Can Silicon Valley Be Redeemed? (Review Essay)

Historians in the News
tags: Internet, technology, Silicon Valley, tech

MARGARET O’MARA is Howard and Frances Keller Endowed Professor of History at the University of Washington and the author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America.

“We are as gods and might as well get used to it.” So began Stewart Brand’s introduction to the first issue of The Whole Earth Catalog, an encyclopedic compendium of resources for back-to-the-land living that became a foundational document of Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian culture. The Catalog departed from typical countercultural fare in seeking to impart technological know-how to commune dwellers. It included the use of handheld calculators and treatises on information theory among its recommended essentials for self-sufficient living. Such skills and knowledge, Brand explained, were hoarded by big corporations, government agencies, schools, and churches. It was time to return power to the people and give them the tools to shape their individual destinies.

In 1968, the year of the Catalog’s debut, the real power in American life lay far from Brand’s storefront publishing house in the sleepy northern California suburb of Menlo Park. The ten firms atop the Fortune 500 were four oil companies, three carmakers, two other major manufacturers, and only one computer company: IBM. 

Today, six of the ten most valuable corporations in the world are U.S. computer hardware and software companies. A seventh, Tesla, produces electric cars that are essentially supercomputers on wheels. All of these companies hail from the West Coast. All have grown to enormous size on promises of individual empowerment and social betterment, with slogans such as “think different,” “don’t be evil,” and “make history.” Today’s technology firms are not merely enterprises but social institutions driven by an almost messianic sense of purpose. They have taken Brand’s urging quite literally. The gods, it appears, have gotten used to it.

The social and political upheavals of recent years have gravely tested this sunny narrative, however, leading to intense public scrutiny of the data-extracting business models behind Silicon Valley’s growth and wealth. Algorithmically curated social media platforms have connected most of humanity, but they have also allowed disinformation and political extremism to metastasize. Mobile apps have delivered frictionless convenience by relying on armies of underpaid gig workers. In 2019, the social theorist Shoshanna Zuboff gave the industry’s inescapable data-tracking a piquant and malevolent handle—“surveillance capitalism”—becoming one of many authors crowding the bestseller lists with sharp critiques of Silicon Valley as a place, an industry, and an idea. 

But even as public ambivalence grew, the COVID-19 pandemic directed more and more users to the platforms, sending tech-sector market valuations soaring, along with their founders’ fortunes. Large technology companies have become more powerful than any of the firms The Whole Earth Catalog hoped to subvert.

Three new books—one by a historian and philosopher, another by a sociologist, a third by a sitting member of Congress—insist on a Silicon Valley reckoning. In The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, the philosopher Justin Smith looks to the past to explain both the Internet’s true antiquity and its unparalleled capacity to distract, consume, and transform its users. In Work Pray Code, the sociologist Carolyn Chen dissects the immersive and influential work culture of Silicon Valley’s present. And the U.S. Congressman Ro Khanna’s Dignity in a Digital Age looks to the future: to a techno-geography remade, a tech workforce reimagined, and a policy environment reformed. 

All three works offer fresh takes on what is now a well-worn subject. Although remote on their own stratospheric plane of existence, the gods of technology may want to listen to what these critics have to say.

Read entire article at Foreign Affairs