Silicon Valley isn’t just disrupting democracy—it’s replacing it

FILE – In this Nov. 19, 2016 file photo, Mark Zuckerberg, chairman and CEO of Facebook, waves at the CEO summit during the annual Asia…
FILE – In this Nov. 19, 2016 file photo, Mark Zuckerberg, chairman and CEO of Facebook, waves at the CEO summit during the annual Asia…
Image: AP Photo/Esteban Felix
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If you want to understand the threat that Silicon Valley poses to culture at large, consider Apple’s $5 billion headquarters. The Cupertino, California, building may seem like paradise to some, with striking architecture—a donut-shaped building featuring the world’s largest piece of curved glass—and lavish details like iPhone-inspired elevator buttons and patented pizza boxes that prevent soggy crusts. Writing for Wired, Stephen Levy quotes one of the architects of the project: “The idea that a beautiful object descended on this verdant, luxurious landscape and that it will be inhabited by 12,000 people: That is a true utopian vision.” (Never mind the lack of onsite childcare in this revolutionary building.)

Utopias, per Merriam-Webster, are traditionally understood as places with ideal “laws, government, and social conditions.” The idea that an office building might fit such a description is indicative of the ways in which Silicon Valley is working to collapse the distinction between the civic world and private spaces. Consider too the future of Apple’s retail stores, as described by Apple’s senior vice president of retail, Angela Ahrendts. Ian Bogost at The Atlantic reports:

Instead of stores, they would become “town squares, because they are gathering places.” she’s creating “plazas” in Apple’s largest stores, adding “boardrooms” for entrepreneurs, and recasting aisles as “avenues,” which are “like shop windows around a town square.” Apple’s Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan will become such a town square, as will a new one in the Carnegie Library in Washington D.C.—a controversial use of an architectural landmark that once served as a real public sphere rather than one remixed out via capitalism.

It’s not surprising that our technocapitalist overlords, who have concentrated wealth at a level that would make the Gilded Era barons proud, are appropriating the language of public spaces. They do, in fact, want to reshape politics and culture in their image. As Franklin Foer writes in his new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, “in the great office parks south of San Francisco, monopoly is a spiritual yearning, a concept unabashedly embraced. Big tech considers the concentration of power in its companies—in the networks they control—an urgent social good.”

But the public sphere imagined by Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google is not always compatible with the kind of democratic values that make for a more just world. It’s time for us to take seriously the prospect of what a world run by Silicon Valley might look like—and figure out what we might do to stop it.

Democracy disrupted

Many Silicon Valley leaders have made gestures toward creating their own private utopias. Elon Musk wants people to move to his future colony on Mars, and Peter Thiel famously tried (and eventually gave up on) founding a floating city.

Back in 2103, Marcus Wohlsen of Wired wrote that Balaji Srinivasan, who is now a partner at leading venture capitalist firm Andreessen Horowitz, gave a talk entitled “Silicon Valley’s ultimate exit.” That “exit,” Srinivasan explained to a crowd that included tech leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, was for Silicon Valley to “build an opt-in society, ultimately outside the US, run by technology.” In a now-deleted tweet, he wrote, “Don’t argue about regulation. Build Uber. Don’t argue about monetary policy. Build Bitcoin. Don’t argue about it. Build the alternative.” (Uber, a company that often ignores regulations it doesn’t like, operates in a legal grey area, and has a generally toxic culture, is perhaps not the most inspiring example of a brave new world. That said, it does exemplify the hubris of Silicon Valley: for all its bluster, it’s never made money.)

But the more insidious kind of opt-in society isn’t seasteading or a regulation-free part of the world, as Google co-founder Larry Page once memorably proposed. It’s already here, and it looks like Facebook.

Zuckerberg notes that “for the past decade, Facebook has focused on connecting friends and families. With that foundation, our next focus will be developing the social infrastructure for community—for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.” This sounds a lot like the plan is for a largely unregulated monopolistic company to safeguard our democracy, which is not so chill, in my opinion.

