The Silicon Valley elite have rejected the Democratic politics of their parents in favour of an aggressive individualism. Paulina Borsook looks at the ideology of techno-libertariansby Paulina Borsook / November 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in November 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
I grew up in Pasadena, California, among children whose fathers worked at Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The parents of my classmates were, to a man, good liberals. They voted New Deal Democratic; they were the grateful recipients of all the money the American government had poured into science, post-Sputnik; they had a sense that the government could do and had done good things, from building dams to pulling off the Manhattan Project and putting a man on the Moon. As beneficiaries of government largesse-from the GI Bill to the expansion of government funding for research and development (R&D)-they felt society, through its government, had an obligation to help everyone in it. They were also aware of the value of government regulation, whether it was the reliability of the chemicals they used in their research or the enforcement of voting rights for African Americans in the south, not to mention control of the smog in the Los Angeles basin. So it came as a shock, when, 20 years later, I stumbled into the culture of Silicon Valley. Although the technologists I encountered there were liberals on social issues (pro-choice on abortion, tolerant of the use of recreational drugs), they were wholly lacking in compassion and ravingly anti-government. Yet these people are the beneficiaries of the greatest government subsidy of technology and technical education the planet has ever seen; and, like the spoiled adolescent offspring of immigrants who have made it in the new country, they take for granted the environment in which they have flourished. These high-tech libertarians abhor regulation. They do not consider that without regulation there would be no mechanism to ensure profit from their intellectual property. In surveys of the internet it is now openly assumed that respondents will have libertarian politics. When Byte magazine wrote an editorial advocating government subsidy for internet access for elementary schools and public libraries, it met a wall of protest. When Self magazine started an on-line gun control conference on The Well, an electronic bulletin board smack in the middle of bleeding-heart liberal northern California, opinions ranged from mildly to rabidly anti-gun control. Mike Godwin recently wrote in Wired magazine that “libertarianism (pro, con, and internal faction fights) is the primordial net news discussion topic.” In a decentralised electronic community where tolerance and diversity are the norm (no one questions on-line special interest chat rooms devoted to consensual S&M or Wiccan nature mysticism), it seems that there is no place for political points of view other than the libertarian. This is not only dismaying, it is also based on dubious economics. To begin with, without the government, there would be no internet. Further, there would be no microprocessor industry, the fount of Silicon Valley’s prosperity (early computers sprang out of government funded electronics research). There would also be no major research universities turning out qualified tech workers: Stanford, Berkeley, MIT and Carnegie Mellon get access to cheap state-of-the-art equipment as well as R&D, courtesy of tax-reduced academic-industrial consortia and taxpayer-funded grants. But libertarianism thrives in high-tech, none the less. Recently, I spent a week at the plushy Lake Tahoe getaway of a Silicon Valley guy who’s made it. His main topic of conversation was how the local Tahoe building code would not let him alter the silhouette of his megachalet. I nodded sympathetically, but pointed out that in Los Angeles, where there were no such planning guidelines until recently, plutocrats often tore down existing structures and rebuilt monstrosities that blocked their neighbours’ views and sunlight. He looked puzzled; he had not considered that possibility. I also reminded him of the fine system of interstate motorways that made his trip from Silicon Valley to the Sierra a breeze; the water treatment facilities that allowed his toddlers to drink the tap water in his kitchen; and the environmental regulations that allowed Tahoe to remain the gorgeous refuge it is-all the benign effects of the government he was railing against. The libertarian ideology of Silicon Valley will come to matter because it controls a huge amount of money. But this wealth is insulated against the world: I routinely attend parties peopled by digerati in their 20s and early 30s who, in addition to their desirable arrogance of youth, have a frightening invulnerability. One such person, a friend with a new business specialising in advertising on the internet, was convinced that the economy was basically in good shape (no one she knew was struggling). When she ran an advertisement for an office manager in the local newspaper she was surprised to get so many applicants with advanced degrees and impressive employment histories. What would the techno-libertarians make of the sad stories I read about blue collar workers in the house organ of the United Auto Workers? I imagine them thinking, “Well, it’s their own damned inertial second wave thinking that’s got them unemployed.” Some of them certainly do applaud the great industrial dislocations taking place. The anti-communitarian outlook of the techno-libertarians is essentially suburban. High-tech is an edge-city business and armed with new money the suburban nerds can wreak vengeance on those by whom they have felt diminished. The techno-libertarians will come to shape public policy despite the fact that many of them know nothing about history or politics or, more importantly, how to interact with others. Programmers, and those who know how to make money off them, mostly find it easier to interact in e-mail than IRL (in real life). Compare this with my father’s generation: my own father represented his era’s version of the arriviste drive so celebrated by techno-libertarian theorists such as George Gilder, Silicon Valley’s John Knox. One of eight children in an immigrant family, second in his class in medical school when there were still quotas on Jews, my father, like the majority of his peers, never had contempt for those who could not find a way to work the system as he had. He believed in government regulation to aid ordinary people; in this, he was not exceptional. Yet today high-tech employees rank among the lowest of any industry sector for giving to charity-especially dismaying given their education and lifetime earnings potential. It is partly an issue of culture: unlike other professionals who see good works and support for the arts as paybacks to the society that has treated them well, the average geek espouses a world where the only art would be that which has withstood the test of the market place. A dear acquaintance, the smart and aesthetically sensitive creative director of a web design studio, had never even heard of Thomas Mann. Silicon Valley does not only generate ideological pollutants. Manufacturing its plastics and semiconductors is a toxic and resource depleting affair. It is no surprise, then, that high-tech companies increasingly manufacture them in countries without environmental and worker safety regulations or in US states where these regulations are more lax. This way, the guys in area codes 415 and 408 who like to go bouldering in the Desolation Wilderness do not have to confront the costs of their benefits. Just as 19th century timber, cattle and mining robber barons made their fortunes from public resources, so are techno-libertarians creaming the profits from the orderly society that has resulted from the use of regulation and public spending. They have neither the wisdom nor the manners to give anything back.