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Hippies in the Boardroom
January 10, 2014 8:36 AM   Subscribe

How Silicon Valley Became The Man The Harvard Business Review's Justin Fox interviews Stanford historian Fred Turner about how the New Communalists molded the Valley in their image.
posted by Diablevert (29 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Same trajectory as any new power: smaller barbarian challenger has a new trick Establishment does not know; Establishment too fat and lazy to learn new trick and gets owned. Barbarian becomes Establishment until the new barbarian comes itching for a fight...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 9:07 AM on January 10


Not to dredge up the "snark vs. smarm" thread again but maybe people are just sick of this brightly-lit futurist happy-sappy rhetoric about how technology will make the world a better place when it becomes pretty clear they mean "at least a better place for educated, wealthy white men and the rest of you get out of our futurist paradise libertopian city".
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:13 AM on January 10 [3 favorites]


maybe people are just sick of this brightly-lit futurist happy-sappy rhetoric about how technology will make the world a better place

It can only be as good as the people in it. Machine is just as a machine, but it can't make you a better person or get you to think...pills, technology aren't the magic wand...we need to stage our own intervention...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 9:18 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


Evgeny Morozov had a similar piece in this month's New Yorker.

Fred Turner's book is also quite good, it basically charts the rise of what Morozov called "technological solutionism" as cybernetics, something that cut across political dividing lines. This shared solutionism allowed Silicon Valley to get in bed with the powers that be quite easily.

All watched over by machines of loving grace indeed.
posted by zabuni at 9:27 AM on January 10


The article had an interesting and subtle take on this, I thought. I thought Turner had an interesting point when he said that the counterculture is seen as one amorphous mass in popular culture but actually there were some big splits in their approaches to wielding power which continue to influence. I'd never seen the point he makes about attitude/culture-as-substitute for power structures and how that can end up reinforcing unspoken norms elucidated before, and I thought that was insightful.
posted by Diablevert at 9:32 AM on January 10


Not to dredge up the "snark vs. smarm" thread again but maybe people are just sick of this brightly-lit futurist happy-sappy rhetoric about how technology will make the world a better place when it becomes pretty clear they mean "at least a better place for educated, wealthy white men and the rest of you get out of our futurist paradise libertopian city".

Just because every problem is not solved does not mean that technology has solved no problems. And technology has solved plenty of problems for people of all races, ages and nationalities. I mean, ultrasound machines have CPUs too. As do pre-natal incubators.
posted by GuyZero at 9:56 AM on January 10


Fred Turner's book on Stewart Brand and the historical links between the Bay Area counterculture and cyberculture is a terrific read and I highly recommend it. He has a new book, a sort of prequel looking at the roots of the counterculture in 1950s/1940s American thinking about media too, which I've not read yet.
posted by Bwithh at 9:59 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


In all my empirical experience technological solutionism beats out political solutionism for effectiveness, but I guess you miss out on the fun of making your enemies kneel before you, bent to your will.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 10:18 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


Became the man? Silicon valley has been close-knit with the government since the start... The internet was a DOD Advanced Research project, IBM employees cite the 1890 US Census as the first real field test of their punchcard system, and Larry Ellison founded Oracle with two of his CIA contractor buddies (the company name comes from the project they worked on together).
posted by pwnguin at 10:50 AM on January 10 [4 favorites]


In all my empirical experience technological solutionism beats out political solutionism for effectiveness

I think this encapsulates the problem with the "Silicon Valley" approach exactly: technological solutionism is political solutionism. This idea that technology is some magic apolitical force of nature is the mistake, and it leads to two problems:

1. The "technological solutionism" that Morozov and others discuss that "recasts complex social phenomena like politics, public health, education, and law enforcement as 'neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized—if only the right algorithms are in place'". It presents itself as completely non-political in nature, just solving problems, which glosses over the inherently political choices made in choosing goals and implementation.

2. By creating a false divide between politics and technology, technical people tend to approach problems that are ultimately political and systemic in nature with individualistic, technical solutions that can only address the symptoms, not the disease. The NSA spying problem is the perfect example: this is a systemic issue that requires mass political movement and engagement to effect real change, but I see endless posts online about how you should use this program or method or network to keep your information private, missing the forest for the trees. The answer to the NSA isn't everyone using the right set of encryption tools, it's convincing enough people to express their disgust with the government's behavior to force change at the political level.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:06 AM on January 10 [6 favorites]


The notion that "Silicon Valley" exists as a monolithic entity that has a strictly dichotomous view of technologic vs political solutions is a straw man. Many people in Silicon Valley focus on technology because a) they like it and b) because you can only do so many things at once.

But honestly, please stop arguing about this strawman representation of Silicon Valley. The world need technology for somethings and this is where a lot of it gets built. Sometimes it's great, sometimes it's not, but mostly it beats banging rocks together and insisting that we need slaves to comb cotton instead of using a gin.
posted by GuyZero at 11:15 AM on January 10 [4 favorites]


But honestly, please stop arguing about this strawman representation of Silicon Valley. The world need technology for somethings and this is where a lot of it gets built. Sometimes it's great, sometimes it's not, but mostly it beats banging rocks together and insisting that we need slaves to comb cotton instead of using a gin.

