Current Affairs

The Shallowness of What Tech Calls Thinking

The smartest people on Earth have a surprising lack of curiosity.

One of the most memorable, and obnoxious, characters on HBO’s comedy series Silicon Valley was tech billionaire Russ Hanneman (played by Christopher Diamantopoulos). During one episode his son wants to stay up late, but a robotic female voice commands him to go back to bed.

“I’m sorry, buddy,” Hanneman says. “It’s not up to me.”

After his son leaves, Hanneman explains to his confused guests the voice belongs to “The Lady,” a system that takes care of all the unpleasant parts of parenting, “so I can be his friend and she’s the bad guy.” He proudly concludes, “I’ve disrupted fatherhood.”

Outsourcing one’s parental duties to “The Lady” might sound absurd, but it’s sadly reasonable compared to what goes on in the real world Silicon Valley. Consider the case of Elizabeth Holmes, who made a fortune through her company Theranos and the Edison machine, which was going to revolutionize healthcare. She garnered the support of some of the most powerful people in the world and appeared on the covers of Forbes, Fortune, the New York Times, Inc. and other high profile outlets. Unfortunately, the Edison didn’t work. In fact, it had never worked the way Holmes claimed it would. All the frenzy around the Edison was based on something that didn’t exist.

If you think Holmes’ story is purely an example of capitalism rewarding narcissism, greed, and group insanity, you’d be making a mistake. That’s certainly part of it, but it’s dangerous to ignore the intellectual underpinnings that drive tech corporations like Facebook, Google, or Theranos. Doing so prevents us from understanding the poisonous ways tech thinks and how it has transformed our own ways of thinking, setting us up to be duped by the next Holmes.

That is why a book like Adrian Daub’s What Tech Calls Thinking is so important, particularly at a moment when tech workers are beginning to exercise their collective power. The book is divided into seven sections that explore, scrutinize, and historicize concepts central to Silicon Valley’s self-mythologizing and its influence on public discourse. In doing so, Daub, a professor at Stanford University and director of Stanford’s Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, reveals the ways of thinking that inform tech industry decisions—and provides workers a foundation for applying class analysis to tech more broadly. Three of these concepts include: disruption, genius, and communication. 

How Tech Views ‘Disruption’

It isn’t hard to find examples of the tech industry trying to cause disruption, regardless of the human cost. A recent NPR story describes how Andrei Doroshin, a 22-year old graduate student with no background in healthcare, has thrown Philadelphia’s effort to vaccinate its people into complete disarray. Doroshin’s company, Philly Fighting Covid, was ostensibly meant to provide a health service. Yet he bragged that his company “didn’t think like a traditional medical institution,” told employees to “[stop] using best practices” and “made it clear he wasn’t that concerned about standard clinical protocols.” When Doroshin was challenged, “[employees] with more clinical experience than him said he brushed off technical questions as bothersome and approached the vaccination effort as if he were a tech mogul focused on disrupting norms.” If nothing else, Doroshin did disrupt things. 

Doroshin is responsible for endangering the lives of Philadelphians, but so is the city government which allowed the situation to reach this point. How could they be so irresponsible as to put their faith in a graduate student who wanted to disrupt healthcare during a pandemic? Daub offers a number of reasons. 

First, “disruption resonates well with our experience of capitalism.” This connection was noted centuries ago by Marx, who observed in The Communist Manifesto that capitalism depends on an endlessly accelerating cycle of disruption. Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter noted it again in his 1942 work, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, though he labeled the process “creative destruction.” This phrase hints at how the damage done by Silicon Valley can be rationalized as not only a necessary component of capitalism, but a creative one that is ultimately for the best. Sure, Uber might be destroying the taxi industry, but advocates can claim the company is creating something better in its place. Daub writes that Uber is undeniably better in the eyes of investors, but only because “their drivers are independent contractors who have no bargaining power, no benefits, and very few legal protections.” Resisting change is framed by the tech industry as futile and irrational, while the ethos of “move fast and break things” that originated with Facebook, “goes well beyond a surrender to the inevitability of acceleration, instead making acceleration an ethical imperative.”

Devaluing workers, of course, isn’t limited to Uber and Lyft. A lawsuit brought against Yelp by Yelp Elite Squad reviewers demonstrates how even the most proficient workers are viewed as expendable by the overlords of the platforms. These reviewers had provided an enormous amount of content—the kind Yelp literally needs to function (not to mention justify its own existence). Yet the reviewers’ argument that they were employees was “dismissed, amid much jeering from the tech press, which called them ‘frivolous’ and ‘laughable.’” 

You might not think that people who choose to review products or places on Yelp deserve to be treated as employees. But this mental framework is part of the larger project by which tech has made us question what constitutes valuable labor, all while corporations claim they are “empowering workers as independent contractors” or some other euphemism for free or undercompensated labor. The less we value such work, the easier it becomes to chip away at worker rights. California’s recently passed Prop 22 is a prime example. This initiative sought to create a new legal category for gig workers. Companies like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash framed it as a way of ensuring gig workers have more rights and flexibility than traditional employees. Now that Prop 22 has passed, they have fewer rights than ever. It’s also crucial to keep in mind that gig companies have made no secret about their intention of passing similar legislation elsewhere. This would not only hurt more workers, but shift the public discourse even further toward their way of thinking.

Even the idea of what a tech worker is has been disrupted by an industry bent on subdividing employees into ever smaller categories while blurring the lines between them. After all, while a programmer might undeniably be a tech worker, what about warehouse workers who sort and ship tech gadgets all day, or the countless service sector employees who work in Silicon Valley? And on closer inspection, the term “programmer” itself proves more nebulous than you might imagine.

