Silicon Valley has had a rough year. For the first time since the start of the social media revolution, the American public has begun to question the tech sector’s integrity and intentions. Many brand-name Internet-based companies have worked hard over the years to obscure the true nature of their business models, which typically involve harvesting and selling user data to advertisers. Google, Apple, Facebook, and others have tried to insulate themselves from criticism by cultivating a benign image as post-partisan problem-solvers and pure-hearted community builders. In the first half of 2018, however, giant cracks began to appear in this carefully constructed façade. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was hauled before Congress in April to explain his $500 billion company’s apparently lax attitude toward data privacy. Now the company’s stock price is tumbling, due in part to investor concerns over the run of bad publicity. Silicon Valley realizes the magnitude of the crisis at hand. Tech-industry executives have spent the last six months scrambling to assure users that their data are safe and that the bond of trust between the public and the new engine of American economic growth and innovation should never be broken.
It’s a tough sell. The game all along has been to distract us with shiny electronic toys while converting our most personal information into cold cash (or, lately, cryptocurrency). The mountains of money being made off our browsing habits and purchasing history go to funding ever-more extravagant and utopian projects that, by their very nature, would corrode the foundations of free society, leaving us practically enslaved to an elite coterie of tech geniuses.
The vision of the future that Silicon Valley has in mind is not the one you probably imagined for yourself when you were a teenager, unless you grew up with a dream of living out your adult years on the Starship Enterprise. In fact, the self-sustaining, self-explaining world of Star Trek makes a good analogy for the tech future that the Silicon Valley overlords envision. On the Enterprise, a handful of superbly qualified specialists assigned themselves the lion’s share of responsibility for running the ship, carrying out the “prime directive,” and boldly going where no man had gone before. To viewers, the Enterprise seemed like a large vessel, but almost everyone apart from the show’s stars existed out of sight. You didn’t see much of them unless they became a necessary (and usually disposable) plot device. What was everyone else on the ship doing while Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Bones, Scotty, Chekov, Sulu, and Uhura were getting into and out of interstellar scrapes? No one knows for sure, but they functioned as a kind of disposable service class, rarely noticed by the officers on the bridge.
Futurists and sci-fi fans drooled over the Enterprise’s omniscient, disembodied voice known as “computer” that could be called on at any time to answer questions. It wasn’t just an eerily prescient version of the new breed of countertop digital assistants, like the Amazon Echo and Google Home. It was also artificial intelligence with the capability of doing complex, sometimes abstract, computation on the fly. It could engage in hypotheticals and had a physical dimension as well. It was not just the ship’s brain; it was the ship itself.
In its conception and presentation, the Enterprise’s computer was close to what WIRED magazine founder Kevin Kelly has called “the technium”—a discreet “superorganism of computation.” In books and interviews, Kelly has described the emergence of a global cloud, a computer of computers. The technium is a summa of the world’s computing power: all its desktops, laptops, mainframes, servers, cell phones, tablets, and land lines rolled into one. Throw in the cars and the ovens and the baby monitors and the wireless printers from the Internet of Things, too. Sometimes Kelly calls it the One Machine, the sum total of all the hardware and software working, humming, and resonating in an ever-closer harmony of artificial intelligence. “It has its own force that it exerts,” Kelly has said. “That force is part cultural (influenced by and influencing of humans), but it’s also partly non-human, partly indigenous to the physics of technology itself. That’s the part that is scary and interesting.”
The scary parts are easy to see.
The visionaries of Silicon Valley seem, at best, ambivalent about the social implications of calling into existence an omniscient, self-aware technium; at worst, they are so eager to see it happen that they can barely contain themselves. Call it delusions of grandeur, the God complex, or plain-old ordinary lust for power, but the celebrated geniuses of tech seem to have one thing in common: they think that they know better than the rest of us how society should run. They envision a pyramid-shaped political economy, with themselves and the super-productive Silicon Valley workforce at the top and the rest of us spanning out below in a massive, obedient—and grateful—base. The bad news is that they have the means to try to make this happen, and the implicit support of many of the soon-to-be governed, which derives from more than a decade of supplying everyone with things that we didn’t know we wanted until we got them.
