To get students thinking about the many aspects of the digital revolution, Sciences Po’s Entrepreneurship Centre took 15 of them to Silicon Valley for a close-up look at technology’s key players, including Facebook, Google and AirBnb. Yaël, who is doing a research-based Master’s in political theory at the Sciences Po Doctoral School, and Thomas, an engineering student at Polytechnique, took part in this immersion-learning trip. Machine learning, blockchain, data science... they told us all about it.
What made you want to take part in this Silicon Valley experience?
Thomas: As an engineering student, Silicon Valley is pretty much legendary, so it’s not the sort of trip you refuse! But I also wanted to go because of some questions I have. This place is home to companies that are changing the world. Everybody from the United States to Africa has Facebook and WhatsApp, for instance. So we need ask ourselves what impacts these companies are having. What do they contribute in terms of democracy and equality?
Yaël: Sciences Po’s Entrepreneurship Centre invited us to go in “tandem”; each Sciences Po student had to pair up with a science or technology student. The questions engineers ask are different from the things Sciences Po students ask and that’s really interesting! When we met with Criteo [a company specialised in targeted advertising] for example, Thomas asked a lot of technical questions about machine learning.
As well as tech giants like Facebook and Google, you met with successful startups like Coursera and researchers from Berkeley and Stanford. What did you get out of meeting such diverse stakeholders?
Yaël: By meeting them in turn, you understand how much everything is interconnected. Silicon Valley is an extremely well established ecosystem, from researchers to investors to companies, which are just one part of the chain. You quickly understand that this fluidity is one of the key elements of Silicon Valley.
Thomas: You also understand that, in the end, the goal of any startup is to go public on the stock market or to find a buyer. And it’s interesting to see that companies such as Uber or Airbnb aren’t based on any real technical innovations. Their main innovation is an idea and how they implement it. In the case of Criteo, which we mentioned before, their targeted advertising is not innovative; it’s their business model that is highly sophisticated. Their edge is more economic than technical.
What surprised you?
Thomas: The entrepreneurial ideology is everywhere and there is no clear division between work and private life. The Facebook campus is a small town, like a little amusement park where food is free and people can spend the day. Each individual is a mini-start up. People go into a company, get fired, start their own business, mess up, start over...
Yaël: The Americans’ constant enthusiasm is a real culture shock. It’s a culture where people think positive about everything, including failure. Which is a good thing, sure, but sometimes you wonder if there’s any room for self-critique. At a meeting with one researcher, we asked him about some of his difficulties and his answer surprised all of us: “We’re not going to get into a criticism of my work!”
Which visits or meetings had the most impact on you?
Yaël: The meeting with Tenzin Seldon, a Tibetan who created a startup, Kinstep, that aims to “match” the skills of refugees with the needs of businesses. She explained to us that hers was a consciously pragmatic solution because that’s how everything works out there: everything is monetized, including philanthropy. Moreover, she was well aware of the limits of this system.
Thomas: I was very interested in our meeting with a “mathlete” [mathematics champion] at Google. He specialises in the development of new machine learning methods in the medical field. He is convinced that the next innovations will be in this area.
Did these encounters inspire you? Did they make you want to transpose certain aspects of Silicon Valley to France?
Thomas: We came back with quite mixed feelings about the Silicon Valley model; in fact our “learning expedition” sometimes turned into a “judging expedition”! The near complete absence of state intervention creates a certain number of “flaws”, particularly social ones: California is the state with the most homeless people, prisoners, poverty, etc. The Silicon Valley milieu is in fact a very ideological, very “solutionist” environment, including for social problems. To give you an example, the company Palantir has a philanthropic department. This department has set up an application to track homeless people and offer housing… to those who cost the most. And that’s not to mention ethical issues, which are set aside and at best considered after the fact, or the question of privacy that no one is asking. It’s all about trying to push the limits as far as possible and the idea of debate has no place there.
Yaël: The principle of a startup is to disrupt a market, which implies having found a flaw, as Airbnb did by proposing a competitive alternative to hotels. But it’s clear that when a market is disrupted, this raises social, legal, economic and other problems. The Silicon Valley model is not ideologically neutral. During our stay, I enjoyed the meeting with Fred Turner, a historian of American culture who has worked extensively on the history of Silicon Valley. He is very critical about inequalities in California. Which clearly poses the problem of whether this model is transposable to France. Our culture is not the same and the startups that are being created here are much more aware of their social and environmental impact. Our ecosystem is more “conscious”, which is a good thing.
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Yaël Benayoun has just completed a research Master’s degree in political theory at Sciences Po. She is also president of the association Mouton numérique, which examines our relationship to digital technology.
Thomas Sentis is a student at École polytechnique specialising in artificial intelligence. He is also studying philosophy of science.
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