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
His blog post on the topic drew heated reactions from
both 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
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
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 jailed Galileo 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
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
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 arguement.
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
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