Towards a neo-Khaldunian digital sociology: @morteza_hm on the Bedouins of Silicon Valley

My notes on Hashemi, M. (2019). Bedouins of Silicon Valley: A neo-Khaldunian approach to sociology of technology. The Sociological Review. 

This hugely original paper seeks to counteract what Morteza Hashemi sees as an excessive focus on technological development in accounts of Silicon Valley, looking beyond this macro-social (often Schumpeterian) approach to “the evolution of Silicon Valley as a technological, economic and institutional phenomenon” to the micro-social questions which are implicit within it (pg 2). This is undertaken through a contemporary rereading of Ibn Khaldun’s theory, originally applied to the “Bedouin tribes of his day” whose members Would “learn to face daily crises without fear” because “[f]ailure to do this would put at stake their very survival” (pg 2). This was part of a hugely complex theory of social change, produced in the fourteenth centre, until recently confined to historical work which sought to place it in context but increasingly being taken up by sociologists exploring its contemporary relevance and capacity to be applied to issues like modern technology and technological innovation.

Ibn Khaldun developed an empirically-orientated social theory which sought to “distinguish between the series of events and their deep meanings, trajectories and recurring patterns” (pg 3) through a rational mentality, a rejection of rhetoric and an empirical examination of events. An important concept was asabiyya (group feeling), which Hashemi notes is often misdefined merely as solidarity. It refers to the “mutual emotional commitment, moral obligation and unity”, arising from sustained interaction under harsh conditions, “transform a simple interdependency into something more than that”: it is a “social mechanism able to create a powerful and functional unit which can survive and flourish under inhospitable conditions” (pg 4). He outlines on pg 4 the contrast Khaldun drew between the Bedouins and city dwellers, as well as the social dynamics which flowed from it:

The Bedouins, living in the harsh conditions of the desert, had become both skilled and trained, and their religion magnified their strong asabiyya/group feeling. The city-dwellers, on the other hand, with their secure life inside the city walls were mostly inclined towards a luxurious lifestyle and the delights of civilization. This left their society fragile in the face of the attacks of the hardier Bedouins. The point is that once the Bedouins had conquered the cities and built their own empire they were soon themselves absorbed into the life of the civilized world, thereby losing their outstanding merits and qualities, including the essential element of asabiyya. Hence, they would in their turn be replaced by new tribes of Bedouin conquerors. His estimate was that each dynasty of Bedouin conquerors could survive up to four generations. After the fourth generation of rulers, the former Bedouins would have become so accustomed to the safe, sedentary life as to be in danger of a new invasion by another group of Bedouins.

Over time inherited tradition (which I assume encompasses institutions, as well as beliefs) comes be relied upon more than the achieved qualities of the group, leaving them ill-equipped to deal with emerging challenges. Hashemi strips away the underlying environmental determinism and retains this core “notion of a cycle in which risk-takers replace risk-avoiders” (pg 4). Training is central to this because it cultivates a certain kind of group with certain kinds of orientations towards risk. It involves the accumulation of aptitudes which Hashemi notes has affinities with Bourdieu’s concept of habits. Their difference is in moments of crisis and rupture where Bourdieu understood the habitus would fail in its action guiding capacity. In contrast Khaldun saw crisis as crucial for the development of the aptitudes. As Hashemi elegantly puts it on pg 6, “for Bourdieu the game almost stops when it comes to crisis, for Ibn Khaldun crisis is the very game”: it is the norm rather than the exception.

It is a conception with a collective focus, orientated towards how the group weathers the crisis and how they are changed in the process. If I understand correctly, it’s crucial to note this does not imply unity; some of these effects happen individually, forming group characteristics through aggregation, while remaining a collective process. Drawing on Sloterdijk’s work, Hashemi reads Khaldun as having identified two anthropotechnic systems, corresponding to the latter’s distinction between city-dwellers (relying on the institutions) and Bedouins (relying on themselves):

The one is the luxurious way of shaping life that entails externalization and outsourcing of some vital skills. The other system is about cultivating those skills and relying on one’s inner abilities. (pg 9)

As he goes on to write on pg 10, Khaldun’s social theory is deeply relevant to a world characterised by risk, ‘disruption’, uncertainty and change:

For Ibn Khaldun, hazard, destruction and catastrophe are not the only results of a crisis. Crises are human-made, but they also make human beings. Crises are training camps. They are the source of construction as well as destruction. In the words of Nietzsche, that which does not kill us, makes us stronger.

He analyses the rise of the geeks in these terms, originally “an underground network of college students, university students and computer scientists who cared about the internet as an open and powerful infrastructure which can fundamentally transform aspects of our life” bound together by a shared marginalisation and a faith in the transformative possibilities offered by technology (pg 11). There are four elements to Khaldun’s conception of training which we can see in the ascendency of the geeks: “step-by-step training under conditions of hardship” (toiling in obscurity, in co-working spaces or incubators, without any guarantee of respite), “the power arising from the combination of Bedouin training and a charismatic leader who is an authority behind external law” (the role of the VCs or investors in transforming their fortunes), risk-taking (the constant necessary to avoid being superseded, the source of organisational renewal). I felt it was a shame the paper stopped here because the real force of this line of argument would be subsequent cycle of decline and challenge likely to be faced by the now ascended geeks. But it’s a fantastically original and thought-provoking paper which has left me eagerly anticipating a sequel.

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