Silicon Valley's Poverty Of Philosophy

Silicon Valley must contend with something deeper if it truly wants to meet its goal of “changing the world.”
07/27/2017 01:21 am ET Updated Jul 27, 2017
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Silicon Valley has a political theory problem: the failure to engage with it at all. From tech billionaires to its many residents who harbor bizarre worldviews, the tech industry prides itself on “changing the world” for the better—as they claim, always non-ideologically, always apolitically—through tech. But this success is invariably measured through economic efficiency. This is all a farce; there is no such thing as changing the world apolitically, and good is measured in more than utils.

In my first month living in San Francisco, a friend took me to a party of people who work in tech. One of them insisted to me that China’s single-party government is superior to American democracy because it is “more efficient.” In response to my insistence that, though imperfect, American democracy preserves many of our political freedoms and secures rights of workers to an extent unknown in China, he pointed to the “massive” growth of the Chinese economy over the course of the past two decades.

Before I moved, many friends warned me to brace myself for precisely this. The Bay Area, they told me, is infested by a bizarre free market-corporatist scientism, “rationalism,” a worldview which valorizes laissez-faire economics and “innovation” and distrusts democratic process, all while pretending at neutrality. Those who subscribe to it proudly reject political theory; in their eyes doing so makes them free from the divisions that characterize our political scene, and allows them to posture as purely rational thinkers who arrive at non-political decisions. By implication, all other policy proposals, those from people with explicit political or philosophical commitments, are irrational, arrived at because they serve political interests, not because the proposals are worthwhile.

But as I’ve said, there is no such thing as nonpolitical policy, and tech’s failure to take political theory seriously has led it astray. Rather than serving as the purely rational thinkers they believe themselves to be, ”rationalists” have arrived at where they are because of their failure to take theory seriously—a hollowed-out version of libertarianism that embraces the most oppressive aspects of its worship of the private sector, most notably the totalitarian nature of the employer-employee relationship.

The figures who loom largest in the Bay Area are just as bad, if not worse. They are rarely shy to weigh in on political matters, their confidence buoyed by their belief that their wealth is indicative of their brilliance and the continued fetishization of “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Mark Zuckerberg recently launched a “listening tour,” through which, ironically, which he has delivered numerous speeches across the United States. Some say he plans to run for president, despite the fact that he would barely meet the age requirement in 2020 and has not a single policy accomplishment to his name.

Elon Musk, even generally as a person, presents another example. He has repeatedly propounded the most implausible proposals. He wants, for example, to construct a “hyperloop,” which would transport commuters between New York and the District of Columbia in about thirty minutes. This is something he has pushed for years. When he first proposed it, he claimed a 100-mile portion of it would cost “only” $6 billion; in reality it would likely cost over $100 billion. Moreover, experts found the plan entirely implausible. One determined that “there’s no way the economics on that would ever work out.” Others were skeptical of the technology itself.

Silicon Valley must contend with something deeper if it truly wants to meet its goal of “changing the world.” It is not enough to churn out half-baked policy ideas or run for president by force of having invented a social networking site; it is not enough to play policy. It is time to dispense with pretensions of neutrality.