Friday, 17 June 2016

Silicon Valley Values @ Radio 4's Analysis

Adam Curtis has produced several amazing documentary series around the theme of "power and how it works in society":
Adam Curtis - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
An Interview With Adam Curtis - The Wire

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts

Episode 2 of 3 
Mon 30 May 2011

A series of films exploring the idea that we have been colonised by the machines we have built. Although we don't realise it, the way we see everything in the world today is through the eyes of the computers.

This is the story of how our modern scientific idea of nature, the self-regulating ecosystem, is actually a machine fantasy. It has little to do with the real complexity of nature. It is based on cybernetic ideas that were projected on to nature in the 1950s by ambitious scientists. A static machine theory of order that sees humans, and everything else on the planet, as components - cogs - in a system.

But in an age disillusioned with politics, the self-regulating ecosystem has become the model for utopian ideas of human 'self-organizing networks' - dreams of new ways of organising societies without leaders, as in the Facebook and Twitter revolutions, and in global visions of connectivity like the Gaia theory.

This powerful idea emerged out of the hippie communes in America in the 1960s, and from counterculture computer scientists who believed that global webs of computers could liberate the world.

But, at the very moment this was happening, the science of ecology discovered that the theory of the self-regulating ecosystem wasn't true. Instead they found that nature was really dynamic and constantly changing in unpredictable ways. But the dream of the self-organizing network had by now captured our imaginations - because it offered an alternative to the dangerous and discredited ideas of politics.

BBC Two - All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts
All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (TV series) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace 2/3 - The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts (2011) - Video Dailymotion

This blog has considered the ideologies around technological promise:
Futures Forum: The future of work: "Capitalism will abolish laundry day" >>> or: "Fully Automated Luxury Communism"
Futures Forum: Universal basic incomes >>> "Arguments for a state stipend payable to all citizens are being heard more widely"

And in particular the ideologies in and around Silicon Valley:
Futures Forum: The promises of information technology >>> or, spinning fables of info-liberation
Futures Forum: The promises of technological innovation >>> "The rise of the techno-libertarians: the five most socially-destructive aspects of Silicon Valley"

And as such, the clash of ideologies is very much in the news:
Mercury News editorial: Trump and Silicon Valley values - San Jose Mercury News

Radio 4's Analysis has been looking at the issues:

Silicon Valley Values

David Baker explores the identity and values of Silicon Valley - and what they mean for the rest of us. He talks to entrepreneurs, investors, academics and activists about how those values are permeating the world and what to do when they clash with other priorities down on the ground.

BBC Radio 4 - Analysis, Silicon Valley Values

David Baker considers now this 'new industrial revolution' is putting its faith in the power of technology to solve problems:
Futures Forum: The promises of technological innovation >>> "The Fourth Industrial Revolution" and the future of work
You might think that technology is the solution to poverty – but here’s why you’re wrong | Voices | The Independent

The centre of thinking is Y-Combinator, 'the Harvard of Silicon Valley':

Y Combinator created a new model for funding early stage startups.
Twice a year we invest a small amount of money ($120k) in a large number of startups (most recently 107).
The startups move to Silicon Valley for 3 months, during which we work intensively with them to get the company into the best possible shape and refine their pitch to investors. Each cycle culminates in Demo Day, when the startups present their companies to a carefully selected, invite-only audience.
But YC doesn’t end on Demo Day. We and the YC alumni network continue to help founders for the life of their company, and beyond.

Y Combinator
Y Combinator: The Harvard Of Silicon Valley
How “Silicon Valley” Nails Silicon Valley - The New Yorker

David Baker interviews its Chief Operating Officer - who believes in 'business over regulation', 'individuals over states' and the 'power of technology':
Y Combinator's new COO - Fortune

... and Louis Rossetto, founder of nerd mag Wired (who interviewed Adam Curtis - see link above):

Wired's Louis Rossetto on the Death of the Mega-State and the Digital Revolution - YouTube

... and Mike Schroepfer, Chief of Technology at Facebook - whose mission is to 'make the world more connected':
Facebook CTO: VR will ‘erase geographic boundaries’ » Digital TV Europe
Facebook is building artificial intelligence to understand everything you post - Recode

In Silicon Valley, 'government' is not a pretty word, with the founder of PayPal, Peter Teal, stating that 'government is evil'. He is not afraid of courting controversy:
The only living Trump supporter in Silicon Valley | John Naughton | Opinion | The Guardian
PayPal Co-Founder Peter Thiel to Address White Nationalist-Friendly “Property and Freedom Society” Conference in September | Southern Poverty Law Center

Although other commentators would highlight Teal actually being different from the rest of Silicon Valley's rich and famous:

Google, Facebook, Reddit are run by a bunch of ‘left-wing guys’

Even as companies like Facebook and Google deny any institutional political bias, conservatives like Less Government’s Seton Motley say that Silicon Valley’s liberal titans apparently can’t help themselves.
“These are left-wing guys,” said Mr. Motley, a longtime Silicon Valley critic. “There are very few non-left-wingers in Silicon Valley. [PayPal co-founder] Peter Thiel is one of the few exceptions. You’ve got to be aware.”

