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Silicon Valley Is Undermining Democracy With Its Dangerous Ideology

Despite its slick PR, the tech industry is not inherently different from any other exploitative enterprise.

A construction worker stands with a dumpster, with windows of the main building visible blocked with white paper and painter's tape, at the Apple Park, the new headquarters of Apple Inc. in the Silicon Valley town of Cupertino, California, July 25, 2017.

Silicon Valley has a dark side, and it doesn’t want you to know about it.

So far, it’s done a pretty decent job of keeping it from you. In fact, if you were to believe its side of the story, you’d truly think that Silicon Valley was the pinnacle of human civilization. But the sun doesn’t shine evenly into this valley, and a very different picture begins to emerge once you venture out into the shadows.

In A People’s History of Silicon Valley: How the Tech Industry Exploits Workers, Erodes Privacy and Undermines Democracy, tech writer and cultural critic Keith A. Spencer guides readers on a journey through the shadows. He lays out an argument for why Silicon Valley is, at its core, a highly exploitative and problematic industry that is hell-bent on spreading not only its technology, but its incredibly dangerous ideology as well.

Robert Raymond: Before we get into some of the ideas you write about in the book, I think it would be helpful for us to provide some personal context. Tell us about your connection to Silicon Valley.

Keith A. Spencer: My family goes back to the San Francisco Bay Area many generations and has been, for the most part, unincluded in the economic boom that Silicon Valley is considered to have created. When I was in my 20s my grandfather — who had been born in Mountain View and lived in what is now Silicon Valley for his whole life — got evicted from where he lived when he was 90 years old. Watching that happen and hearing my family tell stories about the Bay Area and why so many of them left over the years really colored my perspective on Silicon Valley.

So that was the beginning of watching all this stuff happening in Silicon Valley and thinking, “Wow it’s interesting that everyone thinks what’s going on here is so wonderful.” Some people in tech literally say that there’s a modern renaissance happening in Silicon Valley. But my experience and my family’s experience [is] very different. So, I think that was a big part of what led me to have a more critical eye on the tech industry, and then ultimately to write this book.

The housing crisis in Silicon Valley is directly related to the growing inequality of the region, and it certainly seems to have hit epidemic proportions. I think many of us living here can say that we have close friends and family members who have been pushed out of their homes or even from the valley entirely. But as you outline in your book, Silicon Valley is more than just a geographic region in California.

Yeah, the thing about Silicon Valley is that it’s not really just a place like London or Greece — it’s also kind of ethereal. The term “Silicon Valley” has become synonymous with the tech industry — not just the Santa Clara Valley. And so, the thing about writing A People’s History of Silicon Valley was that I had to cover how the tech industry is affecting people’s lives across the entire world. When someone at Uber changes how the algorithm works for picking up rides, for example, an Uber driver in Mumbai is affected. Or if Facebook, all of a sudden, changes the way that you see things in your timeline, a small family business in Johannesburg may suddenly have fewer customers.

So, the decisions and choices that a small number of engineers and CEOs make in Silicon Valley have repercussions across the whole world and can sometimes radically affect or ruin people’s lives overnight. The way a small number of rich people can manipulate people’s lives so suddenly and quickly by rewriting the algorithms that govern them — that’s profoundly undemocratic.

So the book is an attempt to write a dual history that’s both about the people who physically live in Silicon Valley — not just the workers, but also the way that the technology in Silicon Valley affects everyday people’s lives — while also telling the larger story of how people across the whole world are implicated in making the tech industry function and provid[e] the profits that cause Silicon Valley to be perceived as this really wealthy place where there’s a renaissance happening, as some CEOs like to say.

I want to follow up about the economic aspects of Silicon Valley, but first, let’s provide some historical context. In the book, you sketch out how Silicon Valley is intimately connected to the US military, specifically through the development of radio technology around the World War II era, which evolved into the computer technology of today. But there’s an interesting part of the history that we don’t usually associate with Silicon Valley: the countercultural revolution. How did the ‘60s hippie culture in California shape the culture of Silicon Valley?

There were actually lots of hippies who thought computers were these revolutionary machines that were going to free us in some way. And later, the internet also enhanced that feeling for a lot of people. There were people who thought that if we network computers together, it would just sort of innately lead to these anti-authoritarian, free networks where we could all communicate without any government or corporate control having any involvement in our lives — that we were going to be completely freed by these machines.

Right, it’s what Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron wrote about in the “Californian Ideology.” This weird mixture of anti-authoritarian, hippie culture that mixed into a unique brand of libertarian, tech utopianism. It’s where the idea of the “Randian hero sort of evolved, which served as one of the foundational mythologies that shaped Silicon Valley.

