I find it hard not to wonder how many interactions like this one, satirised so superbly by Silicon Valley, lie behind the tendency of digital elites to pontificate about social trends. On the one hand, data science emerges as a powerful means of generating knowledge of social life, building on past developments while becoming something distinct. On the other hand, a cultural climate which inflates and incentivises self-styled visionaries and thought leaders can imbue vacuous musings with epistemic authority. The organic sociology of Silicon Valley is a strange and complex beast.
In the last couple of days, I’ve been reading this book of talks by the ed-tech writer Audrey Watters. There are many things to recommend about it but the one that interests me most is its focus on the narrative of innovation. Perhaps reflecting her academic background in folklore, her interpretations of the mythical character of the stories that circulate within technology are really acute. These are forms of story-telling which urgently need to be identified and critiqued. As she writes on loc 1969:
Ed-tech now, particularly that which is intertwined with venture capital, is boosted by a powerful forms of storytelling: a disruptive innovation mythology, entrepreneurs’ hagiography, design fiction, fantasy. A fantasy that wants to extend its reach into the material world. Society has been handed a map, if you will, by the technology industry in which we are shown how these brave ed-tech explorers have and will conquer and carve up virtual and physical space. Fantasy. We are warned of the dragons in dangerous places, the unexplored places, the over explored places, the stagnant, the lands of outmoded ideas –all the places where we should no longer venture. Hic Sunt Dracones. There be dragons.
We can see expressions of this when reading and listening to corporate speeches within the sector. Leaders of technology firms tell stories about the battles they fought, how they rallied their troops and sought to smite their enemies. But these are the more individualised narratives. On loc 951, Watters discusses the narratives of social transformation in which technology and its putative capacity for ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’ has become embedded:
What interests me are the stories that the businesses tell about “disruptive innovation” because this has become a near sacred story to the tech sector. It’s a story of the coming apocalypse –destruction and transformation and redemption, brought to you by technology. Again, these cultural remnants of an older meaning of “innovation,” a process of transformation or renewal that has religious implications. Perhaps the salvation. Perhaps deception by false prophets. The Battles of the End Times, and you must decide which side you’re on.
Should the sociology of religion treat this seriously as a religious form that’s arisen amongst a particular powerful group within extremely specific conditions? As Emilie Whitaker pointed out in a recent essay for The Sociological Review, “there is significant scope to explore the being/becoming of the transhumanist” through ethnographic and anthropological means. Perhaps these represent the leading edge of a broader-based religious form arising under nascent digital capitalism. What Audrey Watters writes on loc 975 could easily be the starting-point for an empirical study:
The structure to many of these narratives about disruptive innovation is well-known and oft-told, echoed in tales of both a religious and secular sort: Doom. Suffering. Change. Then paradise. People do love the “end of the world as we know it” stories, for reasons that have to do with both the horrors of the now and the promise of a better future. Many cultures –and Silicon Valley is, despite its embrace of science and technology, no different here –tell a story that predicts some sort of cataclysmic event that will bring about a radical cultural (economic, political) transformation and, perhaps eventually for some folks at least, some sort of salvation. The Book of Revelations. The Mayan Calendar. The Shakers. The Ghost Dance. Nuclear holocaust. Skynet. The Singularity.
In his remarkably prescient Listen Liberal, Thomas Frank describes the rapid capture of the Democratic Party by the professional class which took place during those decades when economic transition left them ascendent within the country as a whole. This was originally a predominance of financiers within the party but, with a transition marked by the defection of finance to Romney in the 2012 election, it’s more recently been a matter of Silicon Valley.
