I’ve borrowed the title for this blog from a recent review article from Foreign Affairs. It references Stewart Brand’s introduction to the first issue of The Whole Earth Catalog, “an encyclopedic compendium of resources for back-to-the-land living that became a foundational document of Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian culture.”
This wonderful review essay is built around a review of three books each of which place the somewhat jaded optimism of the Internet’s early promise in a larger frame and, in the process, asks some unsettling questions power, politics and performance.
These are the three books:
- Justin Smith The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is (he’s a philosopher)
- Carolyn ChenWork Pray Code (she’s a sociologist)
- Ro Khanna Dignity in a Digital Age (he’s the “member” for Silicon Valley in the US Congress)
I’m not going to provide a detailed review of the essay or of the three books. You can click the link and get access for yourself. I have ordered one of them (Justin Smith’s) but I’m sure I should read all three.
And the reason is that, as the review spells out, each of them unpicks a different dimension of the truth that the Internet, and the web (pun intended) of digital capability and potential it has spun is no mere enabler.
This time, technology appears to be unravelling fundamental dimensions of the human condition – how we think, see the world, relate to others and construe power, control and authority – and rapidly and implacably re-ravelling (if there is such a word) those things, and more, in ways that we seem barely capable of understanding, much less controlling.
I’ll pull out a few excerpts to illustrate the range of insights and arguments from the essay’s analysis:
This is from the Justin Smith, “less concerned with tearing down or breaking up big technology companies than with clarifying the nature of the force with which we are contending.”
Overloaded with information, people fail to grasp the significance of the Internet. Users are distracted and disengaged, living a life of continual interruption, their prefrontal cortexes muddled by online society’s perpetual anxiety and alarm.
He explains how the Internet is a direct relation of the work of earlier philosophers – Bacon, Leibnitz (“if Leibniz were living in the 21st century, he would probably be a Google engineer”) – trying to “wrest rationality out of a thicket of mysticism.”
They dreamed of a machine-aided society unmuddied by religious belief. The ensuing age brought about the Industrial Revolution and a new, secular faith in organizations, bureaucracies, and balance sheets, a faith that venerated systems of classification capable of precisely surveying conquered land, cataloging flora and fauna, and, in its most damaging incarnations, arranging humankind into hierarchies of intelligence predicated on ethnicity, religion, and skin color.
Carolyn Chen is a sociologist whose book is “a meticulous, absorbing ethnography of Silicon Valley workplaces.”
Her study looks deeply at the history of tech entrepreneurs and the strange mix of commerce and religion that “has long infused American capitalism”. Looking back at people like Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller, Chen argues that not content with making pots of money, many felt the need to claim they were, and are on a mission from God.
But, as Chen points out:
…all this faith ultimately serves the bottom line. Extravagantly appointed tech cathedrals, such as the sprawling Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, are the latest incarnation of Gilded Age company towns, designed to forestall labor organizing and impose moral order on a workforce. Such welfare capitalism has morphed into what Chen resonantly terms “corporate maternalism,” which “monetizes the nonproductive parts of life that the busy tech worker has no time for—eating, exercising, rest, hobbies, spirituality, and friendships—and makes them part of work.” Exhortations to practice mindfulness and get more sleep seem like empathy but are really geared to making workers more efficient. Focused, well-rested employees are more productive and less likely to jump ship.
The essay details Chen’s detailed gaze deep into the rhythms of Silicon Valley’s culture, and concludes with this painfully ironic final observation, about the rise of technology and the “revolt against bigness”:
Institutions that once knit communities together in shared, though not necessarily harmonious or equitable, understanding—churches, civic groups, unions, and the government itself—have been diminished or discredited. Once stable jobs and industries have succumbed to the churn of economic globalization and cost cutting. But people still need to find meaning and purpose in their lives. An earnest, privileged, beatific enclave on the far western edge of North America has rushed in to fill the gap.
Finally, Ro Khanna is a former Obama administration official who currently represents Silicon Valley in the U.S. Congress.