The “techdaddies”—Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin—just know that the fulfillment of the technium’s promise will be great for everyone. But it will benefit them most of all, because it will give them—and their smart, talented, productive ilk—a place of undeniable privilege at the top of the pyramid. Why shouldn’t it be thus? They’ve already proved their worth.
The tech visionaries also know that far-out ideas sometimes become reality. In the Think Different world of Silicon Valley, this has translated into an attitude of “the whackier, the better”—if you can dream it, it can be done; if it can be done, it should be done. “Make it so,” in the words of Kirk’s successor as captain of the Enterprise, Jean-Luc Picard, is the order of the day.
The list of Google’s extravagant ideas is too long to print here, but they range from the achievable—scanning every book ever published—to the far-fetched—a “space elevator” connected to an orbiting satellite. In the near future, expect Google to offer you the computing power and Internet connectivity of a smartphone in the form of a contact lens or the windshield of a self-driving car. Captains Kirk and Picard would be envious. Google’s futurists have also bandied about impossible dreams that they call “moonshots”—wildest-imagination stuff, such as mining asteroids for rare minerals. In 2013, Google launched the California Life Company, or Calico, a mysterious “longevity lab” with a goal to extend human lifespans. The venture prompted Time to ask, “Can Google Solve Death?”
Among Mark Zuckerberg’s big dreams is to engineer a way for us to send our innermost thoughts directly to one another via instant-message telepathy. Call it thought mail. “One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full, rich thoughts to each other directly using technology,” he said during a 2015 question-and-answer session. “You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it, too, if you’d like.” This idea is no doubt borne of a charitable impulse to assist those who cannot speak for one reason or another, or to eliminate the problem of texting while driving, but it is patently ridiculous. I can think of few things that I would desire less than having other people’s thoughts—complete with emojis and a soundtrack?—beamed into my head. The plan has pitfalls for sender and receiver alike. As Nicholas Carr quips, “That’s really going to require some incredible impulse control.” Then again, maybe it won’t, since many of us have already given up on being able to control ourselves around technology.
And there is a more urgent concern. As we have learned from the hacking, data dumps, privacy breaches, and security failures of recent years, nothing on the Internet is private, or if it is, it won’t be for long. The Internet and everything wired into it is public, or potentially public. That means your e-mails, direct messages, texts, online purchases, reading habits, and social-media comments will become easy fodder for the Peeping Toms and digital historians of the future. Connecting your home, office, and car to the Internet means anything that happens inside those formerly private spaces is similarly at risk of exposure to the wider world. Inviting a technology company into your living room is bad enough, but inviting one into your mind? You’d have to be crazy.
Not if you’re a Silicon Valley overlord, though. “This plan is so crazy, it just might work” was a classic plot convention of late-Baby Boomer, early Gen-X television culture, and tech visionaries seem to have internalized it. Bezos had the idea to start Amazon while driving alone across the country. He was evidently inspired by all those hours spent in solitary contemplation, because one of the wildest-dream projects that he supports is the 10,000-Year Clock. A 200-foot tall timekeeper built into the side of a mountain in West Texas, the clock has so far cost the multibillionaire north of $40 million. As Bezos told the Wall Street Journal in 2012: “The reason I’m doing it is that it is a symbol of long-term thinking . . . . We humans have become so technologically sophisticated that in certain ways we’re dangerous to ourselves. It’s going to be increasingly important over time for humanity to take a longer-term view of its future.” How ironic: Bezos, who has made several fortunes by selling the world a technologically sophisticated lifestyle of spiritual ease, material comfort, and high-touch customer service, now warns us that too much technological sophistication can be dangerous.
Elon Musk has used his billions to seed a range of companies with moonshots in mind. Tesla Inc. makes $90,000 electric cars and gigantic batteries (all highly subsidized by taxpayers). SpaceX is a private exploration firm that would love to give you a ride to Mars someday. (Musk thinks that we ought to colonize other planets.) Musk’s Boring Company is trying to convince state and local governments to let him dig tunnels throughout the U.S. so that another of his companies, Hyperloop, can solve the country’s traffic problems. Tech investor Peter Thiel poured money into the Seasteading Institute, which seeks to create sustainable floating cities on the earth’s vast oceans—another moonshot.
