Silicon Robber Barons

Silicon Valley’s power brokers want you to think they’re different. But they’re just average robber barons.

. . .

The press [i.e., clerisy] enjoys excitedly praising tech titans by comparing them to fantastical and mythical figures. Zuckerberg is Caesar. Elon Musk, a wizard. Peter Thiel, who believes that he lives in the moral universe of Lord of the Rings, is a vampire. I do not know if these men believe that they have the supernatural powers the media claims. Maybe they do. I do know that they do not mind the perception, or at least have done nothing to combat it, even among those critics who believe that they’re cartoon villains.

. . .

This might not be so bad if the phenomenon were limited to daft profiles by fawning magazine writers. But this Hegelian fan fiction is nowhere more potent than from the mouths of the Disruptors themselves. Mark Zuckerberg speaks in the voice of God. Shane Smith, by his own account, is the Stalin of Vice. Silicon Valley investor Carl Icahn was called “evil Captain Kirk” by fellow billionaire Marc Andreessen, before he was himself dubbed Dr. Evil by Rod Dreher, who has evidently not absorbed a cultural reference since 1999. When Elon Musk worries that Larry Page is hurtling toward AI without a sufficient appreciation of the risks, he calls it “summoning the demon.” Seamless CEO Jonathan Zabusky, a typical case, says his food delivery application for depressed millennials is “disrupting the paradigm” by showing people that “the era of the paper menu” is over. AirBnB’s mission statement laments “the mechanization and Industrial Revolution of the last century,” which “displaced” “feelings of trust and belonging”; their mission is to turn the world back into the “village” of simpler eras by encouraging longstanding residents of gentrifying areas to rent out their homes to monied travelers. Some firms are more modest: HubSpot, a marketing and sales platform, is merely on a mission to make the whole world “more inbound,” which is to say, more reliant on their blogging tips for small businesses.

. . .

Let us state the obvious: None of these men are Roman Emperors, and they haven’t got the wherewithal to “blow up” anything but a stock market bubble. They are not Lex Luthors or Gandalfs or Stalins. Their products do not bring about revolutions. They are simply robber barons, JP Morgans and Andrew Mellons in mediocre T-shirts. I have no doubt that many are preternaturally intelligent, hardworking people, and it is a shame that they have dedicated these talents to the mundane accumulation of capital. But there is nothing remarkable about these men. The Pirates of Silicon Valley do not have imperial ambitions. They have financial ones.

The vast majority of Silicon Valley startups, the sort that project lofty missions and managed improbably lucrative IPOs despite never having graced the cover of The Economist or the frontal cortex of the president, work precisely like any other kind of mundane sales operation in search of a product: Underpaid cold-callers receive low wages and less job security in exchange for a foosball table and the burden of growing a company as quickly as possible so that it can reach a liquidation event. Owners and investors get rich. Managers stay comfortable. The employees get hosed. None of this is particularly original. At least the real robber barons built the railroads.

Like all slim ranks of oligarchy, the Silicon Valley billionaires hate and fear nothing more than ordinary people. This manifests itself in mundane ways, in their open, cartoonish class spite (why, they ask, must Innovators in San Francisco be burdened by the existence of homeless riff-raff?); it is revealed in their most contemplative moments too. Peter Thiel has said that when the history of the 21st century is written, René Girard will be remembered as one of its greatest intellectuals. Girard is best known for the contention that all human desire is mimetic, that not only aesthetic taste but even hunger and lust are modeled on the desires of others. Perhaps this is why Thiel does not believe that capitalism and democracy are compatible. We know which side he’s chosen. So long as he and his fellows can continue to exploit that same mimetic tendency to persuade people that they are superhuman and essential to their flourishing, his side will continue to win.

. . .

If your enemies can convince you that they are an unprecedented species of madman, you will convince yourself that you need unprecedented weapons to fight back or that you may be better off just hiding in the forest. But you are not.

The rigged contracts and wage suppression, the racism and surveillance collusion (soon to be playing voluntary footsie with Donald Trump’s NSA, with further chicanery to follow), all these sins of Silicon Valley have come about and been overcome before in the short history of American capitalism. They require only the same weapons as before. Organization and agitation. Strikes and labor laws. The ordinary practice of radical politics. Some of these efforts have begun already, with militant organizing and unionization drives beginning to organize Silicon Valley laborers against their exploiters. But these movements require national and popular support, support that cannot begin until the pretense and terror of world-conquering wizards is abandoned and the truth is laid bare: These are only rich assholes, the same as they ever were. All that superman bullshit is just the cheap propaganda of the powerful, propaganda so thoroughly saturated in the American mind that its own inventors might believe it.

Valley of the Dolts

Moral preeners aided and abetted by the clerisy.

Tags: , , ,