Why do tech pundits have such reactionary politics?

On the night of Feb. 9, 2016, two old men from the Outer Boroughs easily won the Democratic and Republican primaries in New Hampshire. Even a few weeks prior, this outcome was beyond comprehension for Beltway Insiders, who clung to the notions of yet another Comeback Kid moment for the Clintons and a burst of Momentum for Marco Rubio.

What has unfolded in the subsequent states, on both sides, makes the NH outcome look more important by the day. It was a springboard for Bernie Sanders’ unprecedentedly uphill challenge to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s splintering of the shaky GOP coalition. The Sanders challenge in particular has revealed the breadth and depth of the challenge to “End of History”-style neoliberal politics that until recently seemed to have been entrenched beyond threat.

Yet on that night, segments of the tech world/knowledge economy/creative class – a group  whose demands cast a growing shadow over U.S. politics – were ensconced in deeper matters, asking the hard questions like: Was Colonialism Bad For India?  Marc Andreessen, a venture capitalist who sits on the board of Facebook, started things of with this:

This is fairly tame compared to what was to follow. Still, it outlines what often passes for big political stances among the tech elite:

  • The confidence that their every move, no matter how self-serving or capitalistic, will benefit the world, and that impedance of any such action is a blow against equality, progress, and the Internet of Things itself.
  • The notion that there is no “ideology” any more, apparently since all moral and political matters are settled; anyone who disagrees with them has “ideology,” whereas they are post-ideological Vox readers and lovers of Grand Bargains.
  • The use of concern-trolling for the poor, as what Branko Milanovic has called an “ethical sugar-coating over their economic interests which are perfectly well served by globalization”

Andreessen was referring to India’s decision to block Facebook from pushing its Free Basics program to the country’s Internet users. Free Basics is neither free nor basic; it proxies access to Facebook and a few preselected services as “the Internet” (showing how fungible this term really is), and allows the Silicon Valley firm to in turn extract potentially billions in revenue from tracking and selling the data of some of the world’s poorest people.

As a FB board member, Andreessen’s position here has predictable contours. Despite his dismissal of “ideological reasons,” though, he flung around some serious ideology with a follow-up tweet, saying:

“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?”

As one replier aptly noted “You know what was really catastrophic for India? Colonialism.”

The British Raj was a genocidal regime that killed millions while enriching the world’s largest empire. Andreessen skirts over this and even seemingly rationalizes it through his condemnation of anti-colonialism. But his views are set in even greater relief when one considers that the sort of global capitalism that he and others continually push for has been a disaster for India, both during and after the colonial era.

As of 2012, 3,000 Indian children died every day from starvation. Every decade or so, the country loses as many people to food shortages and illnesses as died in the entire Great Leap Forward. Nevertheless, The Narrative about India is always one of people being lifted out of poverty by capitalism (especially the messianic powers of smartphones and “the Internet”) and saved from the supposed scourge of socialism, which is often conflated with Maoism and Stalinism.

The thread of “the conversation” that Andreessen spurred is bleak. His VC comrade Benedict Evans joined in to talk about the “Hindu rate of growth,” and accused his interlocutors of “chauvinism.” Evans has previously wondered aloud about why it was that we decided slavery was wrong, and he once spent 3+ hours on Twitter insisting that San Francisco was a place where there was nothing to do. He once bemoaned the Bay Area’s lack of high-end carpet shops in between his usual drivel about how important the latest updated to Snapchat or WhatsApp is.

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The White Man’s Burden positions of Andreessen and Evans as well as their quick pivots to seemingly knockout counterarguments – “you’re a chauvinist,” “you don’t care about poverty” – are hardly outliers. Very Important Tech Person Anil Dash, author of such illuminating commentaries as a piece about why movie theater shushers are “wrong,” has become infamous for his attempts to tie Sanders supporters to the far-right, and for Evans-style “[responding to tweet]: no, but the touch of [chauvinism/antisemitism/bro-ism/whatever] is interesting here, you proved my point.”

Why are members of the tech world often so reactionary when it comes to politics? I’ll propose a few possible reasons:

1) They spend all day lionizing and defending the most powerful companies in the history of the world

The tech media is remarkably uncritical of Silicon Valley. The race-to-the-bottom labor practices that prop up titans like Apple and Uber are all but invisible in conversations about “innovation,” as if the concepts were all about white collar workers changing the world by sheer force of will, and not decades of trade policy making, military adventuring, and think tanking that has exploited precarious labor populations the world over.

