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What you need to read to understand Silicon Valley’s politics

mage 121 -- Dirigible U.S.S. Macon arrives at Hangar 1, Oct. 5, 1934, from Opalocka, Florida..U.S. Navy Photo.
U.S. Navy / NASA
The Dirigible U.S.S. Macon arrives at Hangar 1 in 1934 not far from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View.
  • Michael J. Coren
By Michael J. Coren

Climate and emerging industries editor

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

If there’s a roadmap to how Silicon Valley developed its particular brand of politics, it starts in the Cold War, wanders through 1960s counter-culture, and goes toward a future dominated by artificial intelligence. The seminal speeches, essays, and books that helped shape Valley politics throughout each of three distinct periods in Silicon Valley’s history are assembled here.

The Pentagon’s Cold Warriors, 1950s-1970s

After World War II, the US military realized its superiority depended on mastering digital technology in warfare. Silicon Valley was their answer. Billions of dollars flowed into the region creating an unprecedented concentration of money, minds, and big ideas about how computers could reshape the future. 

From Counterculture to Cyberculture by Fred Turner: No one has chronicled the origins of Silicon Valley’s philosophy better than Stanford professor Fred Turner. His book follows the marriage of America’s wartime cybernetic researchers and the 1960s counter-culture into today’s blend of libertarian, techno-utopians building the bleeding edge of tech. For an update, Turner’s paper Burning Man at Google (pdf) offers a glimpse into how the alternate society in the desert is shaping the Valley today (Larry Page and Sergey Brin hired Eric Schmidt as Google’s chief executive officer in 2001 partly because of Schmidt’s participation in Burning Man).

Steve Blank’s Secret History of Silicon Valley: Want to go deep on the military origins of the Valley? Stanford lecturer and entrepreneur Steve Blank made a recorded video and 278 slides that trace the route from radar to social media.

Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet by Yasha Levine (2018): Surveillance has always been at the core of many Silicon Valley companies. In this book, published last year, Levine catalogs how the Pentagon’s interest in new information technology birthed the internet, as well as private surveillance business models behind today’s tech giants. Another installment in this genre is What the Dormouse Said by John Markoff (2005).

Welcome, Internet, 1980s-1990s

The Internet arrives. No one is sure what to expect, but a small community of single-minded engineers and entrepreneurs see the potential and set about building startups to make their fortune (and avoid government intrusion). 

The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder: In this 1981 book, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder chronicles the creation of a new computer, the Data General Eclipse MV/800, in the 1970s. Despite the dated technology, Kidder describes the messianic fervor of the people building the next wave of technology who laid the cultural foundations of the startups that followed.

A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace by John Perry Barlow: The former Grateful Dead lyricist, poet, ex-Republican, and founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation declared in 1996 that cyberspace would exist apart from the world’s governments. Humans, he argued, were free to forge a better, more free civilization on the frontiers of the internet. “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind,” it began, setting the stage for the decades to come.

The Californian Ideology by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron: Two academics in 1995 wrote this essay attacking the emerging Silicon Valley consensus as dotcom neoliberalism dominated by corporate interests.  The piece stirred resentment. Wired magazine fired back that the essay was an “atavistic attachment to statism, and an utterly dismal failure to comprehend the possibilities of a future radically different.”

Why Silicon Valley Should Not Normalize Relations With Washington D.C. by T.J. Rodgers: Cypress Semiconductor founder and CEO T.J. Rodgers delivered a provocative speech at the CATO Institute on November 19, 1998, arguing Washington itself was the problem, and Silicon Valley the solution: “an island of capitalism in a sea of collectivism.” He said: “The metric that differentiates Silicon Valley from Washington does not fall along conventional political lines: Republican versus Democrat, conservative versus liberal, right versus left…It falls between freedom and control.”

Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure (1996) and Microserfs by Douglas Coupland: Written in 1996 and 1995, respectively, these two novels about life in Silicon Valley’s early days profiles its nascent sweatshop culture of sleeping under your desk to save the world and IPO. Rollicking reads, and penetrating insights into the culture of the place.

How to Hack a Party Line by Sara Miles: An often funny chronicle of the rise of Silicon Valley’s political machine in the mid-1990s. New Democratic operatives promoted the Valley’s unique blend of social justice and free-market boosterism in the Democratic Party tapping newfound dotcom cash.

The Future and Its Enemies by Virginia Postrel: The author and former editor in chief of Reason magazine suggests the conflict of the 21st-century would be between creative capitalistic dynamism and those yearning for more static society, rather than old “left” and “right” dichotomy. Its prescient predictions suggested trade, immigration, and technology would become flash points in cultural and political debates

Silicon Valley takes power, 2000s – present

The Valley comes of age. Its companies now dominate huge swaths of the economy. Washington has decided its time to regulate the tech giants. A battle is on to define whose politics, and vision of the future, will direct the course of technology.  

The Education of a Libertarian by Peter Thiel: In his 2009 essay for the Cato Institute, the PayPay co-founder, libertarian and Trump supporter writes “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible” and laments “the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women…have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.” He argues society is now instead locked in a race between politics and technology. Individual freedom and free markets can only be assured if technology allows people to “escape” beyond the realm of politics. It’s a techie libertarian’s call to arms.

Why Software Is Eating the World by Marc Andreessen: This prescient 2011 essay laid out the transformation of nearly every industry by software, and the rise of scrappy Silicon Valley startups who do it. “In short, software is eating the world,” Andreessen writes.

Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit (video here) by Balaji Srinivasan: This 2013 speech by Stanford-trained engineer Srinivasan, who is the co-founder of genetic testing company Counsyl, argues Silicon Valley is eclipsing the federal government in power (not to mention every other industry) and that it needs to “exit” the nation. “What do I mean by Silicon Valley’s ultimate exit?” he asked. “It basically means: build an opt-in society, ultimately outside the U.S., run by technology.”

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas: In this 2018 book, Giridharadas asks whether society should celebrate an elite who defend the status quo as well as the source of their wealth, creating many of the problems they then try to solve by giving away billions of dollars. The book argues for the role of public services as an antidote to relying on billionaire philanthropy.

Chaos Monkeys by Antonio García Martínez: A former Facebook engineer chronicles his alternatively absurdist and disturbing ride inside the social media giant as it takes over the world (he also makes current observations on the Valley’s politics and culture at his newsletter).

Reset by Ellen Pao: This 2017 memoir by former investor Ellen Pao chronicles her gender discrimination lawsuit against her employer, venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byer. Although Pao lost her case in 2015, it kicked off a reassessment of sexism that is still remaking Silicon Valley today. Another milestone in this is the blog post “Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber” by former Uber engineer Susan Fowler that contributed to the ouster of former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.

Bad Blood by John Carreyou: This inside story of the collapse of the blood-testing firm Theranos shows how lies and deception can turn snake oil into a $9 billion startup. The Wall Street Journal reporter masterfully highlights the broken tech and promises of Silicon Valley.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari: “The end of history has been postponed,” writes Yuval in his latest book. As the world searches for what comes next after 20th-century liberal democracy, Harari dives into what technology and politics has in store for us in the digital era.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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