Obama had dinner with all these tech CEOs -- and they got SOPA/PIPA removed so they could go on prevailing over Hollywood and other content businesses. But what did the country get?
I've always loved George Packer's writing at the New Yorker. His takedown of Obama's Cairo speech was state-of-the-art. I'm not as leftist as Packer, but I surely appreciate his work.
It's a shame that his great article criticizing the Better Worldism of Silicon Valley (as I call it) is -- symptomatically -- behind a pay wall. Maybe the financial elves at the New Yorker realize that there's nothing that Silicon Valley loves to do more than read about itself, and this is a lure to get some of them to help sustain East Coast intellectual life in the form of the New Yorker, struggling like all print media, even having moved online.
I recently subscribed, in fact to get the tote -- and the tote was a total rip-off. I expected at least a full-size Adidas-style flight bag; instead I got a glorified smushed book bag, if that. Don't fall for it. It's tacky. The magazine is worth $20 if you get one of those offers. Otherwise, buy it on a case-by-case basis. It's had way too much Julia Ioffe for my taste lately. Isn't it enough that she's at TNR?
Recently I saw a list which I can't find now of the top Silicon Valley moguls and their philanthropies. So you saw that Sergei Brin was donating to Parkinson disease research because he has the genes for it himself. And somebody else was donating to some project to extend life a la the Singularity University. And somebody else was spending on something else that was, in the end, about me-me-me. I remember out of the whole bunch of them, the only one who seemed to be giving to more societal-type of philanthropy of the more classic type was Pierre Omidyar, who funded minorities education, NGOs that work on human rights, and so on. It was sad to see. There was recently an article about a billionaire couple that was putting everything into obesity research and education -- you know, those "broken" schools. They were slender and perfect themselves, but they thought this was an area where they'd make a big impact, finally cracking the nut of obesity by just spending a lot on it with someone they felt was the "smartest". It's like what I was saying in my previous post about the Spartan way -- taking the few select men and training them intensively, away from society, to perfection, but having them turn out to be authoritarians; or the Athenian way, training the entire class democratically in the hope that the geniuses would appear among them and flourish, too.
Anyway, George is troubled by Silicon Valley's creepy insularity just as I am, but he comes to a more socialist-style critique, much like Evgeny Morozov. As Packer writes, Morozov grumps that Silicon Valley won't care about health institutions and sustaining them (ObamaCare?) but will just create an app for you to track your own health. But to me, the problem is sustaining the kind of society with large, medium and small business -- pluralism -- where companies and people can pay for their own insurance.
In any event, George's piece takes apart all the things you'd expect in the Better Worlders -- the vast disparity in wealth between their moguls and the homeless people in the Mission forced out of their homes by gentrification
I doubt George Packer, even though he is from Palo Alto evidently, has read the novels of Kathleen Townshend Norris from the turn of the century, one of my favourite authors, but she wrote vividly of the great disparities in wealth in San Francisco and the other cities in California even 100 years ago. The poor you always have with ye.
In New York, the giant towers where the moguls and their middle-class staff work require a working class of people running delis, drug stores, gyms, hardware shops, etc. down below, making up a more diverse economy. But in Silicon Valley, all of these services, or a lot of them, are put inside the Big IT campuses themselves -- even a bus comes from Google to pick you up in the morning so you don't take a cab or pay for public transportation. In a way, it reminds me of the problem of Washington, DC, where it can actually be hard to find a sandwhich or a xerox shop -- because there are so many federal buildings with subsidized cheap cafeterias for federal employees. There's disparity in Washington, DC, too, you know.
To me, the problem with Silicon Valley isn't that they don't engage in more philanthropy or somehow subsidize their towns more with higher taxes to create bigger welfare classes -- a concept I don't think is such a great solution for urban progress, really -- the problem is the technocommunism. It's the way all of these moguls scrape data and get ad clicking and get creation or uploading of loads of content and private information for free -- in a collective farm for us -- that enriches them. We might toil all day on Facebook writing and clicking on ads and uploading photos, but we get nothing for it. They get stock which they still seem to have enriched themselves considerably with, despite their poor IPO showing.
But for George Packer, it's about mere inequity which presumably he'd fix by more philanthropy and more taxation, social democracy style, rather than by a social justice challenge to these billionaires to start cutting us in on the pie.
There are fifty or so billionaires and tens of thousands of millionaires in Silicon Valley; last year’s Facebook public stock offering alone created half a dozen more of the former and more than a thousand of the latter. There are also record numbers of poor people, and the past two years have seen a twenty-per-cent rise in homelessness, largely because of the soaring cost of housing. After decades in which the country has become less and less equal, Silicon Valley is one of the most unequal places in America.
I understand Lanier, in his new book, has spoken of the need to create ways for customers to get paid more online with all these products, but we know how fiercely somebody like Kevin Systrom resists that notion that would mean "friction" -- and Anil Dash and Gizmodo and all of the tech press and investtors.
Packer has done the public service for the East Coast intelligentsia and gone around and interviewed these Big IT guys, the same ones who met with Obama before his election.
We never got much gossip out of that dinner, and now we get more -- but mainly it's about Zuckerberg fretting that too many of his colleagues were looking for things like tax incentives or an immigration bill (for their own cheaper engineers from India or Russia), but not for things that had more resonance -- he conceded then the need to broaden the immigration issue.
