Why I’m more scared of Silicon Valley than Islamic State
I wrote this piece back in June 2015. Sometimes since I’ve wondered if I was right. Five years on, as Dominic Cummings seeks to rip up modern Britain in order to ape a version of Silicon Valley he has in his mind (a version even worse than the one I tap into below), I’m confident I was.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am scared of ISIS. I know full well they would kill me as soon as they looked at me. And I also know that the threat they pose is far closer to home than we like to think, both in terms of the increasing instability of states like Libya, and of the recruiting process here in the UK.
But I still maintain that I am more scared of Silicon Valley.
The reason as this: at least it’s clear that ISIS are an enemy. Their morality is so obviously at odds with our own that there can be no mistake made about it.
By contrast, we embrace and even heroise the activities of Silicon Valley. Yet what is happening there poses a creeping but I would argue ultimately more serious threat to the health and wellbeing of billions of people. Why is this happening? Because the morality driving Silicon Valley looks very much like something we would accept — but is ultimately a dangerous perversion.
I’ve had this brewing in my mind as a nagging thought since reading Dave Eggers’ dystopia The Circle and Gitta Sereny’s masterful biography of Nazi architect and operations guru Albert Speer His Battles With Truth in quick succession last year — but it was really slammed home by this recent New Yorker piece on Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen.
“Posit a world in which all material needs are provided free, by robots and material synthesizers… Imagine six, or 10, billion people doing nothing but arts and sciences, culture and exploring and learning. What a world that would be,” particularly as “technological progress is precisely what makes a strong, rigorous social safety net affordable.”
This article is the clearest expression I’ve ever seen of the morality driving Silicon Valley. The power brokers there genuinely believe — or have convinced themselves — that they’re on a moral mission towards the perfection of humanity. As quoted in the New Yorker, here is Andreessen’s vision, assembled from various tweets:
“Ordinary people love the iPhone, Facebook, Google Search, Airbnb, and Lyft. It’s only the intellectuals who worry.” He raised counter-arguments, then dismissed them: technology would solve any environmental crisis hastened by an expanding economy, and as for the notion that, as he said, “‘You American imperialist asshole, not everyone wants all that technology’-well, bullshit! Go to a Chinese village and ask them.” Technology gives us superpowers, makes us smarter, more powerful, happier. “Would the world be a better place if there were fifty Silicon Valleys?” he said. “Obviously, yes. Over the past thirty years, the level of income throughout the developing world is rising, the number of people in poverty is shrinking, health outcomes are improving, birth rates are falling. And it’ll be even better in ten years. Pessimism always sounds more sophisticated than optimism-it’s the Eden-collapse myth over and over again-and then you look at G.D.P. per capita worldwide, and it’s up and to the right. If this is collapse, let’s have more of it!”
In order to support such a mission, Andreessen and friends have to tell themselves a story that everything is getting better — that we’re on the path and just need to push on. They need to dismiss all concerns — about climate change, or rising inequality and unemployment — as intellectual handwringing.
This kind of nonsense would be all very well if Andreessen and his Silicon Valley buddies were widely recognised as the dangerous sociopaths they are.
But we can’t see it.
Because we are looking as Consumers. And the right thing for Consumers to do, as I have argued, is to get the best deal for themselves, as narrowly defined individuals, measured primarily in material standards of living, and in the short term. From being Subjects, who just got what we were given, this is a move on (as Andreessen’s Chinese village example rightly attests).
But now it’s killing us.
The root of the problem is this: the notion of humans as Consumers ignores that as whole beings we have emotional, spiritual, and relational needs that are just as if not more important than the material. It ignores that these are met through useful, meaningful work, through contact with nature, through contact with each other. It ignores that without these things, we cease to be human.
On these things, Andreessen borders on caricature status. His child was carried to term by a gestational surrogate. He dismisses the idea that work (or manual work at least) could be fulfilling as a dystopic and dismal view of humanity. He considered wearing a T-shirt which read ‘No touching’. It would be funny if he wasn’t so powerful.
