The Revolt Against Silicon Valley’s Failed Dream

Or, How Tech Created its Own Backlash

From furious editorials by Facebook investors, to calls for tech giants to be broken up, from alarmed discussions about tech as something like smoking, to Zuck calling for people to spend less time on Facebook — you’ve probably seen by now a mounting backlash against tech, stronger by the day. How did tech get here? Will it go away by itself? Or will it continue to grow?

I’ve warned for a long time that organizations — whether societies or corporations or political parties — must focus, in this troubled, fractured age, on mattering to people: really improving and transforming their lives. The “backlash” tech faces now is what happens when you don’t. More accurately put, people and societies are losing trust in tech, catastrophically. Why is that?

There is positive mattering — I benefit your well-being. There is no mattering — I don’t benefit your well-being. And then there is negative mattering — I harm your well-being. Now. Which of these three categories — mattering, no mattering, or negative mattering — does tech fall into? It makes us lonely. Sad. Mean. Unhappy. Envious. Regretful. Jealous. Depressed. Enraged. It makes our societies less democratic. Cohesive. Trusting. Close. Wise. Fair. You might think I’m exaggerating, but the sad truth is that every single one of those points is a well-researched fact.

Tech is trapped in negative mattering — it harms people. (In fact, it is worse than smoking, by any reasonable analysis: smoking kills you, but it doesn’t really harm democracy or fairness in society — if anything, it increases social bonds. But tech appears to have no net positive uses whatsoever. Can it? That is the question we will answer, one step at a time.

There is a term for industries like tech has turned into: sin industries. Gambling, drugs, sex work. You might say that there is nothing inherently wrong with these things, and that is true — but it elides the point that these industries harm people in real ways. I’m sure feminists will dispute that — but many, perhaps most, women globally are trafficked into sex work, they do not just choose it. So not every person in these industries is harming anyone — but as a whole, sin industries, left untended, can easily destroy more well-being “than they create” — yet well-being is not something we should relativize with that economistic logic in the first place (me sexually harassing you doesn’t count less if I write a bestseller).

So what happens to sin industries — at least in working societies? Well, they end up tightly controlled, regulated, or outlawed. Tech probably won’t be outlawed like, say, heroin — but it probably will be tightly controlled. First, through regulation — as is already happening in Europe. Second, through new social norms — tomorrow, people will look at phone zombies the way we look at smokers today. Third, through constant backlashes, like today, each one a little more angry and demanding, which ask tech to control itself — hence Zuck surrendering to people using Facebook less. All that is what tech faces if it doesn’t reform. Not a pretty picture, is it?

So. How did tech get here? Well, tech’s promise is always to create a better economy. But this wave of tech didn’t. It simply turbocharged the old one: extreme capitalism. It is now a virtual sharecropping field, where people do emotional labour for free, so a tiny number of people who own shares can profit. Thatlabour is made of status rivalry, competitive envy, and internalized inadequacy, so it harms the people who do it, in lasting and mounting ways. Does all this sound familiar? It’s just the story of extreme capitalism all over again — only in maybe its most extreme form yet: you work for free, and we reap not just all the benefits: we take your social, intellectual, cultural, and political agency away, too.

That’s not innovation, is it? It’s renovation, replication, reproduction. Does that sound like a dream anyone particularly wants to live, now that they’re figuring out what it really is?

Tech’s challenge was never to remake capitalism all over again — only harder, crueller, meaner, even more harmful. It was to shift beyond it. Tech’s real failure is to innovate at all, but think it has. Silicon Valley is trapped in a paradox. It worships capitalism like a child before a god— but it cannot ever be innovative this way, because capitalism now is where communism was a few decades ago: the kind of historic, generational failure that is causing societies like America to collapse. The challenge for any innovator today is to change the system — not just replicate it forever, a little bit worse each time. The system: choose your buzzword — market fundamentalism, extreme capitalism, neoliberalism — one-dimensionally reducing human life to corporate profits, GDP, stock market bubbles.

How can anyone “go beyond” capitalism”? It’s a lot simpler than it sounds. Instead of maximizing profits, maximize well-being. Start with a purpose that matters. “We are going to make people closer, healthier, and wiser”, “We let people realize their possibilities for trust, truth, and happiness”, and so on. Then experiment, create, think, imagine. Build whole new jobs, roles, departments, and titles to get there — “Chief Eudaimonia Officer”, “Human Well-Being Designer”, “Human Possibility Accountant” — whose job is to quantify, qualify, and manage all that. Make the profits earned by such an organization dependent on achieving human goals first — and if you don’t improve people’s lives, either give them up, give them back, or give them away. Distribute them according to whom has created the most human possibility — not just the most clicks, revenues, or deals. And make ownership something that is contingent on all the above.

Now, if you think all that will be tough for VCs to swallow — you’re right, and you’re wrong. There’s dumb money and smart money. The dumb money — the Russians and the hedge funds and the techbros and so on — will never understand the above. The smart money? It already is. Consider how Blackrock’s explicit goal now is to “change capitalism” — by wiring new ways to measure value into their investments. They’re one of the biggest asset managers in the world. That’s innovation — what Silicon Valley’s doing right is mere replication — of a failed capitalist mode of value creation, and that is why it is failing right along with it. Who’s building such a system, apart from Blackrock? China’s recently decided to focus economically on the quality of human life, not just GDP anymore. Now that’s innovation — could there be a bigger shift than that.

Zuck asking people to “use Facebook less” is not nearly enough. He is only saying, though maybe he doesn’t know it, “capitalism sucks!”. The real challenge isn’t making people use systems that suck less, because they destroy the well-being of their lives, their societies, their democracies, less — it’s making systems that don’t suck so hard, so badly, or so fatally in the first place.

Systems that don’t suck. Post-capitalism. Well-being. Really transforming people’s lives. It’s not hard — but it’s not going to be easy. Yet Silicon Valley gave up before it ever began, kept time standing still, and was foolish enough to build the same old capitalism all over again, only worse — and that’s what it keeps doing. Nobody likes capitalism anymore, except Newt Gingrich and college Republicans. Nobody wants it, needs it, demands it, asks for it, loves it.

And that’s why nobody trust tech now, either.

Umair
February 2018