January 23, 2020

Revisiting The Californian Ideology

I finally had a chance to read Derek Thompson’s piece in the Atlantic, The Real Trouble With Silicon Valley in which he laments the fact that “too much American ingenuity is chasing problems that simply don’t matter” and investors are funding massive companies that provide little value to the world. (Side note: the original URL slugline is “Where’s My Flying Car” – whoever changed it did Thomson a favour, since he makes the opposite argument).

Here’s Thompson quoting economist and aerospace entrepreneur Eli Dourado:

“The internet age has been very underwhelming compared to what the expectations were,” [Dourado] told me. “I’m also worried that it’s sapping talent from other industries that might benefit from more innovation. All these people building apps and software-as-a-service companies, if they applied themselves to challenges in the physical world—especially on energy, housing, health, and transportation—they could make a real difference.”

The obsession with digital, Thomson argues, has prevented the tech industry from playing the role it should in tackling the greatest challenge facing us: climate change. He points out that the Apollo moon program was given more federal funding than the Department of Energy has recently announced for carbon-capture R&D. Ultimately, he admits that the state, that moral enemy of neoliberalism, must play a role in helping Silicon Valley find its soul again:

The idea that Silicon Valley could swoop in and solve all of America’s problems was always an illusion, conjured by technologists seeking to lure capital to California, and by politicians looking to shift responsibility away from Washington. Silicon Valley has a crucial role to play in meeting the challenges of the new century, but it can’t act alone. Transformative advances will require participation from local, state, and federal government, and from the American people, who for too long have bought into the idea that prosperity can be delivered in lines of code.

For the past two decades, we’ve funneled treasure and talent into the ethereal world of software and digital optimization. Imagine what could be accomplished if American ingenuity came back down to Earth.

Thompson is one of many voices upbraiding Silicon Valley at the moment, but he goes beyond the privacy/monopoly criticism. The lack of attention to the physical world is a crucial point of difference. Tech has all-too-frequently viewed meatspace as an annoying inconvenience that will be solved by The Singlularity and Soylent, as if eating food is simply using up valuable productivity time re-fuelling as we work to merge with machines. It’s the same mindset that sees humans as statistics to be sliced and diced by machine learning with all the problems that has brought us.

Backing those tech companies is a lot of venture capital, of course and the quickest growth is to be had from solving simple problems. When the focus is on a specific job-to-be-done, teams can sprint and iterate at pace, hence the desire to find an untapped niche that could be delivered via a digital experience. But n an over-bountiful society, there are only so many unfulfilled simple needs. In fact, the main problem people living in developed nations have is too much choice. So tech and venture money drift towards ever more frivolous products and services that nobody needs — it’s not for nothing that dog walking apps are the go-to cliché of tech criticism.

By not paying attention to the physical space and the people living their lives in it, we end up with bike-share graveyards and growing calls for unionisation in the gig and tech economies.

The Californian Ideology

While much of this criticism feels like it has arisen in the past two years after the scandals of companies like Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, Uber and WeWork, Thomson’s piece reminded me of The Californian Ideology, an essay written in 1995 by my then lecturers, Andy Cameron and Richard Barbrook. 25 years later, The Californian Ideology has turned out to be extremely prescient and it is worth revisiting.

Broadly—and it is a dense essay—Cameron and Barbrook argue that the leftist counter-culture of Silicon Valley formed a paradoxical alliance with the free-market neoliberalism of the right, underpinned by technological determinism. Here’s their prediction of pretty much where we are now from 25 years ago:

If only for competitive reasons, all major industrial economies will eventually be forced to wire up their populations to obtain the productivity gains of digital working. What is unknown is the social and cultural impact of allowing people to produce and exchange almost unlimited quantities of information on a global scale. Above all, will the advent of hypermedia will realise the utopias of either the New Left or the New Right? As a hybrid faith, the Californian Ideology happily answers this conundrum by believing in both visions at the same time - and by not criticising either of them.

We now know that both visions have not only come to pass, but have reinforced each other with huge consequences.

Many of the responses and critiques of The Californian Ideology really haven’t stood the test of time, like the vitriolic response of former Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Wired magazine, Louis Rossetto. It’s hard not to view Rossetto’s anger psychoanalytically as his darkest fears exposed. Others, like Jeffrey Kaplan’s corrections, are much more considered and rightly critique the closing manifesto.

I encourage you to read the complete essay, but here’s a closing snippet that could have been written yesterday:

In the 1994 election for governor in California, Pete Wilson, the Republican candidate, won through a vicious anti-immigrant campaign. Nationally, the triumph of Gingrich’s Republican party in the legislative elections was based on the mobilisation of ‘angry white males’ against the supposed threat from black welfare scroungers, immigrants from Mexico and other uppity minorities. These politicians have reaped the electoral benefits of the increasing polarisation between the mainly white, affluent suburbanites - most of whom vote - and the largely non-white, poorer inner city dwellers - most of whom don’t vote.


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Photo by Lorenzo Herrera on Unsplash