I'd say the straw man dichotomy is this idea that either you embrace technology uncritically or you completely reject technology and any good it can do.

Discussing the ways technology is conceived of and implemented doesn't mean believing it has no value at all.

There's room in the world between Wired techno-optimism and being a Luddite.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:26 AM on January 10 [3 favorites]


I really enjoyed reading the interview with Turner. This popped out at me:

I’ve spent a lot of time researching the ‘40s and ‘50s, and I keep encountering these very civic-minded business leaders who see as their mission simultaneously the making of profit and the making of a better society.


It is way too early to give up on Brin and Page and Bezos and Zuckerberg. They may go the way of Steve Jobs or they may go the way of Bill Gates. If I was in Turner's business I would predict that in 50 years people will be writing and saying that Mrs. Gates was among the most important civic-minded business leaders of today. The Brin divorce is not a good sign.
posted by bukvich at 11:27 AM on January 10


You know, if I were to have to pick a cabal of elites to run shit, and it could not be me and my own minions, I might go this route.
posted by sfts2 at 11:28 AM on January 10


Well, it can't really be you simply because of the "minions" thing. Once you started calling us minions, we turned into a cohort of cronies. Minus you, Mister Miniony-minion.
posted by aramaic at 11:33 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


But honestly, please stop arguing about this strawman representation of Silicon Valley.

I do not believe the linked article contains any such strawmen. The article is considerably more nuanced and perceptive that that.
posted by Diablevert at 11:40 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


this is great:

My challenge to that view would be that power to people is a really good way of ignoring the structural differences between kinds of people. Structurelessness is a problem. And it’s less of a problem when you share cultural similarities with other folks, or genotypic or phenotypic similarities. So Stewart Brand’s circle tends to look a lot like Stewart Brand. It tends to be mostly white, often male. And that’s true for many elite Silicon Valley leaders. I don’t think that shared cultural similarity is a sufficient structure. It results in bad distribution of resources. It gets very hard to get resources to people who are different than yourself. I think our challenge is to find ways to reach out to folks who are different than ourselves, not to build clusters of likeminded people.

this whole article is great. it's a great and thoughtful examination of stuff about hippies and libertarians that i have been yelling about for a while but in a way less structured fashion. totally going to read these books.
posted by beefetish at 11:53 AM on January 10


Diablevert: "I'd never seen the point he makes about attitude/culture-as-substitute for power structures and how that can end up reinforcing unspoken norms elucidated before, and I thought that was insightful."

Yeah. I think what he's saying is that many of these movements deliberately reject mainstream cultural and economic systems in favor of simpler alternatives like communalism or libertarianism that emphasize self reliance - but after doing so, they end up defaulting to even older systems of human organization and become extremely conservative instead of revolutionary. That's how you end up with communes that look a lot like hunter-gatherer tribes, or libertarian communities that are served by large numbers of low paid foreign workers.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:14 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


The unspokeness of it was what struck me as particularly insightful. I do think it's true that there's an idea that we're gonna talk a good game about our values, and that will ensure that our actions are good, because we're all on the same page about wanting to be good. But then there's no formal system to challenge that --- challenging it becomes a form of apostasy, an assault on belief, identity. I do think that's a running thread through some of the commune stuff and what you see with like "don't be evil" today and all that.
posted by Diablevert at 1:29 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


technological solutionism is political solutionism

1. Deny the Equivalence: I remember when I myself learned that nothing was pure, all phenomena were interrelated in complex ways beyond my physical ability to comprehend, & all dichotomies were illusory, fuzzy, and arbitrary. That day, I used the toilet, then I washed my hands for the last time, because, as I did, I realized - I ran my hands under the soapy water because they were contaminated, covered in filth. Yet I did not make it a habit to sterilize my hands. I did not even wash them to the standards of a surgeon. I washed my hands after voiding myself because I knew them to be shit-smeared, but by any logical standard could I declare them "clean" afterwards, as if that was something different? No. My clean hands were my shit-smeared hands. I touch my computer, my body, my food, my bed, furniture, others, etc. etc. - wasn't my entire world, in fact, shit-smeared? For the love of God, I live in NYC! Now I've joined the Shitocrats and we work together to smear loose diarrhea throughout peoples' lives especially in order to keep the Shitpublicans from getting their nasty constipated turds all over the place.

2. Accept the Equivalence: May I humbly resubmit -

In all my empirical experience techno-political solutionism beats out old-political solutionism for effectiveness., but it is a form of politicking which involves less fun at the feeling of conquering one's enemies and seeing them driven before you than traditional politicking.

-which yrs. truly believes should have much-improved semantics with the same core meaning.