Meanwhile, companies like Tesla are fawned over in embarrassing pieces that never note the company’s fundamental reliance on government subsidies. Tech writers also never point out the inherent conservatism of initiatives such as Google’s “moonshots” program, which relies on ideas from sci-fi (part of the allegedly “soft” realm of the humanities) to fuel projects doomed to fail because of the risk they pose to shareholders along with the fact that for some reason they’re chasing a Star Trek script. There’s nothing more conservative than insisting that you already know what the future will hold, and that that thing is old sci-fi concepts brought to life by advertising dollars – themselves the product of a business model (essential to Google, Facebook, and so many other darlings of the “innovation” economy) that would not be unfamiliar to a TV exec from the 1950s.

Entire blogs such as Daring Fireball often sink, for days at a time, into a mire of defending Apple from almost every conceivable slight. That particular blog’s author, John Gruber, has made fun of small publishers threatened by Apple’s (entirely self-serving, as a slight to Google) embrace of ad block technology, blaming them for their backwardness while assigning no blame to Apple, the world’s wealthiest company with unmatched ability in the tech world to drive uptake of its favored technologies. The FBI legal case spurred DF into a long string of naive posts about how Apple was taking a moral stance rather than one that was in the best interests of its shareholders.

2) They are natural allies of horse-race coverage, “momentum,” and every other awful Beltway politics cliché

This point probably seems wrong to you. After all, wouldn’t the endlessly “technical” minds of the Valley be more of a kind with FiveThirtyEight and other outlets that peddle “data journalism,” than the long lines of gut-conscious pundits like the ones skewered so well by Carl ‘’The Dig” Diggler of Cafe.com?

Maybe not. Ben Thompson, who I have criticized before for his defenses of Amazon’s cruel workplace culture, produced this gem about the Iowa caucuses a few months ago:

Somehow, he managed to peg all three candidates incorrectly, buying into the absurd “momentum” argument for Rubio. Gruber, later on, entertained a similarly inane line of reasoning about Hillary Clinton’s enormous gaffe at Nancy Reagan’s funeral, at which she praised the former first lady for starting a conversation about AIDS.

It was all a coldly calculated political move to make people recall the awfulness of the Reagans, Gruber argued, and not, well, obviously bad politics toward some of the Democratic Party’s most important constituencies: the LGBT community and young people. Here’s how he responded to my own point about how the remark inflamed HRC’s tortured record on LBGT rights:

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She only has to better than the GOP (some of whom, like Rob Portman and Dick Cheney, approved the LGBT cause before she did)! This race is over anyway! This attitude could be the epitaph of the once-egalitarian Democratic Party.  Also, this tweet could be a great time-bomb if Sanders somehow makes a comeback (hence the screenshot rather than the embed).

Tech journalism is defined by a related torrent of breathless coverage about “game changers” and “innovation.” These words are often tossed around when talking about whether, say, a new UI on Snapchat or the continuing refinement of Amazon’s online Sears catalog could usher in a new epoch in human history. The thinking that goes into pieces with such lines of argument is often on par with political journalists debating who “won” a presidential debate.

It’s word salad, trying to will a position, but it is very fascinated with its own cleverness and import. This outlook doesn’t have patience for the unpleasant stops and starts of democratic politics, and instead buys into the messianic power of “cutting-edge,” “innovative” products and statements and, crucially, the generic narratives that crop up around them.

3) They are the new ruling class

Thomas Frank’s new book “Listen, Liberal” is an excellent guide to how tech culture’s obsession with “innovation” has spilled over into government and especially into the two major U.S. political parties, in the process making social democracy nearly impossible to even get on the table without a mass movement like the Sanders campaign. For all the talk of “innovation,” much of the tech elite is perfectly happy to continue sticking with the Reagan-era tax rates, deregulations, indifference to antitrust laws (Amazon and Google could not exist otherwise), and trade policies that made their fortunes possible.

As a result, you get remarks like those of Andreessen and Evans, who see in the global spread of capitalism not just an economic but a moral cause celebre – a notion that Facebook et al. should win out over government regulators because what’s right for the super-rich is right for the country. It was heartening to see the pushback against both of them on Twitter, and of course there are many pockets of resistance to the tech elite, including many non-U.S. governments wary of firms like Google, as well as writers such as Evgeny Morozov and John Pat Leary who have made an art of demolishing Silicon Valley nonsense. But there is still a long way to go to pull out from the current reactionary politics.

 

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