How Tech Views ‘Genius’ 

Daub is just as thorough in his dissection of how the concept of genius has been abused by tech. He begins by tracing the lasting impact of Ayn Rand’s brutal philosophy of Objectivism. One result is that “thought leaders” like Elon Musk are able to market themselves as romantic visionaries (it’s worth noting Doroshin described his plans to vaccinate Philadelphia as “a wholly Elon Musk, shooting-for-the-heavens type of thing”). Journalists laud Musk—comparing him to figures like Isaac Newton—for wanting to put people on Mars while overlooking the fact that he is not at all motivated by the desire to advance humanity as a species. It’s a blatant capitalist project, going so far as to leave the door open for interplanetary indentured servitude.

The idea that the ignorant masses should step aside and let the übermensch handle things runs deep in Silicon Valley. Such sentiments are even, Daub points out, espoused in seemingly innocent films like The Incredibles. In that film, the father’s complaint that, “They keep finding new ways to celebrate mediocrity,” is a prime example of elite distaste for those viewed as untalented. Like Daub, film critics such as A.O. Scott noticed Rand’s influence on the kid-oriented film, while the Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman went so far as to describe it as “positively Nietszchean” in its contempt for “resentful inferiors.”  

This aura of genius also allows Musk to get away with vile behavior that jeopardizes the safety of workers. At the height of the pandemic’s first wave last May, he was allowed to keep his Fremont, California factory open while others were compelled to comply with the lockdown without any consequences. Nor did he face consequences for baselessly calling explorer Vernon Unsworth, who helped save Thai schoolboys trapped in a cave, a pedophile. After a court rejected Unsworth’s defamation claim, Musk triumphantly said, “My faith in humanity is restored,”—a relief, to be sure, to us ignorant plebes.

How Tech Views ‘Communication’

Communication is a prominent example of tech’s mixed impact on society. It’s undeniably faster and more convenient—but it has also become more and more difficult thanks, ironically, to the ease of sharing on social media. And while some might believe sites like Twitter would be fine if we could just remove the trolls—both those with official government positions and those who do it for the lulz— bad actors thrive on social media precisely because they know what kind of communication the medium facilitates. As Daub argues, these platforms “live by engagement, and that means by exchange: not of information but of triggers. The troll plays the instrument the way it’s meant to be played. And the instrument’s creator is forced to pretend that the opposite is true.” Some platforms like YouTube don’t even need trolls. Work by Becca Lewis of Stanford University has shown YouTube’s algorithms play a decisive role in pushing people toward hate groups and conspiracy theories. However, as long as the total number of users keeps going up each year, the tech industry views this as an acceptable (perhaps inevitable) price to pay.

Beyond the corrosive effects of any single way tech thinks about individuals or society, arguably the biggest problem is that its power has gone unchallenged for so long. When Mark Zuckerberg appeared before a House committee in 2018, CNN published a story titled, “Mark Zuckerberg’s growing up moment.” Zuckerberg was in his 30s, but the headline points to how much movies like The Social Network have defined him in the popular consciousness as a hoodie-wearing antihero—a first impression that has proven hard to break. Once anointed by the mainstream media, tech geniuses understand they can get away with almost anything—with Steve Jobs being a notable forerunner to today’s Zuckerbergs and Musks. Even years after his death, Jobs’ persona continues to overshadow the man himself. For instance, in 2017 Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson said that no man resembled Leonardo da Vinci in our times more than Jobs. Just how creepy this fetishization of Apple’s founder can get is exemplified by a Forbes article published five days after Jobs’ death in 2011. The author, Gene Marks, absolutely loved that Jobs was a wretched human being in his personal and professional life. The hero worship escalated until he sincerely praised “Apple’s fascist tendencies,” like when private security agents threatened a man with deportation because of a missing prototype. “Wow,” Marks wrote, “the Apple Gestapo. I love that, too.” 

10 years later we’re (somewhat) beyond that kind of naivety—there’s less clamoring for the iGestapo, at least. The media may largely continue to go along with tech’s image of itself, but workers aren’t buying it. Unions are being formed all over Silicon Valley, while the Tech Worker Collective Bill of Rights shows an awareness that the term “tech worker” applies to far more than programmers. They identify themselves as “the creative, technology, academic, and office workers… warehouse workers… customer service representatives… [and] part time, gig and contract workers.” This kind of class consciousness is vital to advancing worker interests and a new way of thinking about tech.

Where that new kind of thinking might lead us is anybody’s guess. It’s also impossible to know who will win out in the end. The pandemic has allowed tech companies to amass even more ludicrous levels of wealth and power as their products become vital to every aspect of our lives. Working families have been forced to rely on tech for everything from making sure our kids continue to get an education to something as (once) simple as grocery shopping. Just seeing loved ones wouldn’t be possible for most of us were it not for programs like Zoom. 

On the other hand, tech workers have shown incredible resilience. Like Google employees, Amazon workers in Alabama have been fighting against another ubiquitous corporation with seemingly endless resources. Now they are on the verge of forming a union. And in the video game industry workers are also fighting back against exploitative practices like the sadistic schedules during “crunch-times.” A few years ago this would have been unthinkable.

But long-term success will require not just the continued tenacity of workers. It will also require everyone to better understand tech’s ideological underpinnings, so that we can understand how tech seeks to manipulate and entrap us. What Tech Calls Thinking is a good place to start.

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