3. Use the Equivalence: If the technological is political, then the political is technological, and as we evaluate technology as a political entity, vice versa. I could go on a diatribe right now about 200-year old kernels that are nigh-impossible to patch and written in that weird ASCII offshoot where some of the 's' glyphs are supposed to look like 'f', but to summarize I think tech-as-politics comes out looking much better than politics-as-tech.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 5:17 PM on January 10


at least a better place for educated, wealthy white men

Educated? Wealthy? Maybe. The technological divide is a real problem. But white and male? While technology may have serious class barriers, if anything technology is a force that ignores sexual are racial boundaries, and that's amazing. Maybe you need to stop looking 20 years in the past
posted by aspo at 6:29 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


I have a theory (maybe more of a rant) about The Internet and The Man.

I guess Silicon Valley enters into it because it helped build some of the technology in computers and routers that the Internet runs off of, and has helped fill it out with Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Twitter and a innumerable new ones.

It all starts with Lowry Mays, Red McCombs, and Tom Hicks, who bought radio stations in Texas, eventually joined together in a company called Clear Channel Communications. They helped George W Bush in his Texas Governor campaign and later when he ran for president.

In payback, Bush created The Telecommunications Act of 1996 which greatly reduced the independent ownership rules of newspaper, radio, and television, allowing Clear Channel to buy up a large percentage of the press throughout the nation, introducing us to Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and lots of other nutty-right wingers that dominate talk radio and Fox News. The Man finally realized he could buy out and own the press, and completely and unquestionably control the debate in America.

Except for one thing: The Internet.

The Internet changed everything. Now there were a near infinite number of places to get information, for news, radio, even video. Newspaper subscriptions plummeted.

In the mean time, likes foxes running the hen house, The Man, now in power, passed so much deregulation of the finance industry along with massive tax cuts for the rich, that they ran amok, almost bankrupting the nation, and leaving many of us a lot poorer and out of work. It didn't matter though, because they owned the press. Rush would tell his brain dead listeners how anyone wanting to reverse the rich tax cuts or re-impose regulations was a socialist and the Enemy of America.

They thought they couldn't lose, but they did. Then they lost again.

The Internet helped defeat The Man.


They are trying to regroup. I hear of corporations and wealthy ultra conservatives paying 1000s to fill discussion group comments on the net (I'm surprised Metafilter hasn't been overrun yet). For the moment, however, the Internet is so dispersed and so constantly changing that it seems a near impossible task. I'm hopeful but leary.
posted by eye of newt at 9:14 PM on January 10


The Internet helped defeat The Man.

The Man is power. Silicon Valley is the Man because it has power. Power means you get what you want even when other people want something different.


In all my empirical experience techno-political solutionism beats out old-political solutionism for effectiveness., but it is a form of politicking which involves less fun at the feeling of conquering one's enemies and seeing them driven before you than traditional politicking.

Effectiveness at what? What sorts of political problems does technology solve?

Personally, I think technology has tremendous power to shape society, that the role of technology in molding culture is if anything too little acknowledged. The pill did as much to create the conditions for the feminist movement of the 1960s as the feminist movement did to create the conditions for the pill to be invented.

But technology is agnostic and amoral. Technology gives us new capacities. The rules we create to limit and tame and adapt to those capacities --- that's sheer politics, no matter how you slice it. That's people fighting for power and resources. You can't try and change society to be more in line with some cherished value in a way that's indifferent to power, untainted by it --- precisely because it requires change, requires forcing or persuading people to do things they otherwise would not do.

You can't simply tar politics as barbarism and all politicians as Conan and beam yourself up to a bland beige star world where humans have moved beyond such things as hunger and fear and need. Not while we're still stuck on just the one planet.
posted by Diablevert at 1:04 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]


The Tyranny Of Structurelessness
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:42 AM on January 14


Homebrew Computer Club
One of the stops that summer was Rickeys Hyatt House in Palo Alto. There a fateful encounter occurred after Microsoft BASIC was demonstrated to a group of hackers and hobbyists from a newly-formed local group known as the Homebrew Computer Club. “The room was packed with amateurs and experimenters eager to find out about this new electronic toy,” the club’s newsletter reported. Some of them were also eager to act on the hacker credo that software, like information, should be free. This was not surprising given the social and cultural attitudes — so different from the entrepreneurial zeal of those who had migrated up from Albuquerque — which had flowed together in the early 1970s leading up to the formation of the Homebrew Computer Club.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:25 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]


Why Did An Angry Man Punch Me?
posted by homunculus at 12:59 PM on January 16


Here's a 2006 RU Sirius interview with Turner: Counterculture and the Tech Revolution

Via.
posted by homunculus at 9:02 PM on January 21


The new book (Democratic Surround) is the topic of the Erik Davis Expanding Mind interview with Turner from January 26. Link.
posted by bukvich at 12:00 PM on January 27


The Two Silicon Valleys: One of Haves, One of Have-Nots
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:32 PM on February 6


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