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Big Tech’s Big Ideas

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books and culture

Big Tech’s Big Ideas

A new book argues that Silicon Valley was built on sand. November 20, 2020
Technology and Innovation

What Tech Calls Thinking: An Inquiry Into the Intellectual Bedrock of Silicon Valley, by Adrian Daub (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 160 pp., $9.99)

Apple headquarters is located five blocks down from the front door of the high school Steve Jobs attended as a teenager. Its $5 billion, donut-shaped flagship is home to a company that today is worth more than $2 trillion, arguably the most successful American company ever. It all started in a garage at 2066 Crist Drive, an eight-minute drive from CEO Tim Cook’s office. A story like this will not happen again in this place. Silicon Valley—its ethos, its creative fires, its ideas—lives on only in the surviving four or five mega-corporations that have come to dominate the headlines and the stock market. All the rest of it—the garages, the coffee shop pitches, the “change the world” missionary zeal—has guttered out.

But what a run the region had. At the end of the 1980s, the famed venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins looked back and said that we had just witnessed “the largest legal creation of wealth on the planet.” The media rebuked him for his hubris, and he quickly apologized, but the wealth generated by tech companies in the 2010s makes the 1980s look tame. As 2020 comes to a close, tech companies account for nearly 40 percent of the S&P 500.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to think of a more vilified industry today than tech. Facebook, Twitter, and the other remaining giants have attracted antitrust scrutiny from Congress and, with Google, a lawsuit from the Justice Department. A slew of new books and documentaries heap scorn on these companies’ privacy rules and custodianship of user data. These former darlings of the world draw ire from all quarters and are losing allies fast. Republicans and Democrats alike are united in condemning tech (albeit sometimes for different reasons), whether for its role in spreading misinformation, undermining political discourse, polarizing Americans, or censoring conservative viewpoints.

Adrian Daub, a professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford, believes this turbulence springs from the thin and unstable “intellectual bedrock” of the tech industry. His new book, What Tech Calls Thinking, excavates the flimsy old ideas Silicon Valley presents as intelligent and profound. According to Daub, concealing or forgetting the origins of weak ideas has allowed the leaders of tech companies to get away with far more than their peers in other sectors of the economy. Tech’s bogus philosophy has diverted the public’s attention from the socially undesirable effects of its massive private successes.

“The tech industry ideas portrayed in this book are not wrong, but they allow the rich and powerful to make distinctions without difference, and elide differences that are politically important to recognize,” Daub writes. One example is the way ride-sharing companies have characterized their drivers as contractors and not as employees; another is the question of whether social media platforms are merely distributors of content or publishers legally liable for that content, too. Daub believes that how tech companies come down on these questions depends on more than just profit maximization. “When the companies of Silicon Valley reconfigure your ideals, it’s not just in order to sustain their business model. It’s also to avoid cognitive dissonance in their thinking about gender, race, class, history, and capitalism.”

Across seven chapters, Daub gives readers a critical tour of the origins of concepts like creative destruction, failure porn, and the cult of genius. He cites Marshall McLuhan telling us the platform has priority over content, Ayn Rand urging us to be selfish, Abraham Maslow reaching for peak-spirit dog experiences, Timothy Leary tripping, Rene Girard calling us all copy cats, Joseph Schumpeter singing the song of every Goliath felled by a startup David, and Samuel Beckett exhorting us to accept failure as a condition of life. In chummy prose, Daub plays the role of parade announcer from the grandstand, full of snark and left-wing academic contempt for this industry. Some of it is fun.

Daub is right to hold the industry to account for its hyperbolic rhetoric; Silicon Valley is ripe for ridicule. Daub, like other commentators and satirists, savors Silicon Valley’s peculiar irony, dwelling at length on the immense gap between what tech people say and what they really do (such as the online advertising companies zealously pitching themselves as “making the world a better place”). It leads Daub to sour on the idea of tech progress, and it’s easy to agree with him. The tech world is not always a fine place. Like any industry, including academia, Silicon Valley has its share of insufferable and terrible people. Even fraudsters.

But having accused Silicon Valley of bad thinking, Daub is sloppy, uncharitable, and immature in his own way. For a book so concerned with the provenance of ideas, it’s odd, for instance, that Daub cites philosopher Martin Heidegger approvingly—even the book’s title is an echo of Heidegger’s own What is Called Thinking?—without mentioning the philosopher’s Nazi past. If a Pixar director is inspired by Ayn Rand, a capitalist novelist, that’s an “irritable mental gesture,” in Daub’s reckoning. But were a product designer to be inspired by the phenomenology of a Nazi philosopher . . . for Daub, apparently, that would be “apropos.”

Daub hasn’t opened his eyes to the current reality of Silicon Valley. Some reporting and investigation could have helped him. He appears to think that venture capital funds throw money indiscriminately at white, upper-class Stanford grads. According to Daub, this strategy would not be a “limitation when it comes to picking investments in an industry where companies run by a bunch of white boys from the same Stanford frat can make billions or fall apart depending on how well the boys get along.” He also says the media have trouble telling all the “white boys” apart: “You can almost hear desperate journalists seizing on the minor biographical variances of upper-middle class white youth in order to be able to say something about these people.”

Stanford, where Daub teaches, discriminates against Asian-Americans, so maybe that’s why he believes whites are overrepresented; and the mastheads of n+1 magazine and The New Republic, where Daub writes, are overwhelmingly white as well. But tech companies are more diverse than the tech press that covers them, including the outlets Daub calls home. Some companies, such as Facebook and Amazon, are majority nonwhite. According to a study compiled by Oo Nwoye, a Nigerian tech worker who pulled data from company public reports, as of 2020, the percentage of white employees at Facebook is 41 percent, at Google 51.7 percent, at Microsoft 53.2 percent, at Amazon 34.7 percent, and at Apple 50 percent. The workforce of the Big Five tech companies as a whole is thus less than 50 percent white, if each company is weighted equally.

Interrogating the role of technology in society is vital. We would do well to investigate how so much wealth was created in so little time. What ideas fueled this alchemy, and why is it now apparently dead? Daub’s What Tech Calls Thinking offers a few witty aperçus but is silent on this fundamental question.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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