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Silicon Valley has become a ‘moral cesspool,’ says management expert Tom Peters

Peters, the author of the seminal business book “In Search of Excellence,” says, “I weep for Santa Clara County.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg onstage gesturing at a picture of a lock.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

When Tom Peters started studying management in the 1970s, he was told the real “weirdos” were 30 miles south of San Francisco, at an obscure company called Hewlett-Packard.

Peters’ interviews with executives from HP, 3M and other emerging leaders formed the backbone of his seminal 1982 management book, “In Search of Excellence.” Thirty-six years later, he’s become the celebrated author of 16 more books, most recently “The Excellence Dividend.”

But Peters is increasingly “pissed off” that people don’t seem to get the point: Businesses should enrich the lives of their customers, not just shareholders.

”What the hell is an organization?” he said in a recent lecture at Fidelity Investments. “It’s people serving people. What is a leader? People serving people who serve people. This is not rocket science!”

And what really ticks off Tom Peters is the way certain leaders in Silicon Valley seem to be dead-set on avoiding responsibility for the effects of their products.

“I’m sure it was the same damn thing with the cotton gin,” Peters said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. “Nobody could have predicted the implications. But what annoys me with the Zuckerberg testimony and so on is, still, this game of naïveté.”

”For God’s sakes, I live in the United States!” he fumed. “Until recently, I was proud to tell people that. Somebody screwed with my country’s elections. They screwed with them because of the way these extraordinary tools were used.”

You can listen to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

On the new podcast, Peters said that Silicon Valley, the former home of Bill Hewlett and David Packard, had become a “moral cesspool.”

“Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony and David Packard’s testimony on the same issue — you would not have had one coincidental word, sentence or paragraph,” he said. “Packard felt that he was part of the United States of America, he felt that he had an obligation. I’m not suggesting he would have blown his company up, for God’s sakes, but he wouldn’t’ve been evasive! He would’ve spoken plain English.”

And what does Peters think of Zuckerberg’s oft-repeated promise that Facebook will now take a “broader view” of its responsibilities around users’ privacy?

”That’s just the ultimate bullshit sentence!” he said. “Honest to God!”

The silver lining to the Cambridge Analytica scandal and other incidents of techlash, he argued, is that the tech communities of Boston, Austin and beyond are no longer worshiping, “dewy-eyed,” at the altar of Palo Alto.

“I am completely [exasperated],” Peters said. “It was my home! … It’s maybe just the ravings of an old man. But it’s my bloody valley.”

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • On Too Embarrassed to Ask, also hosted by Kara Swisher, we answer the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Kara.

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