suddenly fix Facebook’s issues with privacy and disinformation; it would not have kept the company from inadvertently abetting genocide in Myanmar. The problems at YouTube, whose female CEO Susan Wojicki reports to the decidedly un-bro-ish Alphabet chief Sundar Pichai, are not the result of locker-room masculinity run amok. Amazon is not driving independent retailers out of business and allegedly forcing warehouse workers to pee in bottlesbecause Jeff Bezos did too many keg stands. We’re talking about some of the most powerful corporations in world history. To mock their leaders as if they’re just out of college and have no idea how the world works is to misdiagnose the problem.
Nor is this tendency limited to tech criticism. In 2015, a 32-year-old named Martin Shkreli made headlines for abruptly raising the price of life-saving generic medication from $13.50 to $750. The media dubbed him the “Pharma Bro.” It isn’t at all clear that Shkreli, a serial fraudster with a working-class Brooklyn background, is a true bro at all. But even if he is, so what? His actions were distinctive for their immorality, not their bro-ishness. Cornering the market on a medication in order to multiply the price by 5,500 percent is not juvenile or fratty; it’s a potentially murderous display of vampiric greed.
More importantly, it’s also quite common. Buying a generic drug manufacturer simply to jack up the price of a rare medicine, as Shkreli did, happens all the time, just without a punchable young asshole publicly taking credit for it. The real scandal of the Shkreli affair is that what he did was legal—an object lesson in the US government’s failure to restrain even the most nakedly antisocial exercises of corporate power. Chances are, if you’re mad about something Big Tech did, the same dynamic applies. And getting rid of all the bros won’t fix it.
All Rights Reserved for Gilad Edelman