Google, Facebook, Reddit are run by a bunch of 'left-wing guys' - Washington Times

Thiel has started an experiment in 'floating islands' - a 'startup sector' and 'marketplace' for governments:

The Seasteading Institute | Opening humanity's next frontier

Which is in turn both inspiring and controversial:
The World’s Next Major Cities Could Be Floating on Water | Architectural Digest
Libertarian Island: A billionaire's utopia
Welcome to 'Libertarian Island': Inside the Frightening Economic Dreams of Silicon Valley's Super Rich | Alternet
Peter Thiel’s Dream of a Lawless Utopia Floats On

Inspiring and controversial even for this part of the world:
Futures Forum: Special development zones for East Devon...?

The Analysis programme then enters the realm of the sharing economy, when David Baker looks at 'on-demand platforms' such as Airbnb and Uber:
As On-Demand Economy Grows, Professor Sees New Kind of Capitalism Emerging

Are these about creating 'micro-entrepreneurs' with personal control over their livelihoods?
Sharing economy to create a nation of 'microentrepreneurs' - Telegraph
Britain's Micro Entrepreneurs Embrace The Sharing Economy - Forbes

Or are they about creating jobs with no benefits, about offloading risks?
The People’s Uber: Why The Sharing Economy Must Share Ownership | Co.Exist | ideas + impact
Stop calling it the “Sharing Economy.” That isn’t what it is. | Olivier Blanchard

Some would consider the likes of Airbnb as parasitic - especially those living in Barcelonetta
Barcelona mayor's tourism crackdown puts Airbnb in firing line | Reuters
Futures Forum: Airbnb: tourists, local residents and the sharing economy

Analysis then finishes with an interview with Fred Turner of Stanford University, in the heart of Silicon Valley, who is very critical of the whole ethos that is Silicon Valley - echoing much of what Adam Curtis has considered in his documentaries:

The dark side of the Californian dream

Fred Turner March 26, 2015

Before I boarded a plane to Paris last December, one of my American colleagues took me aside: “French audiences are very critical,” he warned me. “Polite, butvery critical.” Thus, I was not surprised when I finished my lecture at EHESS and watched what had appeared to be an easygoing and attentive audience rise up to take sharp, concerted aim at my pessimistic account of the history and future of American technoculture.

What did surprise me were their hopes. As the questions tumbled out, they revealed a shared dismay with the state of France today. Questioners pointed to the rise of the National Front; to high rates of unemployment; to the persistence of racism and xenophobia. Surely, they suggested, the entrepreneurial individualism of California hacker culture could help dig them out of this mess. Silicon Valley and San Francisco – weren’t they geographically entwined examples of how egalitarian culture and economic growth might nourish one another?

As Monique Dagnaud so politely and critically pointed out in her recent article for Telos, my audience and I were staring at each other across a chasm of missing information. Through my admittedly rosy glasses, France looked like a bastion of high culture, exquisite cuisine, ethnic diversity and, as the second largest economy in Europe and the fifth in the world, economic strength. But I had spent no more time in Paris than many in my audience had spent in California’s Silicon Valley. And so my pessimism remained as much a mystery to them as theirs did to me.

Here then, I would like to say a little bit about where my pessimism comes from.

I’ve lived in Mountain View, California, for twelve years – just a few miles up the road from the headquarters of Google and a few miles south of Stanford University, where I teach. Much as a Parisian living in the Fifth Arrondissement might see both the charms of its medieval byways and the challenges of its cramped apartments and congested traffic, I can walk out my door and see the wealth that the Valley’s culture of innovation has created and at the same time, the challenges that wealth presents.

Like America itself, Silicon Valley is a radically unequal place. According to a 2013 report by the nonprofit research group Insight Center for Economic Development, more than one in five families in the region earn less than $35,000 a year. The Center estimates that a family of four would need more than twice that amount – $74,000 – a year to cover basic housing, food, transportation and childcare. A few months ago, police descended on a 68-acre warren of tents in San Jose, near the southern end of the Valley, and cleared out the approximately 300 residents of “The Jungle,” the largest homeless encampment in the United States. Bear in mind that this took place in a small valley that according to Forbes magazine, houses 34 billionaires, as well as the headquarters of Google, Apple, Facebook, Intel, and many other enormously profitable tech firms.

