Post-election tech guilt

The un-conference that I attended in San Francisco is over. I found it very stimulating. I am grateful to have been able attend. The format, which was very light on presentations and much heavier on discussions and informal conversation, was congenial to me.

This was my first opportunity to encounter the San Francisco tech scene. Many attendees displayed a combination of high energy and impressive intelligence. I found myself feeling captivated by their spirit and creativity. But this is also a time of collective self-doubt there, like a cloud hanging over.

Some thoughts:

1. One might roughly divide the attendees into capitalists and anti-capitalists. The capitalists are entrepreneurs and VC’s. The anti-capitalists are tech journalists, leaders of non-profits working in the tech field, or leftist heterodox economists. Of course, this is over-generalizing. For example, some in the non-profit sector fell into what I am calling the capitalist camp. But bear with me.

2. The anti-capitalists want the capitalists to feel badly about: (a) the wealth and power of Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon; (b) the election of Donald Trump. The capitalists seemed ready to feel guilty about (b) but were not ready to join an assault on (a).

3. Some of the capitalists wanted to want to deal with their disappointment about the election by trying to connect with disaffected Americans in the heartland. They spoke with pride of taking Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to meet with people in the Midwest. They discussed ideas like having Stanford set up satellite campuses there or promoting economic development there.

4. The anti-capitalists were the ones who wanted to re-write the economic rules. Possibilities included breaking up the tech giants or nationalizing them or organizing the tech work force to make demands on them. The idea of government regulation did not come up so much, but perhaps that is because the anti-capitalists cannot picture themselves having infuence with Mr. Trump and a Republican Congress. I found the self-assured certainty of the anti-capitalists frightening. At one small breakout session that included a lot of what I am calling the anti-capitalist thinking, I introduced the expression “fantasy despot.” That term comes from Kenneth Minogue, but when I search for fantasy despot syndrome, I mostly come up with my own previous writing. I tried to explain that the desire to control the tech companies could be seen as a desire to take on the role of a despot. I doubt that I expressed this clearly, and the discussion passed over what I had to say. But my sense of the group dynamics reinforced my thinking. I had visions of a leader emerging reminiscent of Lenin.

5. I could not help but think that the dynamics of the conference would have been completely different had the the election swung the other way. If Ms. Clinton were in office, I think that the anti-capitalists would have been much less central. The anti-capitalists were given some pushback, but I think that with a different election result they would have been met with something close to dismissal.

6. As it is, I still would not bet on the anti-capitalists getting very far. But if they do, it could be as a consequence of the chance result of the election. And I, for one (and at this conference I did feel like the only one) do not buy the narrative that fake news and social media ads accounted for the election outcome. Perhaps the SF tech crowd over-estimates the extent that the world revolves around them. Or perhaps I am making the opposite mistake.

7. If the anti-capitalists do get some traction, my guess is that it will come from influencing the tech work force. I could see the social justice causes eating away at the entrepreneurial drive and eroding the elan of the tech bros. I can imagine this having a devastating effect on the famous Silicon Valley ecosystem. I estimate the probability of this as low. It depends on the extent to which tech grads coming out of college these days are susceptible to the leftist politics on campuses, and I have no basis for gauging that. Have a nice day.

8. For all of my concern with the anti-capitalists, I do take the view that the Internet did not turn out the way that many of us hoped for twenty years ago. See my previous posts Thoughts on Internet Censorship and Did the suits win the Internet?. For a deeper discussion, see Professor Fred Turner’s 15-minute video (he has a book on the topic as well). There was a breakout session on this topic, and it was enjoyable, but we spent a lot of time discussing the incorrect assumptions that we made twenty years ago and much less time coming up with possible explanations for how things turned out as they did.

9. I am rooting for the Internet giants to be disrupted, but by market forces, not by self-appointed activist reformers. Even if the market fails to disrupt the giants, I would rather live with them than see the anti-capitalists in charge.

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14 Responses to Post-election tech guilt

  1. Robert Sterbal says:

    You might enjoy listening to this podcast:

    Scott Galloway Discusses Four World-Conquering Companies from Masters in Business in Podcasts.

  2. Matthew Young says:

    Two unrelated subjects, digital and politics. Somewhere the political types got delusional about digital, but that too shall pass.

