The Silicon Valley boom has digitalized, streamed, and imported to the cloud almost every aspect of our lives. Only politics remains untouched, for now…
Silicon Valley top brass have become increasingly vocal about their plans for the future of politics. With a curious blend of 1960’s counter-culture, entrepreneurial clichés and Social Darwinism, the Silicon Valley is articulating its version of ideal government. And, as with everything the Valley touches, it promises to be nothing short of a utopia…
The Intellectual Legacy of San Francisco
From the counter-culture capital it was in the 1960’s to the heart of the tech-industry it has become, San Francisco has undergone a significant transformation.
Or so it may seem. The intellectual legacy is nowhere clearer than in tech’ gurus’ discourse: indebted to their counter-culture elders, and trapped in their illusions.
The off-the-grid fantasy shared by members of 1960’s couter-culture movements rests on frustration with large-scale politics and remoteness from the people, and on the hope that a return to smaller, self-governed groups in touch with nature would restore a natural order of being. Silicon Valley influencers all share a common fantasy – recycled from 1960’s couter-culture.
Larry Page – founder of Google – modestly called for a free experimentation zone which, far from the stifling regulation of big government, could pave the way for innovation. Drawing on the romanticism of ephemeral, government-free zones like Burning Man, Page sees in these a potential avant-garde for innovation.
Balaji Srinivasan – co-founder of Counsyl – took the thought experiment one step further when he called for secession in his keynote on “Silicon Valley’s Great Exit.” Relying on the idea that voice and exit are two potential ways of expressing political dissatisfaction, Srinivasan follows in the footsteps of his counter-culture predecessors to push his tech-friendly agenda.
Also relying on the concepts of voice and exit – the Seasteading project defends the idea that the only way to recover voice is to go on sea. No longer bound by land – which will remain in control of governments – the choice to participate in a sea-city rather than another is a vote in favor of that city’s government.
Elon Musk’s Space-X program is by far the most ambitious proposal: offering to artificially create an Earth-like atmosphere on Mars and reboot human civilization.
The slogan of developing higher connectedness with the universe as recuperated by 1960’s counter-culture from ancient, Eastern wisdom also permeated Silicon-Valley-talk. The idea of connectedness used to advocate meditation and psychedelic consciousness-expansion in the 1960’s is now shorthand for the quasi-telepathic virtues of the internet.
James Barlow develops the thesis in his Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace that cyberspace is “an act of nature and grows itself through our collective actions.” As if technology was somehow going to put us back in touch with our long-lost selves and allow the growth of a mystical, collective mind. This ideal “Civilization of the Mind” recalls the aspiration of a generation of counter-culture dreamers finally achieved by tech geeks in cyberspace. As does his hope that it may be “more humane and fairer that the world your governments have made.”
Steve Jobs’ path also led him on a quest for enlightenment in the foothills of the Himalayas – in search of the guru Neem Karoli Baba. Despite never finding him (he had died a year before Jobs’ Indian trip) Jobs did find a form of an answer in the ancient wisdom of the East. One which led him to found Apple two years after his return:
In India, I understood that Thomas Edison did a lot more to improve the world than Karl Marx or Neem Karoli Baba…
The Entrepreneurial Mantra
To 1960’s flower power, Silicon Valley leaders also add a healthy dose of good old fashioned entrepreneurial mythology. A leitmotiv in Silicon-Valley-talk is the reference to the myth of America as a nation of entrepreneurs: fleeing oppression in the Old World, these pioneers came to a land of opportunity, gave it the best of their talents, and flourished.
In the face of problems like poverty, ecology, innovation, health – all agree that we are not advancing fast enough. The reason? The old, obsolete rules and restrictions imposed by a government increasingly likened to a foreign despot. Criticizing the decrepit “Paper Belt,” Srinivasan likens the USA to a “Microsoft of nations” – tech-speak for very bad yet ubiquitous – and Barlow, in his updated “Declaration of Independence,” to “distant, uninformed powers.”
The solution spelled out by all: a way to by-pass the authority of government and flee its arbitrary rule. A new frontier – sea, space, or even a purely virtual space – to inspire those which, as previous lovers of freedom, will follow the road West in search of creative solutions.
The misunderstood nerd logically finds his place alongside the rugged pioneer, the lonesome cowboy and the daring innovator.
The final tenet of the Silicon Valley doctrine is a world view holding that social issues are just another bug requiring a fix, that the choice of the fix is somehow divorced of ideology, and that an invisible hand will steer all divergent models towards the best performing one.
The Seasteading Project looks forward to a “Cambrian explosion of governments.” The Space-X program rejoices in a moment as momentous as “life spreading from water to land.” All see a broad branching out of political models as the outcome of creating a new frontier.
Yet, importantly, they do not see these changes as being true purely then and there – on the Pacific, on Mars, or in some alternate virtual dimension – they all see it as bearing lessons for the “Old World” left behind. Setting the example for the rest of the planet, the Silicon Valley utopia is not a world for developers, by developers. It is a brave new world for everybody, by developers.
Relying on some of the basest assumptions in fascism – that the superior civilizational model can and should be adopted everywhere – it nears the dangerous threshold of stating that “it will be adopted everywhere”…
John Perry Barlow, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace
Balaji Srinavasan, The Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit [Video]
Joe Quirk, Why Floating Cities are the Next Frontier [Video]
Elon Musk, The Case for Colonizing Mars [Video]
Larry Page, Google I/O 2013 Q&A [Video]