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.
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.