  3. Max says:

    Thought provoking and fear inducing at the same time. It seems that we can still not mount a moral defense of capitalism against the people defending the horrors of the last century.

    Regarding your last point, my 2 cts are that the first disruption will be a financial one. At least a few of the tech giants (FB & Alphabet) are built around advertising and while both tried to branch out into hardware, they dont understand supply chains yet (just see the Pixel desaster).
    The third key player amazon still is massively over-valued. They have a good back-bone in online retailing, but they are the limit of growth at least in Europe.
    They have hit the ceiling here regarding transportation infrastructure, logistics centers with cheap labour & truck driver availability.

    It will be interesting to see what will happen once the central banks decided that popular opinion doesnt allow to decimate private savings anymore.

    • Tom G says:

      we can still not mount a moral defense of capitalism

      This is the huge, Huge, HUGE failure of free market capitalists, conservatives, and libertarians. Ayn Rand does NOT cut it, altho she at least tried and understood how important it is.

      “Free to Choose” is the closest, but remains less discussed than the Commie Manifesto, in practice and in other words by the SJ Despots. And I think “warrior” is too good a word for Che, Castro, Pol Pot, Chavez, and so many other socialists who want despotic power to get the “Social Justice” they claim to want.

      Social Justice Despots — treating those who disagree with them the way Despots always treat those who disagree.

      Judging the SJDs on how they treat those who disagree. It’s important to look at the metric on judging them, too.

      • asdf says:

        They did mount an OK defense of capitalism, most whites and NE Asians accept capitalist principals in general even if they make accommodation with the welfare state. The direction since the 1970s is clear.

        But they left open huge avenues of attack in the areas of culture and immigration. There was a massive lack of understanding of political economy. Fundamentally it was believed that culture and economics could be disentangled. That you could be pro-degerency, pro-open borders, pro-social justice cause of the day and none of it would come back and bite you in the economics. This was terribly mistaken, and it may be too late to fix.

      • lliamander says:

        In terms of appealing to base-level, precognitive moral instincts, it’s hard to beat Ayn Rand’s imagery of Producers vs. Parasites. If anything, it was her equivalence of socialism and religion that blunted her effectiveness by cutting off potential allies.

  4. jdgalt says:

    Anyone who believes there is “fake news” and it’s on Trump’s side needs to read The Big Lie by Dinesh d’Souza.

  5. Lord says:

    There was plenty of fake news, and although it mostly amounted to in group signaling like birtherism, it likely did help Trump at the margin in motivating and demotivating voters. I should know as I had to respond to an unrelenting stream of such tripe. Seeing the racist vote and appealing to it was likely more important. Wanting change was likely most important as the presidency is rarely ever held by the same party for more than two terms since term limitation.

  6. Handle says:

    I am disturbed by the prospect of the capitalists and anti-capitalists coming to what is now a familiar kind of “deal”. Some of the conversational exploratory maneuvers may have been probing in a plausibly-deniable way (perhaps subconsciously) for whether a subtle kind of extortionate shakedown would be feasible and mutually acceptable.

    That is, the capitalists will try to purchase respectability and pay off potential critics that could create real trouble for their businesses by buying ‘indulgences’ in the form of funding donations for certain prominent anti-capitalists, conspicuously and prominently towing the party line in public on the most important ideological commitments, and hiring the right number of the right people for cushy sinecures. If they show they are reliable allies instead of potential threats or rivals, and put enough money where their mouths are, and use their platforms, technological savvy, and expertise to help progressives win elections (e.g. Eric Schmidt wearing his “Staff” badge at Clinton campaign HQ), then in exchange, they will be left alone, and maybe even get some special treatment, favorable coverage, and promotion instead of demonization.

    Jesse Jackson, Unions, the Mafia, Community Organizers, and other Alinsky-inspired movements used to do all this to certain economic sectors in a much cruder and more explicit and aggressive manner. But these things have gone upscale, and evolved in a much more subtle and sophisticated direction. One doesn’t have to be faster than the bear to avoid being eaten, only faster than the slowest guy. But that still sets off a rat race to try and get faster, so now companies and “new classes” must climb over each other to signal how progressive they are. Or else.

