In recent years, Silicon Valley has become strongly associated with the scourge of “techbros.” The idea is satisfyingly counterintuitive: nerds are the new jocks, the chest-bumping sexists and racists who party hard and casually ruin the lives of everyone they meet. Today, they’re high on newfound start-up capital, triumphant at the economic dominance of brains over brawn, and behaving just as badly as any stereotypical college athlete.
This picture of tech culture has been reinforced by the sexism scandal at Uber. After a former employee disclosed that overt sexual harassment by senior managers had been covered up by the company’s human resources department, reports emerged of a company awash in frat-boy obnoxiousness. 85% of tech jobs at the company were held by men, and women engineers at the company experienced a deeply unpleasant environment. Founder and (now former) CEO Travis Kalanick seemed to embody every one of these tendencies, having developed a public reputation for loutishness, referring to Uber as “Boob-er” because it helped him attract women, and berating an Uber driver on camera who had complained about being underpaid. Kalanick had even arranged a corporate trip to an escort bar in Seoul, where company executives picked women out of a numbered lineup. Boys’ club norms are so endemic to the company that, during a corporate board meeting about the scandal, while board member Arianna Huffington was offering suggestions for improving gender issues in the work place, a male board member interrupted her in order to make a sexist joke about how much women talk.
With nearly every major Silicon Valley company run by a cadre of white men, it can be difficult to think of tech without thinking of the techbro. And the world of tech is also home to the some of the most extreme elements in the current culture wars. It has fostered both ordinary free-market libertariansm and fringe elements like “neoreactionaries,” who openly hate democracy and clamor for a return to feudalism and monarchy. Among segments of the online right, Peter Thiel and Elon Musk are revered as swashbuckling, even godlike, ubermensches. In geeky online subcultures, you will find eugenics and transhumanism treated as serious political ideas, Bitcoin treated as a serious currency, and Ayn Rand treated as a serious literary figure. There is a strong overlap between those shaping the tech economy and their younger cousins who view GamerGate as the most serious injustice of our generation, and see feminists and Social Justice Warriors as the greatest threat presently facing humanity.
But Silicon Valley is not shaped purely by male geek culture. It is also a corporate world. As such, the norms of corporate America are just as important to shaping contemporary tech culture as the predilections and prejudices of programmers. And in recent years, corporate America has become “progressive.”
Corporations have long been co-opting radical and countercultural features of the cultural left. Every new form of rebellious aesthetic innovation is swiftly packaged and sold, every 60’s slogan about freedom or being yourself soon winds up on designer goods. The Paradox Of The Mass-Produced Che T-Shirt is a very old cliché by now. Still, one can remark at the sheer speed with which ideas, trends and terminology can move from anarchist bookshop obscurity to academic respectability to dominating the language at major monopolistic global corporations.
In particular, the language of “intersectionality” (the theory that different people are oppressed in different ways, and that these differing oppressions compound and intersect differently) has been keenly embraced by elements in the corporate world. Once confined to activist and academic discourse, intersectionality is now being used by some tech companies as a way to publicly demonstrate their liberal credentials. Tech risk assessment and management consultancy Deloitte’s web magazine asked “What if the road to inclusion were really an intersection?” (Even accepting the premise of intersectionality, this question makes no sense.) Deloitte urged its clients that an “intersectional approach that reaches all facets of corporate life is often more fruitful.” Fortune offered similar advice, under the headline “Tech Companies Shouldn’t Treat Race and Gender Separately,” and the originator of the term, Kimberlé Crenshaw, gave an enthusiastically received TED talk on “the urgency of intersectionality.” Corporations have long since absorbed progressive language about diversity and inclusion; the website of missile defense system company Northrop Grumman offers a detailed celebration of racial and gender diversity, with the weapons manufacturer boasting that it observes seven different pride and heritage months, contracts with minority-owned small businesses for drone parts, and hosts an annual Women’s Conference featuring field trips to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial.
One can also hear echoes in the annual diversity report of corporate messaging platform Slack, which releases its employee demographic figures with an apology and promise to do better if the figures fall short (“We are going to keep talking about it. Of course, talk is not enough. We will continue to regularly report on our status so that we can be held accountable.”) This kind of “simultaneously self-flagellating and self-flattering apology” for failures on race and gender issues has become a standard part of progressive “call-out culture” online, with the “promise to do better” becoming a ritualistic public performance.
So, too, the infamous “safe spaces.” Business magazine Inc. explained “How to Create a Safe Space for Your Employees,” while Greg Cunningham, the new Vice President of Global Inclusion & Diversity at U.S. Bank, advised business leaders: “You have to create a safe space… encouraging people to take their masks off… You have to be willing to create an emotional space for people to talk…”
Why would language ostensibly challenging power structures be so easily and enthusiastically adopted by the corporate tech world? Well, some of these ideas, such as safe spaces, may have been closely tied to corporate culture from the beginning. British psychologist Vaughan Bell dates the “safe space” concept back to the early days of corporate leadership training and its philosophy of “therapeutic managerialism,” which itself drew from mid-20th century experimental psychology.
In the late 1940s, according to Bell, psychologist Kurt Lewin developed what we now call “sensitivity training,” a form of group discussion where members share feelings and become aware of their unhelpful comments, implicit biases, and other unintended behaviors that prevented them from being effective leaders or colleagues. Lewin drew on ideas from experimental group psychotherapy that people should challenge each other in an agreed safe environment without judgment or fear.
