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Disruptive politics

As Silicon Valley becomes the economic and cultural center of the US (and everywhere else, considering how “software is eating the world”) it is only natural that it will seek to become a political center. Hiring lobbyists — like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Uber (and Netflix in Canada) have — is just the first step. In fact, since that is an attempt to work inside of the existing system, those big companies are stuck within the innovator’s dilemma. For some in Silicon Valley, what is needed is disruptive innovation.

In Come With Us If You Want to Live: Among the apocalyptic libertarians of Silicon Valley, Sam Frank takes us on a networking spree with transhumanists, singularitarians, panpsychists, and negative hedonic utilitarians; all seeking to “change the world” in a much larger sense than Facebook or Whatsapp. The article “investigates the sometimes elitist, anti-democratic, utopian, and millenarian politics of Silicon Valley” and in it Frank relates a number of apocalyptic scenarios. Here is one that I think outlines the logic quite succinctly (or, at least how Frank sees it):

In five years an estimated 5.9 billion people will own smartphones. Anyone who can code, or who has something to sell, can be a free agent on the global marketplace. You can work from anywhere on your laptop and talk to anyone in the world; you can receive good anywhere via drone and pay for them with bitcoins — that is, if you can’t 3-D print them at home. As software eats everything, prices will plunge. You won’t need much money to live like a king; it won’t be a big deal if your job is made obsolete by code or a robot. The rich will enjoy bespoke luxury goods and be first in line for new experiences, but otherwise there will be no differences among people; inequality will increase but cease to matter. Politics as we know it will lose relevance. Large, grid-locked states will be disrupted like any monopoly. Customer-citizens, armed with information, will demand transparency, accountability, choice. They will want their countries to be run as well as a start-up.

The rhetoric is great, I love the term “customer-citizens” in particular. Unfortunately the article is behind a paywall, but you can get a taste with the online supplemental: Battlefield Worth: Occupy goes to TechCrunch Disrupt.

Sam Frank’s take is by no means even-handed. He opens his article with a visit to Zucotti Park and self-identifies as a “democratic-socialist introvert” and a Gramsci-ite. Frank’s interactions with the “libertarians” are a pastiche, with myriad quotes entirely out-of-context and comes off not thoroughly representative. Although that seems like a weakness, it actually turns out to be a strength. Through this whirlwind tour of Silicon Valley’s fringe politics we get a snapshot of the primordial ooze of political thought there — all seeking to disrupt politics as we know it, even seeking “post-politics” as Frank puts it.

The political spectrum of Silicon Valley is wide and varied. First there are the engaged politics which span the traditional right and left. For example: hyper-capitalist libertarians like Peter Thiel (“I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”); neoreactionaries which pine for a technocratic aristocracy; political activists like Aaron Swartz; or techno-socialists like Astra Taylor that want to shake up the system as it is. Then there is the more sinister, underlying ideology of the system of the type that Evgeny Morozov tries to expose and attack when he rails against cyber-utopianism and the “de-institutionalization of society.” I would love to see a catalogue of political ideology in Silicon Valley by someone like Mike Bulajewski or a working academic like Michael Sacasas. An impossible task maybe. But the next disruptive politics — the next Marx or Hobbes — could be in there somewhere.

In the meantime, explore one section of the spectrum with Sam Frank’s enjoyable piece.