As a striking example of this, on loc 2742 he describes the innovation mania sweeping a city like Boston,
Back in Boston, meanwhile, there is meaning and exciting purpose wherever you look. When I visited, in the spring of 2015, I found a city in the grip of a collective mania, an enthusiasm for innovation that I can only compare to a religious revival, to the kind of crowd-passion that would periodically sweep through New England back in the days when the purpose of Harvard was to produce clergymen, not startups. The frenzy manifests itself in countless ways. The last mayor of Boston was mourned on his passing as a man who “believed in innovation”; who “brought innovation to Boston.” The state’s Innovation Institute issues annual reports on the “Massachusetts Innovation Economy”; as innovation economies go, they brag, this one is “the largest in the U.S. when measured as a percent of employment.” And of course there are publications that cover this thrumming beehive of novelty: “BostInno,” a startup website dedicated to boosting startups, and “Beta Boston,” which is a project of the more established but still super-enthusiastic Boston Globe.
Meanwhile those outside these ‘innovation hubs’ struggle across the state. The self-confident creative class march ever onwards, supported by municipal and state governments for whom subsiding innovation is axiomatic, while inequality soars in a state ranked amongst the most unequal in the United States on common measures. It’s in this schism that we can see what Harris Gruman describes as a “liberalism of the rich” (loc 2928).
If we see this ‘innovation liberalism’ in terms of its class politics, the growing revolving door between Silicon Valley and government becomes much more than a matter of curiosity. As he describes on loc 2918-2934:
By that time, the place once filled by finance in the Democratic imagination had begun giving way to Silicon Valley, a different “creative-class” industry with billions to give in campaign contributions. Changes in the administration’s personnel paralleled the money story: at the beginning of the Obama years, the government’s revolving doors had all connected to Wall Street; within a few years, the people spinning them were either coming from or heading toward the West Coast. In 2014, David Plouffe, the architect of Obama’s inspiring first presidential campaign, began to work his political magic for Uber. Jay Carney, the president’s former press secretary, hired on at Amazon the following year. Larry Summers, for his part, became an adviser for an outfit called OpenGov. Back in Washington, meanwhile, the president established a special federal unit that used Silicon Valley techniques and personnel to revolutionize the government’s web presence; starstruck tech journalists call it “Obama’s stealth startup.”
The whole tenth chapter of Listen Liberal explores this issue and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m increasingly convinced that we can’t understand the failings of the contemporary Democratic party without an adequate account of the rise of digital elites within them, as the latest turn in a much long-standing process of capture by professionals. On loc 3184 he describes how talk of ‘innovation’ serves to prop up this accelerating inequality:
Technological innovation is not the reason all this is happening, just as the atomic bomb was not the cause of World War II: it is the latest weapon in an age-old war. Technological innovation is not what is hammering down working peoples’ share of what the country earns; technological innovation is the excuse for this development. Inno is a fable that persuades us to accept economic arrangements we would otherwise regard as unpleasant or intolerable—that convinces us that the very particular configuration of economic power we inhabit is in fact a neutral matter of science, of nature, of the way God wants things to be. Every time we describe the economy as an “ecosystem” we accept this point of view. Every time we write off the situation of workers as a matter of unalterable “reality” we resign ourselves to it.
In the early pages of Douglas Rushkoff’s Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, he offers a cogent analysis of how initial public offerings lock tech companies into a growth imperative which ultimately proves destructive of the value they create. As he puts it on loc 169, “Having taken in this much new capital, however, Twitter now needs to produce. It must grow.” Problems emerge because what constitutes enough growth is something now defined by the investors who must justify the amount of money that’s been put into the company.
It’s easy to see this in systemic terms but what intrigues me is the biographical element. The problem arises because, as Rushkoff puts it, shareholders “expect to win back one hundred times their initial $20 billion bet” and to do this “Twitter must grow into a corporation bigger than the economy of many entire nations” (loc 184). Who are these investors and how do they come to be in a situation where they’re both able and inclined to make such an investment, with these sets of expectations? What about the founders themselves, how did they come to occupy these positions and what commonalities and differences can we find in their motivations?
My suggestion is that what Rushkoff calls “the growth imperative” can be usefully analysed in terms of the biographical entanglement between two distinct groups: aspiring founders and aspiring investors. The social dynamics can’t be reduced to individual biographies but these lived lives are, in an important way, the most basic social unit through which the dynamics become operative and are therefore key to understanding it. This of course entails that we understand the context within which these aspirations develop and each group sets out on this path, but the capacity of such groups to transform that context is something that is activated through the lives of individuals.