    Regarding various Midwest outreach efforts, well, those are easy to criticize, but frankly I’m not sure whether to take them seriously, because I’m not sure they are meant to be taken seriously.

    The dynamics would have been a lot different if Clinton had won. But that only means the “deal” process described above would have been more formally captured and coordinated by the Democratic party and the Clinton machine. The journalists have real power and can make your life hell by ruining your reputation and enraging the mobs against you. But the President can deploy government lawyers who will make that look like nothing.

    When a tech company gets big, rich, famous, and mature enough, they are going to have their own woke employees join everybody else in calling for the company to be ever more woke, and that’s already happening. But, like elite campuses, those companies are flush enough to afford all kinds of symbolic nonsense that they can keep firewalled away from the real crucial engines of profitable innovation for a long time (though not indefinitely).

    A bigger problem is whether smaller, younger companies will be able to avoid the Eye of Sauron during their critical, formative growth phases and stay focused on the fundamentals without any distractions or ideological deviations from optimal business practices. So far, not only does this seem to be the case, but it even provides certain start-ups with a peculiar advantage and niche, as places that can harness animal spirits and work outside the constraints of the big boys, and where the real risky innovation takes place, which can later be sold to the FANGS with their giant hoards of cash. When even these companies are forced to be more than merely symbolically conformists to ideological requirements from the get-go is when the really bad sand gets into innovation machines.

    As for why things ended up as they did, here is an interesting article from Andre Stalz. I think some of my friends have good explanations for what happened in terms of the incentives driving towards increased control and centralization, and maybe that’s for a later unconference.

    I’d also rather live with the giants than the anti-capitalists in charge, but while that seems like the lesser evil, there is an even worse possibility, which is that, according to the deal I described above, we get both. That is, we get a few monolithic giants in charge, but in everything except doing whatever it takes to protect the foundation of their own dominance and profitability (which are not necessarily all market-friendly tactics), they will ally to give the anti-capitalists everything else they want. Now you can have a nice day.

    • Dain says:

      “…but in everything except doing whatever it takes to protect the foundation of their own dominance and profitability (which are not necessarily all market-friendly tactics), they will ally to give the anti-capitalists everything else they want.”

      This is a great comment as usual but to those who aren’t privy to everything being teased at here, it might be confusing to see how the “anti-capitalists” can maintain that designation if they’re not threatening these companies’ bottom line. But that tag hides a huge culture war element we now refer to as “social justice warrior.” So the “anti-capitalists” are getting what they want only to the degree that the moniker hides their anti-WASPism (or whatever you’d call it to get at the same idea).

      In short, the great truce Handle is describing here is a roughly libertarian one. The right gets what it wants on economics, while the left gets what it wants on culture.

      • Handle says:

        In short, the great truce Handle is describing here is a roughly libertarian one.

        Nope; it won’t look libertarian at all.

      • Tom G says:

        Maybe “crony culture libertarianism”?

        Further from Libertarianism than is crony capitalism from free market capitalism.

      • asdf says:

        Imagine for example Airbnb. What’s their greatest threat…new Airbnbs. If your MySpace you don’t want Facebook coming along and messing with you. How do they stop that?

        Well, one big stink in that industry is that renters don’t want to rent to black people. Well, not entirely, but if a particular black person seems likely to mistreat their property they won’t rent to them, and it shows up in the statistics as some kind of disparate impact. That people want to protect their private homes is of course *worse then Hitler*, so obviously “something must be done about it.”

        Now Airbnb is a big enough and established enough player that it can probably implement a bunch of onerous diversity and bigotry prevention standards. Hell, it will probably lobby to help write them. Smaller start ups won’t be able to handle all that expense and complexity and will be shut out.

        Now apply this idea to literally any economic sector. There isn’t a single one that you won’t be able to find some “disparate impact” if you go looking hard enough.

        Imagine a world in which tech companies, instead of being instruments of disruption, become involved in an incestous relationship with SJWs to push their political and cultural agendas on social media (thus ensuring a more leftist world) in exchange for special exemptions (we let your workforce be all white and Asian) and the right to accuse competitors of not being woke enough and force onerous enough requirements on potential competitors that they become a protected oligopoly.

  7. Tom G says:

    Yes, Arnold, fantasy despot. I suggest (in reply above):

    Social Justice Despot.

    This could catch on.

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