Winning the Battle & Losing the War with Silicon Valley

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


October 25, 2013

Winning the Battle & Losing the War with Silicon Valley

In an ideal world, we would all spend a lot of time closely examining and debating the decisions that are made in Silicon Valley, trying to see how those decisions are propagated to society as a whole and how they alter our interpersonal relationships, our cognitive functioning, our economy and our political system.

We don’t live in that world.

Instead, most of our time and energy is wasted getting worked up over ill-considered tweets by people who supposedly represent the Silicon Valley elite. We have ValleyWag, an entire website dedicated to painting an overheated picture of tech startups as a cesspool of sociopaths, bigots, racists, spoiled rich kids, entitled assholes, sexual predators, Ayn Rand devotees, selfish libertarian seasteaders eager to secede from the United States.

We don’t live in ValleyWag’s world either. In general, most startup people are kind, well-meaning, idealistic, empathetic, supportive of all the right political causes, and 100% committed to making the world a better place. They overwhelmingly support Democrats in national elections, with over 90% of contributions from tech companies going to Obama in the 2012 election, exactly the inverse of Wall Street’s ratio to whom they are now so often compared.

Silicon Valley has become increasingly Democratic. Representative Mike Honda, rated a “Far Left Democrat” by to, increased his share of the vote from 54% in 2001 to 72% in 2008. Sure, they showed their libertarian colors before the 2008 primary, when Obama took about half of Googlers’ contributions, leaving Hillary and Ron Paul to split the remainder. But compared to McCain in the general election, Obama took 97% of their money.

So when ValleyWag characterizes Silicon Valley as “full of technolibertarian, amoral, poorly dressed Stanford-dropout vampires,” this doesn’t fit with my personal experiences, nor with what the data implies. It probably matters that this type of invective casts a overly broad net and catches those who don’t deserve it, but for me, an even more serious issue is the way this kind of rhetoric obscures what’s at stake with the Silicon Valley agenda.

The problem is not that these companies are run and built by bad people with bad intentions—they generally aren’t, although we have seen a tiny handful of people talk about secession and unleashing dobermans on striking workers. The problem is that regardless of their intentions, their work has negative effects on the world that they aren’t aware of because they can’t see the negative sides and don’t know how to value what they’re destroying.

Their worldview celebrates undermining democracy as a way to empower the people, but simply calling them bad people does nothing to clarify the point. If anything, it confuses things even more.

In Jacobin, Peter Frase wrote an article called Delusions of the Tech Bro Intelligentsia, making some interesting and valuable observations about the strike and the impact of automation on workers. However, the article is bookended by bashing the alleged moral degeneracy of Silicon Valley. Frase was invited to talk about the article on the progressive radio program Majority Report, and afterwards, the hosts Mike Brooks and Matt Binder had a very interesting discussion.

Mike Brooks says of Silicon Valley’s innovation rhetoric, “It’s the same old wine in the iPad casing. It’s just the same stuff that gets regurgitated and regurgitated…” But this is not true. It’s incorrect to simply lump Silicon Valley’s ideology as just another variation of Ron Paul’s or the Tea Party’s. Even though it is true that it has similar negative impacts on the economy, it’s framed in such a way that a huge number of progressive Obama voters will buy into it.

But Brooks’ reaction seems to say “We progressives already know all about this.” We know what they’re going to say, we know our talking points, and this is just the same ancient battle that has been fought since Reagan—nothing new here. Tune in tomorrow, where you will hear your beliefs repeated to you in a different way.

Except this is different. It’s easy to condemn an idiot who wants to set the dogs on a picket line, but that leaves out a much larger group of people who genuinely don’t understand why protecting your union job is preferrable to joining Task Rabbit, renting out your house on Airbnb, driving for Lyft, or starting your own company or Etsy business, and believe they are progressives.

Matt Binder’s reaction is even more troubling:

[Facebook and Twitter] weren’t originally created for the way we are using them now. Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook to pick up chicks… You think they thought Twitter would be used by young activists in the Arab Spring to overthrow their government? No, they probably were thinking “We’ll be able to brag about what we’re doing because we’re doing interesting things.”

The implication here is that startup entrepreneurs themselves are elitist assholes, but isn’t it great that we were able to wrest control of their web sites and use them contrary to their intended purposes? So the criticism of entrepreneurs’ moral degeneracy leaves intact all the pseudo-populist celebration of the liberating power of the internet that has been Silicon Valley’s primary doctrine for decades, and key to their success.

We’ve satisfied our need to condemn a few of the more provocative anti-union tweets, but we’re no closer to exposing the subtle ways that Silicon Valley ideology has refashioned right-wing goals in progressive language, and the public isn’t any better equipped to assess the true impact that their products have on the world.

In fact, we’re worse off now. In place of subtle reframing, we attack the outrageous, brightly-colored Randian decoy. Instead of framing the debate of the impact of technology in terms of its impact on the welfare of the people, we post our outraged reactions to third hand reports of minor acts of selfishness and narcissism by unknown persons, because more people will pay attention to that.

And in the debate on whether unions thwart innovation, over the last two decades an argument has been made that protecting workers’ rights is the key to unlocking innovation in the new economy. And that argument has come from these same tech bros. But that’s for a different post.

Update: West Space Journal has kindly published my article The Agile Labour Union where I claim that the influential software development movement known as Agile bears some similarities to a union. One goal of Agile is increase worker autonomy and empowerment, arguing that this is key to unlocking the innovation and dynamism in the knowledge economy.