Unicorns and blackswans? The political, social and economic ideas that shape today’s culture of Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley's culture of success

Silicon Valley from above
"Silicon Valley from above" by Nouhailler is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

An area bustling with innovation and entrepreneurship, Silicon Valley is situated in the San Francisco Bay area of North California and is home to many of the most successful technology companies in the world. The culture of Silicon Valley has been influenced by a wide range of political, social and economic ideas that have gradually changed and shaped this area into what it is today. Silicon Valley is also known for both unicorns and blackswans which create the landscape of technological success that it is famous for.

What are Unicorns?

Unicorns are start-up companies that are valued at over US$1 billion and get their name from the rarity of this status. This term became popular in the mid-2010s as unicorns began to increase in number, with Web 2.0 leading the way for several tech start-ups to become highly successful. In 2013 there were only 39 unicorns worldwide, making this an extremely rare feat. However, this number amplified in the next two years with 144 unicorns existing in 2015, 67% of which were based in the Bay Area (McNeill, 2016). Examples of these include Airbnb, Uber and Pinterest. There are now approximately 900 unicorns, collectively worth more than $3.5 trillion, emphasising the fast-paced growth of tech companies in today’s digital landscape. 220 of these reside in Silicon Valley, making it home to the most unicorns in the world (The Economist, 2022).

What are Blackswans?

Blackswans refer to an “atypical occurrence or anomalous observation” and are start-ups that were not supposed to exist or let alone succeed in their field but surprisingly did (Mahroum, 2016). Silicon Valley is an excellent breeding ground for blackswans with many tech start-ups in the area dreaming of achieving this status, as the variables that lead to success in the industry are so arbitrary. Blackswans can also be referred to as rare, unpredictable events that negatively impact the economy such as the dotcom bubble burst in 2001 (Gordon & Kvilhaug, 2022).

Ideas that have shaped the culture of today’s Silicon Valley

Hippie Van
“Hippie Van.” by ¡arturii! is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.


The political influence on Silicon Valley’s culture can be said to originally stem from the 1960s New Left movements and counterculture in the Bay Area. The rise of radical hippies in San Francisco post-war, led to the mass rejection of “militarism, racism, sexual discrimination, homophobia, mindless consumerism, and pollution” (Barbrook & Cameron, 1996) and instead a focus on achieving individual freedom and collectiveness. This communal culture of collaboration is seen quite frequently in Silicon Valley today, especially at workplaces such as Google where workers possess a shared mindset.

In the 1990s, two media theorists, Andy Cameron and Richard Barbrook, populated the Californian Ideology which connected American neo-liberalism to the influx of technology companies in Silicon Valley. This further promoted political ideas of individualism and libertarianism, combining the previous New Left ideology with that of the New Right. These beliefs are still strongly held within Silicon Valley today, however the reigning political culture of the region is complicated. Although, at first glance the general leaning of the area is Democratic, as noted by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, “most of Silicon Valley, most of the executives, tend to be Democrats”, the majority of companies and technologies being developed there thrive off capitalism (Liu, 2020). Author Fred Turner presents another view on this, discussing how the communalist movement has influenced those of Silicon Valley to turn away from outward politics and alternatively focus on the self “as the basis of political change, of social action” (Fox, 2014).


Google Office in Zurich
“Google Office in Zurich” by andrewarchy is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.


These ideals of collaboration and sharing resources have also influenced the social culture of Silicon Valley, however there is still room for improvement regarding diversity. In the 1940s and 1950s collaborative research culture that was “flexible, loose and open” began, paving the way for a future world that “could be built around shared technology, shared mindsets, constant collaboration, and constant innovation” (Lusoli & Turner, 2021). As mentioned above, the commune movement became popular in 1960s America where these notions of collaboration and technological advancement were even more evident. Developing a society around a shared consciousness and culture was the key ideal for communalists, influenced by the Second World War research laboratories (Lusoli & Turner, 2021). However, the irony of these concepts in action were that they fostered prejudice, with several groups of people being excluded from these communities as they didn’t possess the same “culture” .

One well-known example of this today is the emergence of “bro-culture” in Silicon Valley.  A lack of diversity is extremely evident in many technology companies that reside in the area with white men being the most employed, consequently creating a racist and misogynist culture amongst these workplaces. Only 19.8% of engineers in Silicon Valley and 22% of tech leadership positions amongst Fortune 500 companies are women (Bailey, 2022) revealing the incredible lack of diversity of gender. Diversity of races is also low in Silicon Valley with black women accounting for 1% of workers there (Twine, 2018) and Apple, Microsoft and Google all having less than 7% of Hispanic/Latinx employees. This has led to a harmful social culture where employees that fit into these categories are hired and promoted less, as well as continually endure damaging behaviour from their colleagues or bosses.


Nasdaq Take 4
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The fast-paced rise of technology and innovation led to a new culture of entrepreneurship that has taken the economic world by storm. Towards the later end of the 1990s the quickly developing Internet brought about a “New Economy”. This resulted in a great increase of investments in technology start-ups, with the NASDAQ stock market accumulating 4000 points between 1995-2000 (Antonelli, 2009). However, the World Wide Web was not quite ready for making ideas profitable, leading to the blackswan occurrence of the ‘dot.bomb’. Learning from this event led to the evolution of the Internet as a platform, Web 2.0. Now focusing more on user generated content and ideas of interconnectivity and collaboration, this new and improved version of the Internet greatly shaped the economic culture of the present Silicon Valley (Singel, 2005).

In today’s world where great technological ideas can be transformed into large amounts of wealth (Castells, 2002), Silicon Valley has thrived, where if it was a country it would be one of the richest on Earth . Investment is an essential part of this process to fund start-ups and ideally one day turn them into unicorns, which has created a culture in Silicon Valley that strongly focuses on how much money can be made and how quickly (Castells, 2002). This is shaped by the idea of freedom that is associated with acquiring money. For those in start-ups this could be the freedom to disassociate with the corporate world or the freedom to go out on their own and be in control.

The sharing economy that has influenced some of the major unicorn companies in Silicon Valley, such as Airbnb and Uber, also promotes economic freedom to those who partake. It enables ordinary people to escape the typical 9 to 5 and self-regulate their work lives, leading many to achieve large sums of money from time and possessions that would otherwise be unused (Lusoli & Turner, 2021). However, in both cases greed creates potential for a lack of freedom too. Silicon Valley has created a culture of endless work, blurring the boundaries of work and life by presenting an inviting façade of community and attractive benefits, while the sharing economy has been known to exploit and discriminate against workers (Lusoli & Turner, 2021).

The Future of Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley has continued to thrive and grow at exponential speed in the present world due to the rapid evolution of technology, despite unexpected events such as the COVID19 pandemic. At this rate, Silicon Valley will have a very bright and prosperous future as long as it learns from the mistakes of the past and present. The 1960s Bohemia ideals that once influenced the region has its inherent problems and does “not produce stable, long-term, sustainable environments” (Lusoli & Turner, 2021) which is essential for the future development of Silicon Valley. In order to stay successful, the technological haven must improve its diversity in workplaces and prevent exploitation of consumers and workers.



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