ech companies aren’t hippies tinkering in their garages anymore. Sure, the entrepreneurial spirit may still be there, but tech is big business these days, and growing bigger every day. Good ideas are ruthlessly hunted down and snatched up by venture capitalists, and start-ups are bought out by larger competitors.
Silicon Valley has turned from a hipster refuge for quirky nerds into the home of some of the world’s biggest and most aggressive corporations. And the titanic flood of money into the industry isn’t just making a few tech entrepreneurs stunningly rich; it is transforming the regional economy and, among many other things, driving up real estate values in nearby cities like San Francisco. As James Temple writes for re/code, the success of high tech is stoking a backlash. The Silicon techies no longer look to a lot of people, especially in the ever-critical Bay Area left, like the good guys:
[I]t’s hard to see the sector as benign after a long list of revelations about worker safety shortcomings, tax avoidance schemes and privacy scandals. And it’s difficult to think of companies as virtuous when they contribute to trade groups deliberately distorting science or fund ads praising the Keystone oil pipeline.
“Many Valley companies engage in a kind of confused progressive rhetoric, but there is little reason to believe that these companies have small-l liberal values,” [Chris Hoofnagle, director of the information privacy programs at the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology] said in an email. “The political agenda of Valley companies is not much different from the oilmen or the bankers. Tech, oilmen and bankers fund the same reactionary kooks in Washington that deny global warming and carry water for tobacco companies.”
The Economist‘s always insightful Adrian Wooldridge predicted a “peasants’ revolt against the sovereigns of cyberspace,” an Occupy Silicon Valley, for our new year, and already there have been rumblings. Protesters in San Francisco have blocked and in some cases vandalized buses meant to shuttle techies from their pricey digs in chic Bay Area neighborhoods to the campuses where they work. It may seem an odd place to make a stand—more efficient commuting isn’t, on the face of it, such a bad thing—but it’s a service that has enabled an influx of new tech-employed residents to push and price out the old guard.
These flare-ups are exposing a rising discontent with Silicon Valley. One of the defining characteristics of many tech giants is their “cool” factor, so much so that cultivating that kind of culture (with, say, free bus rides to and from work) has become one of the most important lures for attracting new talent. That these same companies would suck the soul out of the Bay Area, as some worry they are doing, feels like a weird and painful betrayal—both to the techies who like to think of themselves as benign and progressives, and to the hipster left who thought that this corporate wave would be different.
But is this surprising? Many start-up industries are individualistic and libertarian in culture even when they depend heavily on state action. Think of 19th century railroads and their subsidies, for example. With tech, despite the usual wacky individualism and libertarian rhetoric, it has been DARPA and defense spending all along as a major engine of growth. It’s an association that goes back to World War Two, when the massive data processing needs of total war laid the foundation for the computer age.
Then as the companies grow, they inevitably get entangled in policies and regulations. Silicon Valley used to try to stay out of DC. Now, any major tech company needs a force of lobbyists and PR people.
The historical connection between communications companies and state power goes back long before Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Just look at Imperial Britain’s interest in railroad, telegraph and cable developments; governments quickly realized that rapid information was a strategic commodity in time of war, and governments and communications companies began working closely together as Britain, for example, worked to ensure that its cable communications with the Empire could not easily be disrupted by enemy action.
Today, Silicon Valley is rediscovering the importance of a strong relationship with a strong state power. Communication companies like Google need the US to defend their position in cyberspace against the attempts of EU-, Russia- and China-based companies, among others, to remake the digital world in their own interests. Government, in return, is intensely interested in the information that the tech companies carry and in both the software and the hardware they build. The frontier of national power today is closely related to the development of high tech, and the security and prosperity of big tech companies is bound up in the policies and the power of the state.
None of this is what anti-government, anti-corporate and in many cases anti-capitalist Berkeley types trust or like. The far right, also, has its share of anti-government types, ranging from rational libertarians all the way out there to the folks in the tinfoil hats.
From the standpoint of a lot of people on the left and some on the libertarian right, the transformation of tech into an information-industrial complex with deep ties to the state is a deep disappointment. Those cute little start ups in Silicon Valley, those frisky critters from whom so much was expected turned out not to be mammals after all—they were just baby dinosaurs. As they grow up, their similarities to the corporations of earlier generations grow more and more marked.
Big Tech is becoming the enemy of the people for a lot of the people who hate Big Oil, Big Banks and in fact Big Anything. Expect more populist fury to shift towards Big Tech in coming years; as infotech becomes more central to the working of the System, the people who want to tear the system down will increasingly focus on tech giants as the enemy. (Bill Gates seems to have more than an inkling about this already; he is as active a philanthropist as John D. Rockefeller was in his day.)
But there’s another element to the wave of anti-tech protests breaking out in San Francisco: money. The pressure groups and government agencies of the blue state are desperate for revenue. Silicon Valley has money. The question becomes: how to extract wealth from those horrible techsters and redistribute it where, in the judgment of blue politicos and interest groups, it will do the most good?
Taxation is one hallowed method, and we can expect that every jurisdiction that can will be looking for ways to take a bigger share of the golden eggs these corporate geese lay in such abundance, 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. These are the methods that kept Jesse Jackson in business for so long: buy me off and there won’t be any embarrassing demonstrations and bad publicity.
A lot of people had utopian hopes for the tech industry. The internet was going to free us from the state. Innovative, hip tech companies were going to humanize corporate life. Tech moguls often believed that you could become a billionaire quickly and still be popular among the hip and the trendy.
But even as utopian dreams yield to the usual and inevitable disappointment and conflict, we should not forget that the tech revolution is real. Tech doesn’t make human beings better or nicer, but it makes them massively more productive. Human beings are messy and imperfect, and all of humanity’s many flaws will be on full and glaring display in the information age now dawning around us. But humanity will be richer in the tech era, able to know more and do more than at any time in the past. Rather than berating Silicon Valley because tech isn’t turning out to be an engine of utopian transformation, we should be doing our best to make the most of the unprecedented new opportunities it provides.