Silicon Valley’s deep financial ties to Saudi Arabia illustrate “the hypocrisy behind the ‘change the world’ fantasy” pushed by tech companies, said journalist Anand Giridharadas. Saudi backing for popular apps like Uber, Slack, and Wag offers proof that “the most idealistic companies on earth—in rhetoric—are very happy to take the dirtiest money on earth to grow and grow and grow,” he said.
Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the Word, spoke at the WIRED25 festival on Sunday, on a panel about the trouble with techno-utopianism. He argued that the uproar around the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was allegedly killed by Saudi agents last week, forces the tech industry to face the reality of the Saudis.
The relationship has worked well for the Saudis, Giridharadas said, who have financed popular apps as “a form of influence peddling” to distract people from things like the way oil contributes to climate change.
However, in light of the graphic details that have emerged about Khashoggi’s alleged murder, Silicon Valley can “no longer hide behind an idea that it’s another player in Davos in the Desert,” he said, referring to an upcoming festival in Riyadh arranged by the Saudi government. Several tech luminaries scheduled to speak at the summit have dropped out following Khashoggi’s disappearance and possible murder. But there’s been no reckoning with the billions the Saudi government has funneled into tech companies through its Public Investment Fund.
The panel was moderated by Virginia Heffernan, an author and contributor to WIRED, who quickly challenged Giridharadas on the idea that anyone came to Silicon Valley to associate themselves with repressive regimes. Heffernan offered her own brief experience with the Saudi government as an instance of good intentions. Years ago, Heffernan said she was paid about $24,000 for two speaking gigs in Saudi Arabia, even though the sessions were later cancelled. Perhaps receiving such a large sum, roughly a quarter of what she made while she had been on staff at the New York Times, colored her view of the regime. “I suddenly thought Saudi Arabia is not that bad,” she said.
“I think that that’s what the VCs think,” Heffernan said. “Suddenly the money’s flowing and yet we’re beholden to them.”
Giridharadas agreed. “The winners of our age are not bad people. They’re not evil people. They are there people motivated, as they ought to be under the system that we have, by the pursuit of profit. And that makes them very good at a bunch of things like building businesses and creating things and inventing things,” he said. But what his book Winners Take All explores is the way that pairing the pursuit of profit with the rhetoric of social change has led us to a place where we look to the same tech leaders funded by the Saudi to save the world.
“How did we decide to outsource the improvement of the human condition to those people?” Giridharadas asked. “The Saudi thing and your experience illustrate [that] it’s not bad people, but it’s just people who are ill-positioned to balance the voice of greed with the voice of the good.”
More Great WIRED Stories