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All Grown Up
Hipster Idealists Lose Faith in the Valley

Silicon Valley has grown up. Is a “peasants’ revolt against the sovereigns of cyberspace” in the offing?

Published on: January 7, 2014
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  • Andrew Allison

    Having been a participant in, and observer of, the Silicon Valley tech boom the past 45 years, I can state with certainty that it’s genesis and development had very little to do with “

    • Kavanna

      Yes, “hippies tinkering in their garages” is a weird and completely wrong picture of Silicon Valley. Smart, focused entrepreneurs seizing opportunities — whether they involve government or not — that’s more like it. The Bay Area left is not and has never been part of this entrepreneurial culture. In the last generation, it has acquired a near-monopoly on the pretense of moral superiority — a mindless default position for people without coherent political thinking of their own. Ayn Rand wrote about this tragedy many decades ago, and it’s frustrating to see it repeat itself.

      Silicon Valley’s culture has drifted leftward politically in the last 20 years, as California has generally. This has placed the Valley on a collision course with big government. Some of them did wake up in the last decade and realized that, say, their companies and customers need energy to run all those cool machines and apps. The Bay Area’s insane restrictions on land use have made it impossible to hire and relocate the talent the Valley needs — another example.

      There has also been the disastrous cronyistic alliance with the Obama campaign and White House. The Valley’s ethos of entrepreneurship has been stained by association with corrupt campaign-finance kickback schemes like “green tech.” And more recently, they woke up to the NSA’s telecomm information vacuuming and saw their reputations seriously damaged.

      • free_agent

        You write, “In the last generation, it has acquired a near-monopoly on the pretense of moral superiority”.

        The Bay Area Left has certainly been entrepreneurial in this endeavor. And it’s sort of remarkable that they’ve achieved supremacy over the NYC Left, which had such a large head start. (Though the NYC Left took the crown from the European Left.) We need a business writer to write a history of the competition for intellectual pretense, but as if it was a competition between two huge companies to dominate an industry, like 19th century railroad barons.

        • ljgude

          As a New Yorker and Columbia man I have to disagree. After all my teacher Lionel Trilling mentored Edward Said and Edward Said mentored our president. And that my friend demonstrates the NY left’s moral superiority beyond all hope of competition from Bezerkely or anyplace else. 😉

    • Jim__L

      It’s not the “conspicuous consumption” causing the envy, if envy it is… housing prices in Silicon Valley are insanely out of step with median incomes, especially considering what you get. A run-down, Korean War era, 750 square foot shack can go for over a million dollars. What you’re paying for in San Fransisco isn’t exactly a rose garden, either. The consumption isn’t particularly conspicuous — the rich places that actually look rich (in a horse-property or Italian vineyard villa kind of way) are typically tucked away up in the peninsula hills, across the bridge in Marin, or off in Napa.

      Trying to get a house with a yard in a safe neighborhood to raise a family in — not exactly a “luxury”, in any reasonable human being’s book — is pretty much impossible for a median-income family. Throw in a good school district, and even a household whose two incomes are engineering and management don’t really cut it.

      If you purchased a house in Silicon Valley 45 years ago — or even 20 years ago, in the aftermath of the 1992 recession — or even 15 years ago, before the most revent bubble (that never really deflated) — your point of view is going to be a bit out of step with the reality most people face.

      • Andrew Allison

        You are mistaken. San Jose has the highest median income of any city in the USA, but is second to Honolulu in median home prices at $545,000. The fact is that the first generation of Silicon Valley millionaires were (with the exception of Larry Ellison), rather discrete, and the current (much younger) one is in-your-face.

        • Jim__L

          Andrew… I am not mistaken. I am a homeowner in San Jose. We bought a house a few years ago, and we are looking for another so our kids can have a yard. I’m not sure how much more intimately familiar someone can get with the situation here.

          Please revisit your interpretation of your statistics. Comparing “highest income” to “highest prices” tells you nothing about whether those incomes can pay for those prices.

          It isn’t the conspicuousness that’s the problem, period. The millionaires could go around in sackcloth and ashes, and there would still be a problem. It’s the reality of the outrageous prices that is causing the outrage.

  • qet

    I have to say that, if the peasants in this case are fairly represented by the likes of the re/code writer and the Berkeley guy, then I hope their revolt is crushed. If their conceptual apparatus can do no better than to string together such tired pearls as “oilmen,” “bankers,” “tobacco companies” and “reactionary,” then they ought to be crushed. The Berkeley guy shows up each day at what one imagines is a plum job, in an age when people are fighting over even the prunes, involving the management of state of the art computer and telecommunications systems–how does he imagine all that technology that provides him with a purpose in life got there in the first place? I mean, criticize industry and government if you must; there is much to criticize. But at least do it with some shred of intelligence and not just the regurgitation of obsolete epithets (oilmen?? seriously? is this guy currently watching reruns of Dallas?; reactionary??? Is this 2014 or 1914?). And the peasants should look closely at Detroit before they run off all of those terrible horrible business bad boys.

