Chronicle Media Politics

Silicon Valley Isn’t Modern and That’s Why It’s Good

My favorite genre of essay is elites discovering the system is fucked. The latest to catch my eye is ostensibly about a mother for whom the medical system failed her child and who then like Alice in Wonderland has to completely reset her expectations of reality. It’s a spectacular piece of writing in Tablet Mag by Alana Newhouse that weighs in on many topics near to my heart like modernism, Marxism and the aesthetics of the future. It’s helpful to understand the context from which she writes which is conservative Jewish American which is an uneasy set of political priors in our current moment (she hints at biological essentialism and the benefits of religious community order which are to put it mostly just not my jam). But this gives her a firm base for the cultural critique of both socialism and the individualism of which I’m a proponent.

She references back to an excellent piece in The Verge about the flatness of millennial Silicon Valley consumption. It’s a significant and widespread aesthetic of ease and consumption we’ve all experienced. Some of us even like frictionless capitalism as she lays it out.

I also think she’s dead wrong about about both it’s causes and it’s main perpetrators. She blames Silicon Valley for the great flattening. Lays at its feet the horrors of socialism and capitalism alike with a hearty dose of Soviet aesthetics as its anchor.

But that’s just not the historically accurate view of Silicon Valley. I like to think I have some authority on the subject at hand for a multitude of reasons. If anything I am emblematic of her thesis. I’m someone who has fallen through the medical system by being spat out of the ringer of hustle culture. I also chose this fate willingly.

And it was not the aesthetics of Silicon Valley, late stage capitalism or libertarians who set my fate in motion. Or even American Calvinists (again I would know ask me how set theory and Russels paradox made me a born again Calvinist). It was the fucking boomer hippies.

Hear me out. I know this as I was born in Fremont (Palo Alto’s poorer sister) to a family of hippies who immigrated to Silicon Valley because they were devoted to the ethos of the Whole Earth Catalog. Information wants to be free and all that early optimism. They get woo. They were Age of Aquarius believers. They weren’t remotely modernists or Marxists. Hippies may be have pretended to be collectivists but in the end they were all about the pursuit of selfish enlightenment.

So I guess she gets the communitarian roots of it quite right. She simply missed the inherent radicalism of its early adherents. And I suppose it’s easy to forget this as most of the successful adherents became quite wealthy and became the anchor tenants of NIMBY towns like Boulder and Big Fork. They became the things they never wanted.

In other words Silicon Valley hippies became the Boomers their millennial and Gen X children know and hate. I honestly feel terrible saying this as my parents are the light of my life and I owe everything to them. My mother in particular hates being called a Boomer. As it’s come to represent an inversion of their core beliefs. It’s not really fair to be honest. They are better people than the term flattening could ever suggest.

Nevertheless it is true that Stewart Brand’s legacy is a complex one. The network society didn’t at all emerge into the utopia they envisioned. I believe it haunts them. It’s the great shame of their generation that their legacy on the turning of the cultural wheel would do so much to harm the very people they built it for: their children. And it wasn’t at all their intention.

Silicon Valley people are radical. But they actually believe quite a bit in hierarchy. They just believe it is earned. Founders wouldn’t be worshipped as messianic figures if this weren’t our culture. We wouldn’t have significant and elaborate sets of cultural capital signifiers if we believed in communists aesthetics of equality. Just because the outcome appears brutal doesn’t make it brutalist. Bertolt Brecht would be appalled to be compared to the radicalism of Silicon Valley’s meritocracy. It’s probably helpful to remember that Jacobin revolutionaries are not the same as those who exalt in the unique power of individualism.

But it’s a common historical fallacy Americans try to evoke as we become more and more uncomfortable with just how close our worshiping of liberties can overlap with the nationalist strongman of fascists of yore.

But the difference is the network state of Silicon Valley is a philosophy of freedom. It’s deeply retrograde in some aspects. It exalts the possibility of excellence for all that chose the system. That’s why America has been the country of immigrants in modern imagination. Being an American was a choice. So was Silicon Valley. The network is a choice. No one is born jacked in. Eventually you make a choice to be a part of it. The question I have is why do so many of us think we are victims of the choices we made?