On the “intellectual bedrock” of Silicon Valley
Silicon Valley promises much to many, but arguably none of its promises are as important as the one the tech industry as a whole makes about breaking with the past. Not just its products, but the industry’s corporate existence, in the industry’s telling, makes everything that came before obsolete. This provides much of the charge behind rhetorical touchstones like “innovation” and especially “disruption.” As such, Stanford professor Adrian Daub’s small new book, What Tech Calls Thinking: An Inquiry into the Intellectual Bedrock of Silicon Valley, gets to the business of letting the air out of the tech industry’s pretensions right at the premise, by insisting that Silicon Valley’s ideas have a past, and that that past matters.
Writing on the tech industry typically remains at one or another of the affective poles of boosterish messianism or febrile panic over the changes the industry has wrought and will bring about in the future. These positions both make a certain degree of sense—the messianism for those who stand to materially benefit from Silicon Valley “disruption,” the panic for the vast majority who do not and are seemingly powerless to stop it. While Daub is a critic of the industry, his approach is less that of outsider-doomsayer and more that of curious, somewhat bemused neighbor. He does, after all, teach at Stanford, and has presumably seen students drop out to pursue the Silicon Valley dream.
In fact, Daub begins his book with an amusing—and informative, if the reader was ever curious about the course offerings at the Ivy of the West Coast—meditation on the importance of “dropping out” in Silicon Valley mythology. Many of the most idolized founders of tech companies were college dropouts, notorious tech villain Peter Thiel pays people to drop out of college, and of course there’s still a ’60s-ish haze over the whole area that lionizes dropping out, presumably so as to tune in and turn on to some other reality. But there are two parts of the dropping-out story, as Daub reminds us. There’s the leaving, yes, to pursue one’s dreams—but there’s also the getting in, to Stanford, Harvard, or wherever else. There’s the importance of the pedigree, the connections made, and as Daub, interested in the lived experience of ideas, makes clear, the concepts half-digested. Elizabeth Holmes, the most infamous Silicon Valley fraud of her generation, took liberal arts courses during her time at Stanford—the usual humanities lament of the incomplete liberal education of technologists isn’t quite right there. More pertinently, Daub points out, she did not finish her biochemistry degree, which might have suggested that the basis of her scam made no sense in the first place.
For the rest of the book, the ideas that form the subtitular “bedrock” of Silicon Valley are less bad in their own right—though there’s little in Ayn Rand, to cite one example, to recommend to anyone over the age of 16—than half-understood, at best, by the executives, technologists, and ideas men who carry them in their heads. Take the ideas of foundational media theorist Marshall McLuhan. It would be asking a lot for anyone to truly take on board McLuhan’s wide-ranging, obscurely written work. In fact, the way in which McLuhan is often only comprehensible in small doses—aphorisms, if we’re being charitable—makes him easier to digest for busy Silicon Valley types. As they would argue and as Daub does too, they take aboard his central thesis, in aphorism form, naturally: The medium is the message. Platform matters more than content. Those who can see that—the engineers of the platform—matter more than those who provide the content, even if said platform would be irrelevant without content.
And so it goes, down the line, as Daub details ideas that are either half-understood or only half-ideas filling the space where a more thoughtful way of being might exist in the most powerful industry in the world. Ayn Rand’s individualism departs from the anti-totalitarianism it cribbed from by insisting that everyday selfishness was enough to make someone a hero and a genius, a resister of tyranny. Along with providing a pleasing self-image for Silicon Valley figures like Elon Musk, Randian posturing also allows for the elision of the thousands of workers, from coders to janitors, that make Silicon Valley possible, subsuming them under the figure of the maverick genius entrepreneur. A considerably less well-known crank, Rene Girard, has also had an outsized impact on how Silicon Valley sees itself. This came about less through the power of his ideas—an obscure farrago insisting that all human action is built on “mimetic desire,” the desire to have what others have—than for the ways in which it reaffirms what figures like Peter Thiel already liked to believe.
Numerous critics have discussed the connections between countercultural thought and practice and Silicon Valley, most notably in the great From Counterculture to Cyberculture by historian Fred Turner (who Daub lists in the acknowledgements of his book). Geographically, Silicon Valley is located right between the countercultural epicenter of San Francisco (which the tech industry is currently metabolizing) and the central coast of California, home of numerous centers of New Age practice. Esalen, the ur-New Age establishment, has numerous tech industry links, and Daub discusses the ways in which the ideas of a cleansed or enhanced consciousness, the communications theories of figures like Claude Shannon, and tech industry profit motive coalesce. New Age spirituality a la Esalen seeks out perfect means of perception and communication; information theory makes clear that entropy, confusion, and surprise are part of all communications, and in fact that as channels for communication multiply, so do opportunities for entropy. So you get the promise of free, unmediated communication across the globe through technology, and what you receive are platforms full of ads, Nazis, and dick pics. Like any good capitalist, Silicon Valley titans position themselves to profit both from the exalted promise and the degraded reality while denying responsibility for the incongruence.
The concept of “disruption” as an important force for progress traces back to more serious figures: Austrian political economist Joseph Schumpeter, who was attempting to put a liberal, free-market gloss on ideas derived from Karl Marx. Inevitably, though, Silicon Valley dumbed it down for its own advantage. Marx and Schumpeter both thought that the disruptiveness of capitalism would lead to something different; if nothing else, a new stasis that further disrupters would alter in a cycle, the “creative destruction” Schumpeter discovered. In Daub’s telling, the tech industry has decontextualized “creative destruction,” which was meant to apply to monopolies, into “disruption,” which applies to anything at all, and invests the disrupter with the halo of innovation and improvement, even if all they’re doing is taking an existing industry—taxicabs, for instance, or hotels—and ignoring its safety regulations and unions. Like many of the key Silicon Valley concepts Daub illuminates, “disruption” is at once all-encompassing, all-promising, and ultimately a weak variation of older ideas.
Daub packs a lot into a short book. The attention he pays to any one given thinker is necessarily limited, but his summations are highly competent and succinct. The overall picture he paints is grim, but in a different way from most ringing the alarm bells about tech industry overreach. He finds truth in many of the jokes about “disruptive” tech and the culture that creates it: that many of the most ballyhooed innovations are “solutions” to the problems of no longer living with one’s mother or in a dorm, that many highfalutin ideas from objectivism to the singularity are essentially astrology for men who fancy themselves rational. Many ideas and cultural styles seem to cling to Silicon Valley by virtue of location: the countercultural fallout from San Francisco, Rene Girard’s tenure at Stanford, and so on. More than any master plan, Daub presents the juggernaut of Silicon Valley as driven by lazy thinking, assumptions, and path dependency. This might provide scant relief for those crushed by its progress, but it is, presumably, a good thing to know.
WHAT TECH CALLS THINKING: AN INQUIRY INTO THE INTELLECTUAL BEDROCK OF SILICON VALLEY. ADRIAN DAUB. FARRAH STRAUSS AND GIROUX. 160 PP. $15.