    • TommyTwo

      They used to be kewl, but then they sold out to The Man, dude!

  • Anthony

    At bottom WRM, we are identifying corporate property (sovereigns of cyberspace). And via capitalism property is the major relationship connecting the intersection of state and economy. Big tech firms are not acting any different historically from large corporate giants of past; institutional commercial relationships that create new structures become embedded within social institutions that take on a life of their own. As you say in essay, “tech doesn’t make human beings better or nicer, but it makes them massively more productive”. Equally, we need not accept economic legerdemain implying that any particular set of economic arrangements are natural, inevitable, or plainly American.

  • Jim__L

    ” but there is also the PR shakedown. Tech companies do in fact need good
    relations with consumers; this is a heaven-sent opportunity for various
    pressure groups to extort money through threatened boycotts, strikes
    and other tactics.”

    A fact, little known to anyone who’s never tried to get sponsorships from Silicon Valley companies — Apple Computers, hippest of the hip, doesn’t do philanthropic sponsorships. They don’t even have a phone number to call. They have their $100B in cash, and they like it that way, apparently…

    All in all it’s a fascinating opportunity for someone (Neal Stephenson maybe?) to write up a satire called “Be Evil”, tracing all the ways life in the US could go terribly, terribly wrong if one of these companies actually took ruthless advantage of the technologies they control.

    • free_agent

      You write, “if one of these companies actually took ruthless advantage of the technologies they control”.

      But of course, many of them have tried to take such advantages. (Certainly nobody suspects Microsoft of having left money on the table when they could have taken it.) The System is more robust than you think; there are lots of ways to counterattack a behemoth that is seen as dangerous. Not only is there the effect that if one company terrorizes an industry, the other companies see it as unavoidable to spend the money to counterattack, but there are the slow-moving processes of government. Consider the deliberate and accidental havoc the large banks created in the last decade or two (along with introducing some valuable and hazardous innovations). The banks have been suffering rather considerably for that. Bank of America has had to write off $150B in bad loans, plus billions in fines for various sorts of skulduggery. And that isn’t ending soon, either, since new chickens keep coming home to roost.

  • Jim__L

    The feelings of regular Americans (not Berkeleyites) towards Silicon Valley companies (and their stance on immigration reform particularly) can be summed up in the following email:

    To: Everyone born in America
    From: Silicon Valley

    You’re useless. Drop dead.

    Best Regards we can manage,
    America’s new billionaires

    PS – Buy more stuff from us. NOW!

  • free_agent

    So much for “cyber-anarchism”…

  • Richard T

    If these protesters grew up in San Francisco (I wonder) and if they had done as much for its school system as they claim to have done for its cool [lack of] system, they’d be working for the tech giants themselves. Software truly isn’t that hard; most of the skills I apply to my job — yes, you guessed it, I work at a tech giant — were not learned from a university.

    Not many people can lead a tech company successfully, but that’s a different skill. Those who could work for one if they were only willing to soil their hands are more numerous than is widely understood.

  • Corlyss

    “But one of the big developments of 2014 will be the growing peasants’ revolt against the sovereigns of cyberspace.”

    I’ll believe it when I see it.

    “The Silicon elite will cease to be regarded as geeks who happen to be filthy rich and become filthy rich people who happen to be geeks.”

    They’ve been on many peoples’ radar for years. I first began to be concerned when Weekly Standard reported on a cabal of gay dotcom billionaires who moved from California to Colorado specifically to eviscerate the conservative politician who allowed the voters to vote against gay marriage some years ago. They didn’t try to persuade, or compromise, or exhibit patience with the way to build consensus in the body politic. Nope. They wanted wholesale up-ending of the governing party. Their Uber-Left politics are regrettable and their willingness to subvert the political process by allying with one party and not both parties is disturbing.

  • hhhastings

    Scale has not delivered the promises that were made for it. As companies got bigger, they promised efficiencies that would be shared with their customers, and economic power that would be exerted on their behalf. The opposite has generally been the case. Larger companies use the protection of market share to raise prices and customer costs, and they tether themselves more closely to government in order to design and pass regulations that protect them and disfavor smaller competitors and newly innovative options. Can new technologies deliver us efficiency without the corruptions of the big business – big government axis?

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