Silicon Oligarchs Should Save Themselves, Not Us

After the most expensive Congressional election in history saw a spectacular loss by a much-hyped Democrat who included only two policy topics on his entire website: cutting government spending, and running the government more like a corporation, a couple of Silicon Valley would-be Democratic-Party oligarchs have set up a website called “Win the Future” (guess who loses!) to raise money to buy billboards in Washington, D.C., to say things like “cut spending!*” (*not on the military obviously!) and “be corporate!” Or that’s what I’m sure they’ll say, no matter what people vote for on the website — which is one problem. Another is the Silicon Valley Republicans who will match this noise with nearly identical but Republican money raising. That could explain the Washington Post approach of coaching Democrats to recognize the idiocy but to grovel before the money, which parallels the New York Times approach of using a Republican contractor to tell Democrats to increase whatever is failing.

To get a sense of what computer geek robber barons would make of the world and are making of the world, pick up a copy of The Know It Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball by Noam Cohen. This book oddly omits much discussion of the problem of complicity with warrantless mass surveillance, but it focuses on more widespread influences on our culture and our politics oozing out of Stanford University and the offices of the online monopolists. The book provides an historical overview as well of the development of computers, of the internet, of the world wide web, of web browsers, etc., with an eye on motivations and social attitudes. It’s a tale of transformation from nonprofit philanthropy to limitless greed and cynical manipulation, sometimes within the same individual. This trajectory parallels that of culture as a whole over the same decades, and is clearly neither wholly responsible nor purely a helpless follower of trends.

As Cohen tells the tale, an all-male, all-white, antisocial, computer geek culture became an incubator for willful denial of the benefits of public education, including the benefits of the university facilities that made the breakthroughs possible, as well as for simplistic libertarianism and third-base-ism (being born there and imagining you hit a triple) across the board, not to mention various forms of bigotry, sexism, nationalism, resentment, and cynicism. One gets the idea that an impoverished KKK member and a billionaire programmer would have more to talk about than most of us would with either of them. But the incubation took time, and reviewing how it unfolded is worthwhile.

Public, open-source, non-profit sharing with the world, and empowering the world on equal terms — these were early values that faded and decayed. And the rot began with the military-industrial-academic complex at Stanford University. It advanced with the cut-throat, business-minded greed of Bill Gates, a man who used university computers and government programs to produce software of a sort that used to be shared but which he claimed a sacred right to profit from.

Cohen’s chapter on Gates is by far his shortest, as he highlights less well-known culprits. Marc Andreesen and others take the blame for making sure your web browser spies on you. Jeff Bezos comes in as the culmination of the shift to commercial greed, someone who wanted money and turned to computers rather than a computer guy turning toward money. Sergey Brin and Larry Paige make an appearance as convenient hypocrites who created Google to be advertisement-free for ethical reasons and abandoned that idea for unethical ones. Their early arguments against ads and for transparency are worth reading and considering in light of their current devotion to advertising and secrecy.

Then there’s Trump-fan Peter Thiel whose political awfulness will make you want to never use PayPal again. Cohen does mention his development of technology for corporate and government spying, as well as his hypocritical use and abuse of government regulations depending on whether he was accusing EBay of becoming a monopoly or actually making PayPal into one. Mark Zuckerberg defends Thiel’s presence on Facebook’s board, by the way, with the argument that excluding someone for being hateful and bigoted and divisive would be hateful and bigoted and divisive.

Stories of vast accumulation of wealth are fun stories, but reality includes the erosion of local economies, the exploitation of workers, the exploitation of the natural environment, the concentration of power, the erosion of rights, and the realization that obscene wealth that could be saving and improving billions of lives and the future of the earth is being hoarded by a group of morally adolescent self-delusional creeps with innovative ideas about how governments should work that most people rejected centuries ago.

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