Sam Altman, president of startup investor Y Combinator, published a blog post on December 14 in which he writes that after a recent trip to China, he came to the realization that he "felt more comfortable discussing controversial ideas in Beijing than in San Francisco."
Altman notes that from 2005 to 2017, the change in free speech culture has changed rather dramatically:
It seems easier to accidentally speak heresies in San Francisco every year. Debating a controversial idea, even if you 95% agree with the consensus side, seems ill-advised.
Altman then sums up the notion of speech restriction as it pertains to "unpopular ideas" in an interesting manner, writing:
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.
Altman adds that he’s seen "credible people" leave Silicon Valley recently because of its "toxic" environment.
"You can’t tell which seemingly wacky ideas are going to turn out to be right, and nearly all ideas that turn out to be great breakthroughs start out sounding like terrible ideas. So if you want a culture that innovates, you can’t have a culture where you allow the concept of heresy," Altman writes. "When we move from strenuous debate about ideas to casting the people behind the ideas as heretics, we gradually stop debate on all controversial ideas."
According to Altman, innovative ideas like SpaceX and Bitcoin might not have gotten off the ground if they were brought forward in 2017. SpaceX, he writes, might be blasted for catering to the one percent; and Bitcoin might be considered "crazy and too dangerous."
Of course, the Y Combinator president maintains that we should be aware of the way in which people are being treated, and that we should "make accommodations" as long as those accommodations aren’t eventually used as a club against the people for whom they were created.
In a "clarification" post linked to his original piece, Altman writes that he doesn’t want to be misunderstood, that we should point out bigotry where we see it. However, he adds that society must "tolerate controversial ideas" as some of the most innovative concepts and societal advancements "start as extremely unpopular ideas."
He goes on to lament that free speech is sometimes used to malign others, noting that it’s "probably impossible to design a simple set of rules that will always allow the right speech and not the wrong speech."
After providing two examples about how speech and ideas that seem radical in 2017 may prove to be a cultural norm in the future, Altman writes that "it’s dangerous to just ban discussion of topics we find offensive."
Despite the caveats Altman provides in his assessment of free speech, it’s a good thing when someone living in a progressive bubble, especially one as strident as Silicon Valley, can self-reflect. Examination of one’s biases is perhaps the most critical step on the path toward a better understanding of the world.
Kudos to Sam Altman.