Packer quotes Gavin Newscom, the mayor of San Francisco, as saying "technology has rendered our current system of government irrelevant". Sigh. When will technology render people like him irrelevant?
George gets his number and the number of the others instantly: "many of the tasks of government are outsourced to citizens with smartphones," he concludes. And that won't be viable. It's government only for the wealthy and the connected, not the rest of us.
He makes short work of Steven Johnson and his "peer progressivism" and "liquid democracy" which despite its seeming democratic credentials actually involves reducing your participation in a corporativist type arrangement where you transfer votes to those you think have more expertise in some area. I wish these jerks would spend even one day actually trying to practice these ideas in a commune, they would get over them quick. Steven Johnson makes money from his best-selling books or his speaking fees, not by using Facebook to find a friend whose couch he can surf on, or somebody who will accept him spending an hour of his time to give him some intangible -- or even food. These nuts that say cash will disappear and people will merely be collectivized and working happily in the commune just never studied Soviet history. And this is collectivism -- communism -- not libertarianism -- it's libertarian only for the person harvesting the cash from it, not us. That's what I wish George would understand.
Even so, Packer gets the cultural inanity of it all:
"It suddenly occurred to me that the hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that's who thinks them up."
Packers asks everyone: how it could be that this revolution coincided with a broader economic decline?
Answer -- and I don't think Packer himself realizes -- it's the Internet that in fact is destroying the economy -- not only the print, music, news businesses but the government and financial sector.
I don't know if George Packer will stick with this topic and read more and realize just how bad it is -- that this isn't just a social equity problem with some rich guys in California not paying more taxes so their cleaning ladies can have been homes and schools for their kids. This is about a raging, destructive power that wants to uproot and eliminate institutions as we know them, including Congress, in the technocratic notion that they are "broken" and need "fixing".
Maybe he will figure it out -- but one thing that's very refreshing is George's nonchalant take on FWD.us. He writes how this effort to create a lobbying arm of Silicon Valley and work on political issues, headed by this friend of Zuckerberg's Joe Green, has been criticized fiercely for going outside the bounds of the accepted party line, because in order to get their hands dirty in politics, they had to back candidates, and that meant backing people who have different views than they do on some subjects. So if they want Lyndsay Graham, a southern Republican, to get on board with their immigration position, they have to accept that he's going to back things that some of their more touchy eco-friends will hate, like oil and gas. Of course, I don't know what it is they put in their cars every morning, maybe it's fairy dust, but Musk, the electric car guy, pulled out of FWD.us *gasp* because of these values gaps.
Parker thinks this is just part of Silicon Valley growing up as a political bloc, and doesn't seem that upset about it, although Bill McKibbon may be along any minute. I actually hope myself that Zuckerberg's lobbying group doesn't fail over sectarian sniping from the hard left because I think his prevailing is in part what may someday modify and even out the extremists in his midst and gives us a more tolerable and less destructive Silicon Valley (dare we to dream?)
Joe Green, Zuckerberg's friend who was a member with him of Harvard's Jewish fraternity, even collaborated on Facemash, the precursor to Facebook that rated classmates for "hotness" that landed them before the college disciplinary board. Joe Green had a strict father, a math professor at UCLA, who didn't want that sort of thing happening to his son, and he urged him to get off the project. He also urged him to stay away from Zuck when later Green had spent some time working for John Kerry's presidential campaign and then wanted Zuckerberg to make a political network out of Facebook. Green went on to make Causes with Napster's Sean Parker and NationBuilder on their own without Facebook's interest, although you could argue that Facebook's crucial role in the Obama campaign surpassed all that fooling around with Causes.
I personally dislike Causes as it tilts too far to the left and constantly pushes left-wing causes at me. In theory, more centrist or even right-wing causes could be put there, but then they won't be promoted by either curation or algorithm. When I first joined, for some odd reason, I found I couldn't make a petition, it wouldn't let me log in and do that, although it kept sending me others' petitions. Finally, I was successful after literally months in getting the system to generate a new account and now I think I could make a petition -- but I just don't like the cramped space, the friend-forcing that it shoves at you trying to get you to send your cause to every single one of your Facebook friends, etc. NationBuilder I haven't used and I understand that it has been criticized lately for in fact not tilting to the left but being more evenhanded. I'll have to investigate.
As Packer reports, Green doesn't think that the Silicon Valley methodology necessarily transfers to politics.
"Whereas politics is transactional and opaque, based on hierarchies and handshakes, Green argued, technology is empirical and often transparent, driven by data."
Well, the data-drivers in the Harper Reed machine sure won the day for the transactional and opaque!
Let's hope that New Yorker will get stronger in mounting a really serious, sustained critique of Silicon Valley that doesn't just amount to socialist weeping and saying "oh, poor people, not rich like those tycoons, and they don't care". Ken Auleta's writing on Stanford and the insidious connections between business and the university and its corrupting influence on academia are also an important start here.
So here's my question: Atlantic has been taken over by Silicon Valley -- and it's awful. The New Republic has been taken over by Silicon Valley -- even more awful. At what point will the New Yorker cave, and how?