A fascinating observation in No Such Thing as a Free Gift, by Linsey McGoey, loc 785. I wonder if the digital elites who interest me see their wealth in similar terms?
It was a Janus-faced ideology; one side of Carnegie was extraordinarily generous, expending time and vast financial sums on goals such as military disarmament and racial equality. On the other side, he adopted ever more draconian policies towards his workers the more convinced he became that his wealth would ultimately benefit the larger community.
There’s another wonderful scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bU1vlbsxGGQ
This is an important though contentious article by Morozov, reflecting on the recent revelation that Peter Thiel was secretly funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker. While the much maligned company has regularly descended into prurience, they’ve provided a vital service by critically scrutinising the personal lives of digital elites & we need to resist the mobilisation of anger over their excesses into an attack on any organisation that dares invade the privacy of the increasingly well entrenched elites that run technology. In fact, this is Gawker’s own defence of their practice, as much as they’re seen as being deeply vacuous.
Gawker’s relationship with Silicon Valley, though, is more complicated for the sole reason that, when it comes to the behaviour of its own executives, the personal is also the political. Gawker has been producing coverage of the tech industry that is as lurid as it is important, subjecting the likes of Thiel to the scrutiny that they no longer receive elsewhere.
Consider what Gawker’s readers might have learned over the years. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, tells us that if we have something to hide, maybe we shouldn’t be doing it in the first place; he himself prefers to live in a luxury building without a doorman – so that no one can see him come and go. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants us to practise openness and radical transparency; he himself purchases neighbouring houses to get as much privacy as possible. Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky likes to boast that he is a typical Airbnb host; well, perhaps too typical – for a while, he was renting his house without obtaining the necessary legal permit.
Silicon Valley’s elites hate such intrusion into their personal lives. Had they worked for any other industry, their concerns would be justified. But they work for an industry that tries to convince us that privacy does not matter and that transparency and deregulation are the way to go. Since they do not lead by example, why shouldn’t their hypocrisy be exposed?
If tech elites are so concerned about privacy, they can start backing initiatives such as the right to be forgotten. Why can’t Thiel – a backer of the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual gathering of the world’s dissidents where the Human Rights Foundation awards the Václav Havel international prize for creative dissent – help us to make sure that embarrassing content, taken out of context and now enjoying worldwide circulation thanks to social networks and search engines, is easier to manage?
Incidentally, there’s an interesting suggestion here that Mark Zuckerberg’s concern to reassure publishers and cement developing relationships could lead him into conflict with Thiel, who’s a member of Facebook’s board:
Facebook is used by more than 1 billion people every day, but as it has moved from personal content toward what the company refers to as “public content,” it has moved huge audiences to publishers — and become responsible for a significant share of many publishers’ traffic. Its influence is so vast that many such publishers (including BuzzFeed) have agreed to host their articles directly on Facebook’s servers via the Instant Articles product. That outsized influence on how people all across the world are informed is why a major firestorm ensued after curators of its Trending column were accused of bias. After that episode, Zuckerberg said the company had a trust problem with conservatives that it needed to address. His vote on Thiel will send another message about how he sees publishers.
I’ve often wondered about how the working environments within which proponents of cloud computing exist have shaped their enthusiasm for it. If your work is never interrupted by the broadband going down then it’s easier to be committed to moving all your applications into the cloud.
In Battle of the Titans, the author quotes the former Netscape founder referring to the insights provided by early users of the web in universities. Their super fast connections allowed them to see the experiences possible through a potentially generalisable technological privilige. From loc 3099:
Andreessen says, In 1993 it was very obvious what the world would be like if everyone had a high-speed Internet connection and a big screen because at the University of Illinois [where he was at college] we had those things. But the only reason we had those things was because the federal government was paying for them, and they were only paying for them at four universities. Our first demo for Netscape showed how you could watch Melrose Place [the hot TV show at the time] in the browser. I actually think mobile is the biggest thing our industry has ever done. Our industry was basically born around 1950 at the end of World War Two [when William Shockley invented the transistor]. And that sixty years was basically a prologue to finally being able to put a computer in everybody’s hands. We’ve never had the ability as an industry to give a computer to five billion people [the number of people with cell phones currently], and that is precisely what is happening right now.