Silicon Valley’s billionaire CEOs understand that their wild plans will likely unleash reactionary social forces opposed to their disruptions. They know perfectly well that their gadgets, apps, self-driving cars, brain-mail programs, back-flipping robots, algorithm ads, surveillance toys, space elevators, floating cities, outer-space colonies, and all the rest will push humanity into an ever-more complete reliance on “smart machines” to do the kinds of low- or no-skill jobs that once provided satisfying livelihoods to millions. The Silicon Valley economy, as incredibly productive as it is, can’t provide jobs for every American who wants one. The techdaddies know that not everybody is cut out to be a Google engineer or a Facebook programmer—or even an Apple store Genius Bar service professional. One by one, the lower rungs of the economic and employment ladders could be lopped off by high-performance cyborgs that can cook and serve a meal, clean a house, fix a car, or teach a child to read, at almost no marginal cost. That’s going to cause a lot of disruption. Silicon Valley’s big brains could find themselves staring down the barrel of some serious social unrest. It’s not unreasonable to expect economic upheaval and potential resistance.
Naturally, visionaries that they are, the tech bosses aren’t stumbling blindly forward into this potentially chaotic future. They have already settled on a remedy: the universal basic income, a guaranteed minimum-welfare payment to everyone, regardless of income level, ability to work, or employment status. “A lot of exciting new innovations are going to be created, which will generate a lot of opportunities and wealth, but there is a real danger it could also reduce the amount of jobs,” wrote billionaire Virgin CEO Richard Branson in an August 2017 blog post. “This will make experimenting with ideas like basic income even more important in the years to come.”
The idea is simple: removing the need to fend for yourself in the ultra-sophisticated economy of the technium will free you to pursue your dreams of writing a novel, staying home with your kids, or starting that online business for which you could never quite find the time. The universal basic income will ensure that you never find yourself worrying about paying for, well, the basics. Food, clothing, and shelter will be well within your reach. Beyond that, how you pursue happiness will be up to you.
“We should make it so that no one is worried about how they’re going to pay for a place to live, no one has to worry about how they’re going to have enough to eat,” says Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, the influential Mountain View, California, “accelerator” fund that invests in tech startups. “Just give people enough money to have a reasonable quality of life.” It’s a nice theory, if paternalistic, but there are some obvious flaws. First, we don’t all agree on what level of income constitutes a “reasonable quality of life,” so someone will have to decide what that level is—probably someone with a tech leader’s proven talent for seeing around corners.
Here’s another problem: the techdaddies think that you won’t mind losing your old livelihood, since it was probably unfulfilling work and you probably hated pulling your tired, undereducated carcass out of bed in the morning, only to be insulted all day by your junior college-trained business-major boss who insisted on looking over your shoulder while you performed mindless manual labor for a few bucks more than minimum wage. If for some strange reason it turns out that you found satisfaction in providing for yourself and your family by driving a cab or working at the widget factory or waiting tables or cleaning motel rooms, they think you’ll be willing to accept the basic-income payoff as compensation for the disruption to your livelihood. It’s a win-win, as they see it: you get some free money and they don’t need to worry about you and your old pals from the shop floor coming after them with torches and pitchforks.
The universal basic income is a bribe, plain and simple—and Silicon Valley’s biggest names have lined up behind it. Musk says “it’s going to be necessary.” Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, views it as a tool for combating income inequality. Gates says we’re not ready for it yet, but we will be soon. Zuckerberg thinks of it as a “cushion” that allows you to “try new things.” After returning from a 2017 campaign-style trip to Alaska, a state that pays every resident an annual average oil-income dividend of $1,000, Zuckerberg said: “When you’re losing money, your mentality is largely about survival. But when you’re profitable, you’re confident about your future and you look for opportunities to invest and grow further. Alaska’s economy has historically created this winning mentality, which has led to this basic income.”