The essay explains that Khanna’s starting point is that the crisis that Americans face “cannot be solved by simply taming a few technology companies. Instead, it requires reordering society’s priorities.” Instead, the goal should be “to ensure human dignity, a concept Khanna draws from Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize–winning economist.”
“A key pillar of building a multiracial, multireligious democracy is providing every person in every place with the prospect of a dignified life…including the potential to contribute in and shape the digital age.
Thoughtful public policy can bring about this kind of change, mustering a predictable dose of “convincing technocratic optimism.”
Khanna calls out a new role for government and public investment (bearing in mind, as the Chen study points out, and people like Mariana Mazzucato have been explaining for some time, “technocratic optimism” rests heavily on the bedrock of often unacknowledged public investment and the work of bureaucrats and policy makers over many years):
Silicon Valley’s congressman channels the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt in making his case for bringing the state back in. Khanna’s main prescriptions echo the original New Deal in structure and soul: public investment to bring jobs and growth to a left-behind hinterland; legislation to advance workers’ rights and raise pay and benefits; regulation of big companies to protect consumers and advance democracy. “Instead of passively allowing tech royalty and their legions to lead the digital revolution and serve narrow financial ends before all others,” Khanna writes, “we need to put it in service of our broader democratic aspirations.”
But the contrast, the essay goes on, between the way many in tech hubs see the world and Khanna’s “progressive capitalist” agenda “is a reminder of how much the modern technology industry is a product of the United States’ 40-year turn toward the market.” And just to make the point more directly:
Silicon Valley had its roots in the Keynesian military-industrial complex, but it became a corporate colossus in a supply-side age of tax cuts and deregulation. The policy shift propelled technological and economic growth, making billionaires out of talented computer geeks… But this growth came at the cost of denuded government revenues and degraded public services.
The point about all three books is that they each, in their own way, frame the significance and implications of technology, and of the Internet and the digital revolution it has incubated, with requisite scale and scope. They each turn a critical eye to the deeper issues of power and control with which this revolution is riven.
My argument for many years, including in this book, is that too often digital policy and the impact of digital transformation on policy and governing are drawn too narrowly. We are obsessed, rightly in some ways given the distinctly non-trivial nature of the work involved, with the revolution’s transactional achievements – basically, speed and convenience.
What we seem less willing or able to concede are the undeniable structural changes we’re now living with as technology writes new rules about, well, pretty much everything – autonomy, power, control, authority, accountability, security, freedom, choice, faith, equality, ethics.
The essay concludes that “the intense concentration of corporate power and cultural capital in the technology sector has sparked a fierce backlash”. Its reverberations marble through these three books.
But this is the uncomfortable point:
… the sound and fury has done little to slow the Silicon Valley wealth machine. The digital economy has supersized and expanded, disrupted old categories and classifications, and liberated people to join the glorious online mess. Americans lament the turbulent times and argue over how much social media is responsible for them. They curse their endless scrolling and shattered attention spans. Yet they are utterly, hopelessly dependent on the information and connective social tissue that the Internet provides.
As these three books illustrate, what is happening is big. But the debate about, and response to what’s happening doesn’t always seem to be similarly big in the scale and subtlety of its response (although the work of people like Matt Stoller, whose work is published in the suitably titled BIG newsletter, helps to follow the tortuous battle between unstoppable forces of technological accumulation and concentration and the plucky, sometime puny attempts to regulate the common good back into the equation).
The question is whether, in the tussle to spin back the unruly and often brutal forces of technological disruption into some kind of manageable and decent relationship with public purpose (a tussle that James Plunkett for example is busy dissecting with unnerving insight), we’re locked in an unequal fight:
The reckoning machines have succeeded beyond their creators’ wildest dreams. The rationalists have triumphed. A society-smashing pandemic enriched the technology sector so enormously that its moguls gave away billions and still saw their net worth rise. Even as the market turned bearish in early 2022, the combined market capitalization of the five largest technology companies made up over one-fifth of the value of the S&P 500. These giants have amassed enough profit and market share to weather an economic downturn and possibly emerge even stronger.