The religious creed of Silicon Valley

Part libertarian paternalism, part groupthink, the Valley's guiding philosophy was articulated two decades ago

Published April 1, 2018 10:00AM (EDT)

Elizabeth Holmes; Steve Jobs; Mark Zuckerberg; Elon Musk (AP/Getty)
Elizabeth Holmes; Steve Jobs; Mark Zuckerberg; Elon Musk (AP/Getty)

The Bay Area rests on two pillars: high rent and unanswered questions. And the biggest puzzler is this one: why don’t Silicon Valley companies suffer the same governmental scrutiny and regulation as their counterparts in other industries? Take Uber. The company operated autonomous vehicles without a permit in San Francisco. They were caught when one ran a red light. So they shipped the program to Arizona, where the governor romanced them until one of their robot vehicles killed a pedestrian. How did Uber get away with all this without someone slamming on the brakes? The reason Silicon Valley is treated with kid gloves might have to do with the ideas in which they wrap themselves — the guiding philosophy of the tech industry. Academics call it the “Californian Ideology.” It is, in essence, the belief system of  the ruling techie class.

The powerful didn't name their genesis story “the Californian Ideology.” Indeed, why would they? Engineers don't really think of themselves as ideologues; they consider themselves practical people. If you asked Silicon Valley's elite, they'd probably say they don't follow any doctrine: they just do whatever works, and now, please, if you wouldn't mind, get out of the way, thank you.

But every human being has a point of view. The tech industry is no different. In the 90s, two English media theorists, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, decided to write a paper about it. They considered the culture of Silicon Valley: what they said, what they did, where they had come from. Their critique of tech culture was dropped into the discourse like a neutron bomb in the digital year of 1995, just as the sleek silicon mills of California came into the full flush of their cultural and economic power. In the introduction, they write:

There is an emerging global orthodoxy concerning the relation between society, technology and politics. We have called this orthodoxy “the Californian Ideology” in honour of the state where it originated. By naturalising and giving a technological proof to a libertarian political philosophy, and therefore foreclosing on alternative futures, the Californian Ideologues are able to assert that social and political debates about the future have now become meaningless.

The paper was published by Mute magazine. Barbrook later summarized it as a "critique of dotcom neoliberalism." Like most important theories, the Californian Ideology is invoked more than it is read. Punctilious political documentarian Adam Curtis made a movie about it, titled "Love and Power."

In their work, Barbrook and Cameron dissected the Valley's belief structure. The two predicted much of what has since come to pass: that the Californian Ideology would spread through media and markets and become the unofficial reigning doctrine of God's favorite industrial-technical power, the United States.

Here's how important Barbrook and Cameron's paper was: twenty years after the paper was first published, Wiredwhich, again, was one of the targets of the critique — published a commemoration of the essay, written by none of other than science fiction legend Bruce Sterling. Sterling called the essay "the iconic text of the first wave of Net criticism." He continued:

The internet might have fundamentally changed in the last two decades, but their demolition of the neoliberal orthodoxies of Silicon Valley remains shocking and provocative. They question the cult of the dot-com entrepreneur, challenging the theory of technological determinism and refuting the myths of American history. Denounced as the work of ‘looney lefties’ by Silicon Valley’s boosters when it first appeared, The Californian Ideology has since been vindicated by the corporate take-over of the Net and the exposure of the NSA’s mass surveillance programmes. . . . With the Californian Ideology growing stronger, the Net was celebrated as the mechanical perfection of neoliberal economics.

Barbrook and Cameron's essential point is this: tech culture is right-wing economics covered over with a layer of hippie rhetoric. The term "neoliberalism" wasn't popularly known back then, but that's essentially what the Californian Ideology was: social progressivism joined with economic conservatism. By 1995, the Democratic Party was a neoliberal party. If you're wondering where corporate wokeness comes from, that's where. With a yearning to frustrate English teachers, the Boomers wanted to do well and to do good at the same time. The end result of Boomer-era neoliberalism is epitomized in the Fearless Girl statue: a feminist image on Wall Street . . . funded by a trading firm that underpays women. Wokeness in doctrine, brutality in practice.

However, the Californian Ideology was far more radical, far stranger than Clintonian triangulation. It was a religious creed. Its central tenet was uncomplicated: the machines would fix everything.

Californian Ideology was informed by the idea of networks, which was borrowed from the ecosystems theory invented at the beginning of the 20th century. Ecosystems theory deified the environment: it held up the natural order as a self-balancing, perfect machine. The ecosystems theorists told us that when blustering humans interfered with this perfectly-tailored mechanism, we ruined it. The only way to secure the homeostasis was to leave it alone. Later research showed the balanced-ecosystem theory was a lie: nature is a dynamic, ever-transforming system. Change is the only constant. The Edenic world of perfectly-counterweighted predator and prey is fantasy. But it's a nice story, and when mid-century environmentalism met the hippies, it was a match made in Berkeley. Instead of the hierarchical societies that ruled over us, the hippies argued, you could build communes, where there would be no politics. If human beings lived in accordance with the natural order, then the same thing would happen to society that happened to nature: everything would balance out. Leave the system alone, and the system would work itself out. The system was god.

