Silicon Valley- think big and/or get practical

New York Magazine has an interesting feature about the shifts in Silicon Valley tech politics. I was born in Palo Alto and still live nearby, so the debate going on in this story is also the debate going on amongst my personal friends and acquaintances. Following the idiotic Nazi analogy that Tom Perkins used last month to describe opposition tech companies increasingly face from disaffected locals, it’s clear that the whole culture running from San Francisco south to San Jose may begin picking fights they don’t have to. Indeed, the feature notes wealthy venture capitalists and executives breaking from the mold of “tech’s most outspoken loudmouths, the headline-­grabbing libertarians and techno-aristocrats.”

Author Kevin Roose continues:

The tech industry’s isolationism has seemed increasingly off-key in part because, unlike in the past, Silicon Valley now needs the rest of the country on its side. The low-hanging fruit of private-­sector innovation—meal-delivery apps, tablet accessories, computerized fitness bands—has been fairly well picked over. Today large tech companies are going after grander problems that will require approval both in Washington and from the public. Facebook wants to get the entire world online. Amazon wants to start using drone helicopters to deliver packages. Elon Musk wants to build a colony on Mars. And Google wants self-driving cars, large-scale robotics projects, and sweeping changes to sectors like health care and education.

Overall tech culture is a mix of idealism and cynicism, anti-tax crusading and government grant-seeking. An issue in my eyes is that engineers and successful businesspeople fall into the same trap that politicians like Mitt Romney do- thinking that success on one area can be applied to another as-is. My research, reading, and experience is that society and government is quite a different animal entirely, and the idealists should not assume that success only depends on quantifiable, directly controllable elements.

Draper’s idea

Tim Draper’s ballot initiative campaign that would chop up California into six states is a great example. In some ways it makes logical state- why should a state with almost forty million people have only two senators? But all the complexity of how states should be divided is lost. Marin county is separate from San Francisco, despite the huge amount of commuter traffic between the two. Two state pairs are divided west/east, but the top two go from the coast to Nevada. In terms of demography, geography, economics, geology it’s a complete mess. Nor is Peter Thiel’s idea of an independent libertarian settlement in international waters (“seastead”) any less problematic. The idea of a utopia outside any form of existing law is interesting, and an idea shared by far more than just Thiel, but has serious issues with how a place could remain independent, safe, and economically profitable. Dreaming big is a hugely important thing, but ambitious projects are multidisciplinary and require the cooperations of various people and groups.

Beyond big-picture thinking is  how the new generation of techies enter mainstream politics. Ro Khanna is the big story in Bay Area, and he has decided to run against a seven-term well-liked liberal incumbent, Mike Honda. This despite other potential opportunities that could avoid confrontation with a sitting member.

Broadly speaking, Bay Area politics are stable and boring. Most districts with territory near the Oakland-San Jose-San Francisco triangle are solidly Democratic, and vacancies rarely come up. My representative- who I send emails to occasionally, including asking her to co-sponsor a resolution making Darwin Day a recognized holiday- has been  in Congress since I was 2 years old. For Khanna to pick a fight with a popular incumbent (as opposed to when Eric Swalwell ran and defeated long-time incumbent Pete Stark, since he had a long history of ill-tempered statements and insults) is not an auspicious start to techies in official power positions. If Democratic politics is to brush aside techno-libertarianism and dismissive smugness, it has to be done well, and integrate with what already exists.

I rarely vote Democratic and am unsure of whether entering the meat grinder of conventional politics will get the industry and its leaders what they want. My relationship with Silicon Valley customs and values is indirect, thus I am an observer not a participant. Yet it’s natural to not want well-intentioned people to screw things up

John Galt is a fictional character in an imaginary world

A musing, more than anything.

Chris Kluwe is a pretty good NFL punter and unusually good at tearing apart bad ideas. He’s been the leader in the movement to end homophobia in sports and went out of his way to endorse same-sex marriage and equality. He’s profane, intelligent, and a true Californian. Not surprisingly, I like him a lot.

This Salon article is an excerpt from his new book, focusing on his reaction to having read the gigantic tome that is Atlas Shrugged. He pretty much distills the major issue with the book as a corner piece of a variant of libertarianism- it’s a work of fiction. I don’t mean that in the idea that only serious peer-reviewed papers can contribute to political philosophy, but rather than a work of fiction gets to get rid of all the issues with the world that exists today.

The nomination of Paul Ryan as MItt Romney’s vice-presidential candidate sparked a number of articles that look back at Ayn Rand’s body of work. The 2012 consensus- it’s terrible. This is consistent with the reception upon the release of Atlas Shrugged in 1957, in which Whittaker Chambers of the National Review stated “Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve.”

John Galt and all the sorta-Messiahs of Rand’s books, are people who live in a world where unavoidable tragedy and endemic inequality aren’t an issue. Or rather, they’re not an issue to the titans of business that get to play the heroes. Kluwe points out that society exists in many ways as a way to not let unavoidable catastrophe cause swaths of the population from being ruined and without hope. The welfare state exists and in many circles should be expanded because it’s trivially easy to see people getting hit in the gut by random chance.

Besides living in a place where unexpected crap just doesn’t exist, it also ignores what President Barack Obama was getting at when he said “You didn’t build that.” Yes, you can exist apart from the tyrants in government and he weak people who rely on society- well, unless you count the roads you need to succeed. And bridges. Airports. Electrical infrastructure. Some system of justice. Regulation of the coal mine that’s belching pollution onto your mountain resort for the elite. And so on.

The surge in outsider articles in the past year have a common theme- authors were very into Rand until at the latest about 20 years old. Thus they thought it was a great ideology until they learned of all the other ones.

It seems that on the free market of ideas, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is valued pretty low.