Yes. It’s unsurprising that so many tech CEOs and so many people who work in tech have really libertarian beliefs — that they ignore the social realm and don’t think of themselves as products of society, but rather as these individualistic übermensches who, by virtue of their own genius and brilliance, create these amazing products — which is patently not true. And by having libertarian politics and by spending money either directly or through their companies on lobbyists that lobby against things like fair taxation, or having any of the profits from their products go back to public coffers … they’ve ensured that there’s going to be income inequality in the Bay Area for a long time to come. It’s always astounding to think that San Francisco is lauded as one of the wealthiest cities in the country in terms of how much wealth is here. And yet, there’s so much poverty because that wealth is just not redistributed.

And a lot of the things that we think of as being intrinsic to the tech industry or to Silicon Valley were actually created by public money. A lot of the basis of what the internet is, was created by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the Pentagon. Similarly, a huge amount of the technology in the iPhone was created with public money. But those pieces of the iPhone and the internet aren’t patented in the same way that Apple or Microsoft patent their things. So, the US government is essentially just giving away these technologies toward private profits.

One of the most egregious examples is GPS [Global Positioning Systems]. Think about how much wealth is created with GPS: Uber, Lyft, Google Maps, Apple Maps — they couldn’t exist without GPS, or rather, they could exist in an inferior form, based only on your nearby Wi-Fi networks and cell networks, and they’d be way less accurate. GPS allows your phone or computer to know where you are within a few feet, and those are all government satellites. Billions and billions of dollars were spent by the US government to put those up. And when tech companies use them to create these products, they don’t pay any money back, even though taxpayers funded them.

That really seems to line up with the emerging business models in tech, especially with platform apps like Uber, for example, that really just make money off of other people’s labor. But it’s marketed as technological innovation, or freedom even. They’re really quite effective at the public relations side of things.

Part of the brilliance of Silicon Valley is this marketing idea that they create utopias. They perpetuate that even through things like office design. These little things that we think of as being such amazing amenities — they’re actually part of a system of control to make their employees want to stay at work forever and not necessarily want to go home or even need to go home because they have food at work, and have laundry at work, and even beds if they stay late at work. It’s what’s sometimes called the “golden handcuffs” effect.

Most employees in Silicon Valley are being exploited by their employers who take a cut of their surplus labor, like any other standard for-profit company. But in Silicon Valley, often white-collar employees don’t relate to other workers, they relate to the CEO. They think that anybody can become a CEO, and a founder, if they just put their mind to it. And so, they often will relate less with other exploited workers and employees, and more with their bosses who have all these tricks and systems built in place to wring as much work out of them as possible, and to pay them much less than they’re worth.

And actually, Silicon Valley has always been very anti-labor. Silicon Valley management will often argue that unions are outmoded, or they’re not innovative, or that they’re these old stodgy things that we don’t need any more because we advanced beyond them because Silicon Valley is just innately different — which it’s not. And I think I would say that if the book has one big point, it’s trying to shatter this illusion that Silicon Valley and the tech industry is somehow inherently different than any other capitalist enterprise. It’s not. It’s really hard for people to see that because of how the ideas around it, and the marketing around the tech industry is trafficked in our society and our culture.

So, if you were to zoom out, what would you see as some of the root causes tying together a lot of the issues you document in your book? And what do you see as potential solutions?

Generally, like many social ills that seem to be perpetuated by many industries, it’s really just a trickle-down effect of capitalism, and the way that it molds people and molds culture. And if you wanted a solution or explanation, I’d say if people who were involved in a lot of these platforms that are causing immense social ills had some type of inbuilt model of platform cooperativism, where anybody who is participating was an owner, you wouldn’t have the same problems because you wouldn’t have a central exploitative force that was pushing for these things. The way that we think of companies as existing is that it’s normal for there to be these top-down entities, where there’s someone at the top who’s making money off of all the people below them. But if that relationship were inverted and the dominant model of any business was a worker-owned cooperative … there wouldn’t be the same incentive to exploit and manipulate employees because they would own it themselves.

And even if a lot of Silicon Valley workers were unionized, it would be immensely redistributive economically — in terms of actually redistributing wealth in the Bay Area and making it a more equal place. And if, at the same time, the taxpayers were somehow getting compensated for all the technology that they created with their money that is making all these people rich, you could use that to fund public housing, for example. That would go a long way toward halting gentrification and fixing the housing crisis the tech industry created.

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