As any poli-sci major can tell you, politics is group-decision making. Groups exist, and decisions have to be made by those groups. Any group where decision-making processes are banned -- where there are no politics -- can't work. What ended up happening on the hippie farms was this: decision making was relegated to a few people. The communes fell apart, but the idea lived on. In time, the hippies joined up with the libertarians. They had two things in common: they believed in self-correcting systems, and they didn't like the government. And so Silicon Valley was born.

It was paradoxical poetry that this marriage of optimism and convenience happened in California, as Barbrook and Cameron wrote:

One of the weirdest things about the rightwards drift of the Californian Ideology is that the West Coast itself is a creation of the mixed economy. Government dollars were used to build the irrigation systems, highways, schools, universities and other infrastructural projects which makes the good life possible in California. On top of these public subsidies, the West Coast hi-tech industrial complex has been feasting off the fattest pork barrel in history for decades. . . .  Although they were later commercialised, community media, “new age” spiritualism, surfing, health food, recreational drugs, pop music and many other forms of cultural heterodoxy all emerged from the decidedly non-commercial scenes based around university campuses, artists' communities and rural communes.

The liberals made their compromise. The '60s had failed to bring about the millennium, but that was okay: computers would realize all of those ideals. For instance, it wasn't necessary to remove the concrete reality of patriarchy and white supremacy: once everybody was online, those differences wouldn't matter at all. So what if your town was gangrenous after the factory left? There would be a new job waiting for you online.

In 2013 Edmund Berger, who sees Barbrook and Cameron's essay as a critique of Wired magazine, summarized their argument thusly:

Wired, he argued, was the vocal mouthpiece of the California’s unique brand of technocapitalism, which drew heavily on both neoliberal dogmatics and post-hippy counterculturalism, collapsing the boundaries between the New Left and the New Right together in a heady stew of socially-conscious Randianism. The oppositions between the two are honestly not so far apart: both subscribed to a strict platform of anti-statism and an emphasis on the individual, and both privileged the triumph of knowledge over the dark stasis that Fordist-era power held over society. But the utopian dreaming of this amalgamation, argued Barbrook, was actually a reactionary and homogenizing technological determinism that saw the passageways to mass social change through a narrow, economic prism.

Whatever you can say about old Progressivism, it had qualms about the power of capitalism. You couldn't make peace with billionaires; you had to chain their power with regulation, trust-busting, strong unions, the works. But in the blink of an eye, Silicon Valley turned that upside down. You didn't need a New Deal or Great Society to lift people up; the market would do it for you. The mysterious gods of tech would liberate humankind. When Elon Musk crushes his employees' demand for a union, who do you think liberals side with? Musk. That's the power of the Californian Ideology.

Its signs are everywhere. After the return of Steve Jobs, techno-utopian liberals lionized Apple Computer's fetish for Chinese factory-building. The much-valorized CEO and Apple co-founder knew best, apparently. The Californian Ideology assured them this was the system, smoothing out its own wrinkles; there couldn't be any roadblocks along the path to perfection dot com.

But technology is a tool. And tools do not materialize from thin air. They are artifacts of power, and shaped by power. Tech limits. Tech circumscribes. Tech is an ideology, although it pretends not to be. Tech is how you get a world obsessed with managerialism, with process over vision. Above all, tech privileges. And so, in the land of California, the paradise to the West, the powerful used the oldest trick in the book: disguising the interests of a few people as the law of nature.

Barbrook and Cameron wrote:

Who would have predicted that, in less than 30 years after the battle for People's Park, squares and hippies would together create the Californian Ideology? Who would have thought that such a contradictory mix of technological determinism and libertarian individualism would becoming the hybrid orthodoxy of the information age? And who would have suspected that as technology and freedom were worshipped more and more, it would become less and less possible to say anything sensible about the society in which they were applied?

Here’s an old joke that sums up the Californian Ideology:  UNIVAC I, the first commercial computer in the United States, comes out in 1951. In 1952, the machine predicts Eisenhower's electoral victory. Ike is amused, so after his inauguration, the president goes down to the university basement where they keep the computer. Ike is shocked. The machine is huge. UNIVAC is cables and vacuum tubes and transistors, and it takes up an entire room. The scientists explain the computer knows everything, everything there is to know. Ike wants to know if he can ask it a question. The scientists say sure. Ike steps up to the machine and feeds in this question: "Is there a god?" The lights flicker, the engines whir and the entire building rumbles. And then the printout arrives. The computer says: "There is now.”

By Jason Rhode

Jason Rhode is a writer from West Texas. He has been published by Paste Magazine, McSweeney’s, The Comics Journal, and Monkeybicycle. He appeared on an April 2011 episode of Jeopardy, and one day he will command all the good lads in Eastcheap. Follow him on Twitter at @iamthemaster.

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