One of the selling points that Zuckerberg and his peers have seized on is that the universal basic income supposedly transcends the liberal/conservative ideological trap. It may seem like a dream cooked up in the liberal big-government kitchen, but universal basic income actually has roots in conservative economics. Free marketeers like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman supported the idea of what they called a “negative income tax,” under which anyone making below a certain annual income receives a cash payment from the government at tax time, rather than the other way around. Conservative intellectual Charles Murray has endorsed the idea of a $10,000 annual payment to everyone over 21. The Friedman approach, which lives on today in the American tax code as the Earned Income Tax Credit for families with children, has the virtue of rewarding work—the amount of the credit rises with each dollar of earned income. But often left out of the story are Friedman and Murray’s caveats, the prime one being that any guaranteed-income program should be offered in lieu of other welfare programs, not in addition to them.
“The proposal for a negative income tax is a proposal to help poor people by giving them money, which is what they need,” Friedman told William F. Buckley on a 1968 episode of Firing Line. “Rather than, as now, by requiring them to come before a governmental official, detail all their assets and their liabilities, and be told that you may spend X dollars on rent, Y dollars on food, et cetera, and then be given a handout.” When the tech leaders extol the “bipartisan” nature of the universal basic income, it’s not clear that they fully appreciate that they’re allying themselves with free-market conservatives who seek to empower individuals, promote personal responsibility, and dismantle the infrastructure of the welfare state that liberal Democrats have spent the last 80 years constructing.
Many on the left have an entirely different view of the universal basic income. To them, it seems like just the latest government safety-net program on the road to what they like to call Democratic socialism. That’s the happy kind of socialism, the kind that obtains in much of Europe, where a handful of national-champion businesses produce geysers of cash that the state then redistributes to the less productive and less educated members of society. Democratic socialism is the capitalist alternative where nobody can ever be fired, so nobody ever gets hired. Bill Gross, founder of the $1 trillion Newport Beach-based investment firm PIMCO, says that if a universal basic income “strikes you as a form of socialism, I would suggest we get used to it.”
Maybe it never occurs to the tech overlords that the industry their ingenuity has built, and the titanic wealth and prosperity they’ve personally enjoyed as a result of their success, has only been historically possible in a country like the United States, where a vibrant private economy is governed by relatively light regulation and relatively low taxes, robust property-rights protections and the rule of law, and an entrepreneurial culture that rewards risk-taking. Are they under the impression that Silicon Valley is the last industry that the world will ever know or need, so that we can safely shut down the 250-year-old American experiment, an experiment based not only in ordered liberty and limited government but also in work-based opportunity?
There are other, more practical issues to consider before signing over America’s economic future to the universal basic income. As urbanist and City Journal contributing editor Aaron Renn points out, such a program would require far more restrictive immigration controls than many on the left would probably tolerate. Basic-income boosters, writes Renn, frequently gloss over the thornier ethical issues that the idea presents, including a vision that he calls “morally problematic, even perverse: individuals are entitled to a share of social prosperity but have no obligation to contribute anything to it.”
Yet this has always been the ethic governing almost every Silicon Valley innovation. “Information wants to be free,” partisans of the early Internet used to insist. From Napster to YouTube, the digital ethos has been to fling open the gates and invite all comers; to drive established industries into the proverbial ditch by offering the products they once sold at no cost—or below cost; to undermine America’s bourgeois values and hollow out its mediating institutions; to boldly go where no man has gone before. To the tech leaders and their followers, the past is a vast wasteland of ugly ideas, simple machines, hot wars, and petty political squabbles. Nothing truly creative ever happened there until Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft. The world had little purpose, and almost no beauty, until Steve Jobs and Jony Ive gave it the iPhone.
In part, this relentless focus on the glorious future derives from the entrepreneurial culture of risk that permeates Silicon Valley, where past failures are merely prerequisites for future success. But it also derives from the riddle that all successful people must grapple with: am I successful because I’m superior, or am I superior because I’m successful? Almost all of the techdaddies appear to have concluded that their own superiority is what drove their success. Perhaps the most successful moneymakers of every age similarly succumb to such hubris. But unlike yesteryear’s robber barons, the tech overlords have achieved almost unimaginable levels of wealth and accomplishment at alarmingly young ages—some are still in their late thirties. Their success has given them the means to remake society, their sense of superiority has given them the inherent right to do so, and their youth has given them the time.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images