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- Sam Altman, one of the most powerful people in the startup world, says that the debate around political correctness in San Francisco is bad for startups and smart people.
- His blog post on the topic drew heated reactions from people who agreed with him as well as people who believe his ideas are dangerous.
If Y Combinator president Sam Altman wanted to start a furious debate with his latest blog post, he certainly succeeded.
In a post on his blog, he argued that the climate of political correctness in San Francisco and Silicon Valley is “very bad for startups,” and that it was easier to express controversial ideas in China than it is in California.
The essay, named “E Pur Si Muove” after a quip heretic scientist Galileo Galilei said on his deathbed, drew swift and strong reactions from both supporters and detractors.
Here’s his basic 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 cites specific ideas that the San Francisco intellectual climate have ejected, including “ideas like pharmaceuticals for intelligence augmentation, genetic engineering, and radical life extension.”
In Altman’s view, people who have criticized those ideas for businesses have essentially cast the entrepreneurs behind them as “heretics,” the same way the Catholic Church sentenced Galileo to house arrest for correctly claiming that 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 he has expressed increased interest in political ideas. One of his experiments is related to the aspiration to give every single person a free basic income. Altman is currently running a program that gives 100 people in Oakland, California between $1,000 and $2,000 per month, and last year, he had to shoot down rumors that he was going to 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 from technology writers, activists, business school 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 to The World (@EricaJoy) December 14, 2017
I dunno if China is the shining example of “free speech” and “lack of political correctness” we should be striving for. Remember Liu Xiaobo, the labor camps, the golden shield? I remember. https://t.co/p2fAK0JTvl
— ☃️Susan Fowler🎄 (@susanthesquark) December 14, 2017
Ffs this idea that Sf techies cant speak their minds to share their shitty racist/sexist thoughts is so stupid. Name one of your funders who’s been run out of town on a rail for their toxic beliefs. You aren’t the marginalized group you’re the babies who can’t take disagreement.
— sarah kunst (@sarahkunst) 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
This essay on free speech is … well I don’t know where to begin.
But sadly written by one of Silicon Valkey’s most revered factotums.
Shallow analysis. Unsupported assertions. Ignores years of real work done across disciplines around these issues.
— Azeem Azhar (@azeem) December 14, 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 Thompson 🐋 (@pt) December 14, 2017
— Bear Conditioning (@aphyr) December 14, 2017
— Ann-Marie Alcántara (@itstheannmarie) December 14, 2017
Altman did have defenders, who said that they felt constrained to pursue or express controversial ideas, and cited the backlash to Altman’s post as proof of his point. On Hacker News, Y Combinator’s message board, the post drew 690 comments, many of them supportive of his 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
Is Sam coming around on political correctness being cancer? 🤔 https://t.co/sc82FKe28X
— Gab: Free Speech Social Network (@getongab) December 14, 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
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