What is more: by ignoring the fact that this morality only serves humans as Consumers, deep injustice is allowed and even enforced. The right thing to do in this morality is to make as much money as possible out of actively creating monopolies in new markets. This is the explicit goal of Silicon Valley venture capital: to find and finance Facebooks, Googles and Airbnbs that become the sole effective players in new markets, and make billions from them.
The problem with these models is that as designer Aral Balkan puts it, we are not just the Consumers — we are the Products. Without our data and our listings, these platforms have no value; yet the CEOs and VCs (like Andreessen) own all the value, in its billions. And what is that value? It is the potential of the information we provide to allow us to be advertised to, to be told we are Consumers with greater relevance, efficiency and above all persistence. And so the cycle continues.
As a brief aside for clarity, I am not saying that I think Airbnb, Facebook, and so on are inherently bad. I believe they represent the fundamental infrastructure of the digital age. But like the fundamental infrastructure of previous eras, they need to belong to us, and be driven by the imperative to maximise public benefit; not be owned by venture capitalists like Andreessen, whose investments automatically create the imperative for absolute profit maximisation. Airbnb is considered by many a pioneering ethical brand. It has $170m of VC backing, as a result of which it is valued at somewhere over $1bn. What do you think they’re going to do when push comes to shove?
Jaron Lanier, in his book Who Owns The Future?, lays out exactly where this logic is taking us:
“You sit at the edge of the ocean, wherever the coast will be after Miami is abandoned to the waves. You are thirsty. Random little clots of dust are full-on robotic interactive devices, since advertising companies long ago released plagues of smart dust upon the world. That means you can always speak and some machine will be listening. ‘I’m thirsty, I need water.’
“The seagull responds, ‘You are not rated as enough of a commercial prospect for any of our sponsors to pay for freshwater for you.’ You say, ‘But I have a penny.’ ‘Water costs two pennies.’ ‘There’s an ocean three feet away. Just desalinate some water!’ ‘Desalinization is licensed to water carriers. You need to subscribe. However, you can enjoy free access to any movie ever made, or pornography, or a simulation of a deceased family member for you to interact with as you die from dehydration. Your social networks will be automatically updated with the news of your death.’ And finally, ‘Don’t you want to play that last penny at the casino that just repaired your heart? You might win big and be able to enjoy it.’”
Lanier is trying to wake us up, telling us why we can’t see the danger. We are distracted with bread and circuses, while our value as humans is taken from us. The morality of Silicon Valley is an extension of the morality of the Consumer, perhaps even its logical conclusion. And this is the world Andreessen and his cronies are creating.
But we don’t see them as enemies.
We see them as heroes.
Ultimately, that is why I am writing this post: not as a lament about the behaviour of people like Andreessen.
Like everything we’re working on at New Citizenship, it’s a call to all of us.
We need to move on, stepping up to the opportunity to explore our agency and identity not just as Consumers, but as something more like Citizens — active participants in shaping the context of our lives and explorers of the collective interest, not just choosers acting in immediate, narrow, material self-interest.
We need to seize the moment to structure and regulate these organisations as what they are — public infrastructure — not let their exploitation of us gradually increase, like the proverbial frog in the saucepan.
And we need to recognise that this is just one of many dark futures emerging as we cling to this broken logic.
“There is such a thing as a mass hypnosis which — we have seen it before in the life of nations — can have incredible consequences. Let me remind you only of the witch hunts of the Middle Ages, the horrors of the French Revolution, or the genocide of the American Indians… In such periods there are always only a very few who do not succumb. But when it is all over everyone, horrified, asks, ‘For heaven’s sake, how could I?’”
These words are from a letter Albert Speer wrote to his daughter from Spandau Prison:
The world outside may be starting to look like a dangerous place right now. But let’s not allow ourselves to become our own worst enemy.
Originally published at http://newcitizenshipproject.wordpress.com on June 9, 2015.