Welcome to the New World* is the title of an essay by Mathilde Ramadier, telling the story of how she survived the “coolitude” of startups in Berlin’s version of Silicon Valley. Netopia asked for more.
Netopia: You have interesting thoughts about Silicon Valley’s language. There is a lot of “fantasy”, you say, behind the words associated with start-ups and the Silicon Valley. You talk about “heroism”, “new world”, “imagination”… Why don’t you like “unicorns”? Everybody likes unicorns…
MR: I like unicorns! As long as we are talking about them in the context of art history or pure imagination. Don’t you think it’s ironic that we use a chimera which never existed (and probably never will) to describe a real socioeconomic phenomenon? Isn’t it symptomatic for our world which is so deeply concerned with crisis? Besides, as we all know, a fantasy has to remain a fantasy because it belongs to the unconscious and it isn’t necessarily desirable for a fantasy to suddenly become reality.
I think it is problematic and dangerous that unicorns became a symbol for the kind of success that everybody pursues in the startup-sphere, a kind of Holy Grail that tends to be the only approved and acclaimed model of success: to get a Billion-dollar valuation. To achieve this extremely difficult goal—I don’t say it’s easy to build a startup—people need to believe in a mythology which includes their entire being. Therefore, they are convinced they have a mission to fulfill, they have to be the “hero” of an “adventure” they “share” with a “family” to “change the society” and “make the world a better place”… But how many startups have really made the world a better place than maybe a few isolated branches of society?
Netopia: For all the talk of “changing the world”, “free services”, “collaborative economy” and so on, how come Silicon Valley is so obsessed with money: seed rounds, equity, venture capital etc? Which is the more important driving force?
MR: I think that the conscious, official driving force is the strong pious willingness to change the world by disrupting a sector. Then you can be part of history, we can say there was a “before you” and an “after you”, which is flattering of course. But honestly, I think it is closely related to a more unconscious desire, which is the very basic equation: money = power.
Startuppers pretend to operate a revolution, but their desires are the very same as those of their predecessors.
Startuppers pretend to be game-changers, to operate a revolution, a radical break with the old corporate world, but their desires are the very same as those of their predecessors. Nobody wants to create a business which will stay poor and make no money… But look at the richest CEOs in the Silicon Valley. OK, their image is no longer that of vulgar Ferraris, but of smart hybrid ecofriendly cars. OK, they don’t wear ostentatious trendy clothes but hoodies, t-shirts and sneakers because they are cool and “humble”. But this is only because the symbols have been displaced within this new mythology. We read more and more stories of ridiculous paranoid behaviors and egotistical plans of CEOs who are for example buying up huge pieces of land in New Zealand with an airstrip for their private jets, or high-tech bunkers to hide in once the apocalypse has arrived. It is worth noting that these are the same people who pretend to be shaping a better future!
Netopia: You think that countries – such as yours; France – shouldn’t dream about becoming a “start-up nation” reflecting GAFA’s model. What else could it be? Do you feel that its potential could rely elsewhere?
MR: I consider both France and Germany as my countries: being French and living in Berlin makes me feel attached to both countries. However, the situation is quite different in the two countries. Berlin was faster than Paris in becoming a famous and attractive startup scene because of a lot of factors: liberal, more attractive to young people, more international, more multilingual, cheap and qualified workforce, lower real estate value, better tax rates for entrepreneurs, better life quality and unicorns lurking around every corner… But jokes apart, the phenomenon and the mythology I am talking about in my book is now global and concerns every western capital city or country which aspires to become a startup nation. It simply renewed the old American dream as a version 2.0 of capitalism.
I am not against startups as such. I believe in the digital age, I use the Internet and new technologies and I think we need innovation. But is innovation really defined as just another startup delivering meals at home, abusing poor guys biking around on their own bicycles? What will be the next fancy app, offering something nobody actually needs and using the availability and frailty of a new proletariat—whom one still does not dare to name so? If disruption is only possible at the price of ignoring and disrespecting all the achievements to protect workers which society has fought for so hard since the beginning of industrial age, then I would not call it disruption but rather regression!
I argue in favor of more maturity, retreat and reflection on these issues, rather than blindly following a model that already shows its obvious flaws. Some specialists talk about a startup bubble. I think that it is not just an economic bubble, there is also a social bubble that needs to blow up soon.
Netopia: A last one maybe… You want more “humility, maturity and respect” in the collaborative economy and less “smileys, care bears and unicorns”. Just as a bit of mischief: if you had to choose one emoji to address Silicon Valley… Which one would it be?
MR: Whereas Silicon Valley would probably like to see the unicorn emoji, I would rather send them the turtle.
Personally, I prefer animals that are more modest, realistic and basically more alive than unicorns. The turtle and the elephant are my favorite totem pets. They are wise, slow and we know that in the end, they live the longest and cross the finish line before the rabbit, as the fable tells us…
* Netopia’s translation
You can buy Bienvenue Dans Le Nouveau Monde, Comment J’ai Survécu à La Coolitude Des Start-ups. Mathilde Ramadier here.