Is this open to serious analysis? Can we explore the relationship between technological privilige and knowledge of possibilities? I think it’s an interesting question and one that ought to be factored in to analysis of the emerging digital elite.
A bit later in Battle of the Titans, Fred Vogelstein transcribes a talk he saw Eric Schmidt give at a technology conference. From loc 1904-1918:
We have a product that allows 82 you to speak to your phone in English and have it come out in the native language of the person you are talking to. To me this is the stuff of science fiction. Imagine a near future where you never forget anything. [Pocket] computers, with your permission, remember everything—where you’ve been, what you did, who you took pictures of. I used to love getting lost, wandering about without knowing where I was. You can’t get lost anymore. You know your position to the foot, and by the way, so do your friends, with your permission. When you travel, you’re never lonely. Your friends travel with you now. There is always someone to speak to or send a picture to. You’re never bored. You’re never out of ideas because all the world’s information is at your fingertips. And this is not just for the elite. Historically, these kinds of technologies have been available only to the elites and not to the common man. If there was a trickle down, it would happen over a generation. This is a vision accessible to every person on the planet. We’re going to be amazed at how smart and capable all those people are who did not have access to our standard of living, our universities, and our culture. When they come, they are going to teach us things. And they are coming. There are about a billion smartphones in the world, and in emerging markets the growth rate is much faster than it is anywhere else. I am very excited about this.
I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to suggest this vision can and should be analysed using the conceptual resources provided by the Sociology of Religion. In fact Schmidt has apparently used that term himself:
But what would such a study look like in practice? I don’t think I’m qualified to do it but I’d love to help someone with a background in this area who is interested in this topic. Given the power wielded by devotees of this nascent religion, with only 5 tech companies sitting on $430 billion in cash between them, it seems urgent to better understand how these new elites interpret their own place within the world and orientate themselves to it.
From Peter Thiel’s Less Than Zero loc 1279:
Max Levchin, my co-founder at PayPal, says that startups should make their early staff as personally similar as possible. Startups have limited resources and small teams. They must work quickly and efficiently in order to survive, and that’s easier to do when everyone shares an understanding of the world. The early PayPal team worked well together because we were all the same kind of nerd. We all loved science fiction: Cryptonomicon was required reading, and we preferred the capitalist Star Wars to the communist Star Trek . Most important, we were all obsessed with creating a digital currency that would be controlled by individuals instead of governments. For the company to work, it didn’t matter what people looked like or which country they came from, but we needed every new hire to be equally obsessed.
And from loc 1292-loc 1305. To what extent is he saying things in public which other tech leaders only say in private?
In the most intense kind of organization, members hang out only with other members. They ignore their families and abandon the outside world. In exchange, they experience strong feelings of belonging, and maybe get access to esoteric “truths” denied to ordinary people. We have a word for such organizations: cults. Cultures of total dedication look crazy from the outside, partly because the most notorious cults were homicidal: Jim Jones and Charles Manson did not make good exits. But entrepreneurs should take cultures of extreme dedication seriously. Is a lukewarm attitude to one’s work a sign of mental health? Is a merely professional attitude the only sane approach?
The extreme opposite of a cult is a consulting firm like Accenture: not only does it lack a distinctive mission of its own, but individual consultants are regularly dropping in and out of companies to which they have no long-term connection whatsoever. Every company culture can be plotted on a linear spectrum.
The best startups might be considered slightly less extreme kinds of cults. The biggest difference is that cults tend to be fanatically wrong about something important. People at a successful startup are fanatically right about something those outside it have missed. You’re not going to learn those kinds of secrets from consultants, and you don’t need to worry if your company doesn’t make sense to conventional professionals. Better to be called a cult—or even a mafia.