Facebook wants “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” But Zuckerberg seems to think the best way to give people the power to build community is to make Facebook the undisputed, singular home for our attention—a black hole into which we will gaze until, as Zuckerberg hopes, we are able to simply beam our thoughts to one another. I don’t doubt that there are good people at Facebook who genuinely want to make the world a better place through their technology. But there will always be a tension between “building community” healthily and Facebook’s mandate to sell ads. Besides all of this, that an unelected CEO (for now, anyway) should hold a near-monopoly on our online attention, without checks or balances, cuts against democratic governance—no matter how well intentioned or benign Zuckerberg’s rule may be.

Then there’s Thiel, the figurehead for Silicon Valley’s monopolistic mania. “Thiel abhors the values of Darwinian competition [between companies],” Foer writes. “Indeed, he dismisses competition as a ‘relic of history.’” Thiel—who founded tech giants like PayPal and Palantir, sits on the board of Facebook, funded the lawsuit that brought down Gawker, donated $1.25 million to Donald Trump in the 2016 US election, and has a totally normal interest in the blood of young people—wrote in 2009, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” That a titan of industry thumbs his nose at market competition might make sense, even if it does run counter to a healthy economy. But the picture grows darker when you add Thiel’s discomfort with the best of American liberal democracy—a country that values a rambunctious press like Gawker and resists the xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia that have fueled Trump’s presidency. In a 2016 blog post, venture capitalist and CEO of Y Combinator Paul Graham, wrote defensively that “the great concentrations of wealth I see around me in Silicon Valley don’t seem to be destroying democracy.” Perhaps he should have a chat with Thiel, his partner at Y Combinator.

Algorithms ascendant

When Silicon Valley leaders aren’t attempting to personally direct the shape of society, they’re creating so-called “neutral” algorithms that exert influence over our lives. The specter of fake news haunts the 2016 election, and our supposedly gatekeeper-less online world replicates and enlarges the injustices plaguing into the real one. As Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League and a graduate researcher at the MIT Media Lab, explains, bias gets built into the algorithms used to decide whether people will get a loan, receive insurance, or get into college, not to mention facial-recognition technology and the software used to estimate how likely it is that you’ll commit a crime in the future.

The potential reach of biased algorithms is immense, because tech platforms are attempting to work their way into every facet of our culture. As Charlie Warzel writes at Buzzfeed News, “the always-learning AI-powered technology behind our search engines and our newsfeeds quietly shapes and reshapes the information we discover and even how we perceive it.” And then, of course, there is the danger that as we gaze through the lens of a computerized, quantified world, we will lose sight of what is human but unquantifiable.

The terrible thing isn’t just that Silicon Valley has seized so much power over our lives. It’s that we appear helpless to stop them. There seems to be no alternative to having a smartphone that tracks our every movement, to keeping our digital feeds bright and full of content. Even the words we use have begun to reflect Silicon Valley’s ethos. As Jill Lepore writes at The New Yorker. “The word ‘innovate’—to make new—used to have chiefly negative connotations: it signified excessive novelty, without purpose or end.” Now, not only do we take pride in the ceaseless spin of innovation, we speak gleefully of disrupting everything—even ourselves. We hack not only computers but our lives as well. We pivot to video. We “reformat” food.

In the face of all that, at the end of his book, Foer strikes a quiet, mournful note. “We have deluded ourselves into caring more deeply about convenience and efficiency than about the things that last,” he writes. “The contemplative life remains freely available to all of us through our choices.” Foer’s suggestion is that we—the clickers and searchers, attention-givers and gadget-buyers—might reclaim our lives by simply taking a break from our screens.

I don’t deny that’s necessary. But we also need to agitate more for structural changes. Demand that the internet giants are treated like utilities. Push for a taxpayer-supported, public Facebook. Let your imaginations run wild. Technocapitalism tells us that anything is possible, provided it makes the right people a lot of money. There’s no reason we can’t dream up a different reality for our cultural and political institutions—one that ensures the future remains in our hands.