By the 1960s, the use of sensitivity group training had begun to gain currency in Californian corporate culture. Humanistic therapist Carl Rogers had developed the idea into something called “encounter groups,” which focused on self-actualization but were based on the same “safe space” idea. In practice, the group encounters could often be emotionally testing, as described by a 1971 study on “encounter group casualties” that looked at “an enduring, significant, negative outcome which was caused by their participation in the group.”
Unsurprisingly, given the influence of experimental group psychology on the counterculture, it was after this that the idea of safe spaces was taken up by feminist and gay liberation groups. In this new incarnation of the concept, sexist or homophobic behavior was banned by mutual agreement in certain spaces so that LGBT people could speak openly and freely in an environment free of harsh judgement. Individuals could be called out, based on the understanding that participants would make an honest attempt to recognize it and change. 60s and 70s personal development psychology, such as the Human Potential Movement, is a common ancestor to the language of both feminist activism and business team-building activities. Today, commands to “acknowledge my experience” or to apologize in a way that indicates personal growth found equally in corporate retreats and among online radical liberals.
While western corporate culture embraced diversity —or at least tokenism—decades ago, the tech world in particular has always striven to distinguish itself as a countercultural, progressive alternative to ordinary square business culture. The idea of the “no collar worker” and the adoption of a hippie-tinged culture with sandal-clad CEOs comes from Silicon Valley’s back-to-the land countercultural origins. In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner traced a clear line between Flower Power California and Silicon Valley California, as key figures in the 1960s and 70s became internet entrepreneurs in the 1990s.
In 1995, for example, an article in Time magazine called “We Owe It All To The Hippies” argued that “the counterculture’s scorn for centralized authority provided the philosophical foundations of not only the leaderless Internet but also the entire personal computer revolution.” The author, Stewart Brand, was a former member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters who had published hippie bible The Whole Earth Catalog. Steve Jobs would quote The Whole Earth Catalog in his famous Stanford Commencement Speech, and it was read by all of the key figures of Silicon Valley and the “new economy” of the 90s.
Fred Turner’s analysis of the development of counterculture into cyberculture continues with the computer hobbyists who formed The Homebrew Computer Club and the People’s Computer Company around the Bay Area in the 1970s, based on an ethos of information sharing and peer-to-peer collaboration. Their embrace of heterarchy (non-hierarchical ordering of information) and networked forms of working added an egalitarian and utopian strain to the electronics business as it developed around San Francisco.
In fact, the rise of the reactionary underbelly in Silicon Valley may in part be a response to the enforced egalitarianism of much corporate culture, and new far-right movements in the U.S. have specifically used their corporate diversity initiatives as evidence of the war on straight white men. The cult of the entrepreneur, the brilliant rule-breaker who cares nothing for regulations or political correctness responds to the traditional corporate emphasis on teamwork and serving the collective good of the institution.
Of course, what the right-wing techbros perceive as egalitarian tyranny is nothing of the kind. In the U.S., the hub of corporate inclusivity and teamwork talk, all evidence suggests that gaps between the rich and the poor (and the black and white) are widening. In Europe, tech companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook have concocted massive tax avoidance schemes that worsen the problem. They’re still rich and getting richer. The marauding armies of Social Justice Warriors have not yet conquered the Valley.
Yet however remote the tech industry is from actually being egalitarian, the language of inclusivity and diversity has certainly penetrated all corners. Even Uber offers paeans to equal opportunity on its website, accompanied by a mosaic of gender and ethnically diverse profile images:
“At Uber, we want to create a workplace that is inclusive and reflects the diversity of the cities we serve: where everyone can be their authentic self, and where that authenticity is celebrated as a strength. By creating an environment where people from every background can thrive, we’ll make Uber a better company—not just for our employees but for our customers, too.”
All the while its HR department was spending its time hushing up sexual harassment complaints, and the company was providing scab labor when New York taxi drivers went on strike over Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. It’s boasting about employment diversity applies an elite board room discourse to what is in fact among the most exploitative, casualized, insecure and low paid work around.
The rhetoric of inclusion is a lie, then. Tech companies may love the feel good factor of intersectional feminism and diversity speak, but there are a few things they love more, such as tax avoidance and monopoly capitalism. In response to its scandals, Uber is certainly going to redouble efforts to present itself as diverse and progressive. But it’s certainly going to keep treating its underpaid contract workers like serfs, and contributing to the hellish exploitation of the “gig economy.” As Evgeny Morozov has argued, Uber’s high-growth, loss-making model strongly suggests that it will be following the “delay profits until you get a monopoly” strategy, a “monopoly” in this case meaning the destruction or privatization of public transit infrastructure.
“Safe space” language is a perfect fit for tech companies. What is Silicon Valley, after all, but a gigantic safe space? Safe for the profiteers of our viciously unequal economy, with everyone else kept safely locked outside the gates of its leafy corporate campuses. As their globalized tech-feudalist dream becomes ever more real, tech entrepreneurs will have no trouble staying safe; Trump-supporting PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel has championed man-made islands and realtors are now marketing luxury underground bunkers to the ultra-rich. But a space that’s safe for this progressive oligarchy looks increasingly unsafe for the rest of us.
Read more of Angela Nagle’s writing in The Current Affairs Mindset, our new paperback essay collection, available now.