Peter Thiel describing how the ‘PayPal Mafia’ came about in his Less Than Zero, loc 1238-1251:
The first team that I built has become known in Silicon Valley as the “PayPal Mafia” because so many of my former colleagues have gone on to help each other start and invest in successful tech companies. We sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002. Since then, Elon Musk has founded SpaceX and co-founded Tesla Motors; Reid Hoffman co-founded LinkedIn; Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim together founded YouTube; Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons founded Yelp; David Sacks co-founded Yammer; and I co-founded Palantir. Today all seven of those companies are worth more than $1 billion each. PayPal’s office amenities never got much press, but the team has done extraordinarily well, both together and individually: the culture was strong enough to transcend the original company.
From the start, I wanted PayPal to be tightly knit instead of transactional. I thought stronger relationships would make us not just happier and better at work but also more successful in our careers even beyond PayPal. So we set out to hire people who would actually enjoy working together. They had to be talented, but even more than that they had to be excited about working specifically with us. That was the start of the PayPal Mafia.
From Untangling The Web, by Aleks Krotoski, pg 53-54:
Joi Ito is the head of the Media Lab, a powerful thinktank based at MIT, one of the most respected academic institutions in the US. The Media Lab has been one of the most influential research laboratories for developing cutting edge technology. It’s also been in the pole position for describing human behaviour online. Before he took the helm at MIT, Ito was an eagle-eyed investor behind some of the world’s biggest start-ups, including Twitter, photo-sharing site Flickr and music recommendation site Last.fm, and he belongs to a virtual community that’s just as powerful as the Fortune 500 companies, or the Bildeberg Group. Ito and his virtual buddies are in charge of the modern world.
Less than a decade ago, he began playing World of Warcraft. Now, WOW may not be many people’s idea of the kind of environment where high-flying CEOs and other business and government movers and shakers get together and broker deals, but this fantasy world –populated by flying monsters, spells and elves –is an important place in the networking landscape for people like Ito and his contemporaries.
In his own words, “World of Warcraft is the new golf.” Ito and others –“at least 10 have the letter ‘C’ in their job titles,” reported technology site cNet in 2006 –formed a guild, or a group who spent their downtime working together (in virtual costume) to beat dungeon masters and other bad guys. They gave themselves a suitably conspiracy theory-inspired name, “WeKnow”, and spent their downtime not on the fairway, but in the virtual country Azeroth collecting gold coins, drinking virtual mead, defeating enemies and discussing the relative merits of one virtual sword over another.
From Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance, pg 16. I think a sociological analysis of contemporary digital elites needs to treat these ambitions seriously, while nonetheless recognising how these cultural formulations intersect with material interests.
While the “putting man on Mars” talk can strike some people as loopy, it gave Musk a unique rallying cry for his companies. It’s the sweeping goal that forms a unifying principle over everything he does. Employees at all three companies are well aware of this and well aware that they’re trying to achieve the impossible day in and day out. When Musk sets unrealistic goals, verbally abuses employees, and works them to the bone, it’s understood to be— on some level— part of the Mars agenda. Some employees love him for this. Others loathe him but remain oddly loyal out of respect for his drive and mission. What Musk has developed that so many of the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley lack is a meaningful worldview. He’s the possessed genius on the grandest quest anyone has ever concocted. He’s less a CEO chasing riches than a general marshaling troops to secure victory. Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to … well … save the human race from self- imposed or accidental annihilation.
Given the mimetic proclivities of status conscious digital elites, I find it hard not to wonder how the scale of these ambitions may cycle upwards over time. Musk’s vision is enticing to anyone who grew up on science fiction but it’s easy to conceive of comparable visions that are much less welcome. The rich vein of dystopian fiction about digital capitalism that is beginning to emerge (e.g. The circle, whisky tango foxtrot, super sad true love story) could be read as in large part about the future ambitions of digital elites and the dangers that follow from their possession of a “meaningful worldview”.