Economic disparities echo racial and gender differences as well. In 2014, the average income of whites in the Valley rose more than five percent, while the average income of Hispanics and African Americans actually fell two and five per cent respectively. Men with a degree from a four-year college earned between 40% and 73% more than women with the same credentials, across all races. And the cooks, the gardeners and the housecleaners who keep the Valley’s computer engineers comfortable? Most earned the minimum wage: $10 an hour.

According to the mythology of hacker culture, the universal availability of computers should have made it possible for most anyone with enough chutzpah to form a start up and work their way to wealth. Just look at Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg, say the pundits. And even if not everyone could catch the brass ring, well, said the optimists, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” We simply needed to free the creativity of individual entrepreneurs, cut the marketplace loose from the fetters of state regulation, and, thanks to the magic of American individualism and American technology, we would do what politics and government have manifestly failed to do: build a radically more equal society.

So far as I could tell, many in my mid-winter audience at EHESS had begun to hope that technology and entrepreneurship might in fact be able do what the state could not. Thus, they were baffled, even angered, by my call to turn away from technology and to return to politics. They were even more confused by my references to the hazy days of May ’68. What did marching in the street fifty years ago have to do with reducing inequality today?

The answer, at least here in California, is everything. In Silicon Valley, today’s libertarian calls to turn away from the government and toward technology and entrepreneurship as modes of social change have deep historical roots in an earlier turn. In the 1960s, America saw the rise of two distinct countercultural movements: the New Left and the New Communalists. As it did in France, the New Left here sought to change politics by doing politics. It formed parties, issued manifestos, and marched against the Vietnam War. For the New Communalists however, politics itself was the problem. Between 1965 and 1972, tens of thousands of young, mostly white Americans headed out into the rural wilds and built communes. There they aimed to do away with bureaucracy, with law, with government as such. They aimed to replace them with “consciousness” – a shared state of mind that would enable citizens to pursue the collective good without formal debate. And how would they achieve this mindset? Through the use of then-mind-altering technologies, such as rock-and-roll amplifiers and LSD.

Though it may be hard for a visitor to see at first, the ideology of the New Communalists permeates Silicon Valley today. How it got here is a long story, which I’ve told in my book Aux sources de l'utopie numérique: De la contre-culture à la cyberculture (C&F Editions, 2013), but suffice to say that the hope that digital technologies will create a shared consciousness that will free us of the need for formal government persists. As does the deep distrust of politics. More than a few Valley executives would agree with the co-founder of PayPal and venture capitalist Peter Thiel when he told the attendees at the 2010 Libertopia conference that “The task in this world where politics has become so broken and so dysfunctional is to find a way to escape from it.” Technology, for Thiel at least, “is this incredible alternative to politics.” Louis Rossetto, founder of Wired magazine, put it this way: “I think politics are a mistake… If you want to make a better world, forget about electing Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton or any of these politicians. Go out and do it yourself, directly. You can make a better world in the areas you have influence in, in the real world that you live in.”

Rossetto’s logic is enormously seductive. In the frustrations of my French audience at EHESS, I could feel its magnetic pull. If the structural problems of inequality, racism, immigration and unemployment seem beyond our control, well, why not simply change what we can, here and now? And why not use our cell phones and lap tops to do it?

My answer: because Silicon Valley itself shows us it won’t work. I need only walk around my neighborhood to see how the start-up culture we are now exporting has done nothing to ease the racial and economic divides that plague this region and the nation as a whole.

All of which, I suppose, makes me feel a bit like a Parisian who has been lectured by a visiting American on the wonder that is France.


Tobie said...

Hi Jeremy, just checking in after meeting members of SVEAG sometime ago, and came across your interesting post. Any recent news on this group?

Jeremy Woodward said...

Thanks, Tobie,
Very much appreciate the feedback.
Re SidEnergy/SVEAG: following on from last week's AGM
I'm hoping to get the minutes, which will give us the latest.
Will let you know when I know.

Jeremy Woodward said...

Hello again, Tobie,
Just heard from SidEnergy - which will become SVEAG, or its older self, within the Vision Group - which will keep community energy alive although not as a community company.
Here's the posting on the blog: http://futuresforumvgs.blogspot.co.uk/2016/06/sidenergy-is-wound-up-as-community.html
Thanks again for your interest.