A note on “What Tech Calls Thinking” by Adrian Daub

Adrian Daub’s book on Silicon Valley thinking is intended as a criticism of the ideas that underpin the Silicon Valley-ideology, if there is one. This in itself is a worthwhile project, and teasing out the intellectual underpinnings of different spheres in society is in itself a good form of critical philosophy. It is fair to say that Daub is writing in the tradition of Jacques Ellul, Neil Postman and, more lately, Evgeny Morozov.

The book is divided into different sections dealing with different themes identified by Daub as the core themes in Silicon Valley thinking and in these Daub discusses various subjects, such as the genius cult and the disregard for content that he feels that he can read out of Silicon Valley culture, or, to be precise out of corporate Silicon Valley culture.

The book runs into a problem here. Daub is aware of, and writes extensively about, the counter cultural roots of some of the technology culture that he describes, but he assumes that it is now absorbed into corprorate structures and subverted into meaningless TED talks and empty PR-speak – but that is not entirely true. He, himself, is a professor at Stanford and there is a broad counter cultural community still left in the Bay Area. Look at the recent political shifts in downtown SF or at organizations such as the Foundation for the Long Now — these are signs that the counter culture is alive and well, so what Daub seems to limit himself to is the the way that “Corporate Silicon Valley” speaks.

By missing this distinction, Daub paints his target with too broad a brush and doesn’t engage with the fundamental ideas that still organize a lot of the discourse around technology in the region. That is a pity, because he is clearly very well-read and argues forcefully — so wasting that energy on a strawman version loosely put together seems unnecessary.

It is also part of the current discourse of technology criticism, itself a genre that has become lazy in the face of absolutely no resistance whatsoever.

If we were to critique Daub’s book with the same low-resolution analysis we would end up saying things like this:

  • Daub suggests that Silicon Valley is idolizing the dropout in order in order to advance a weird elitism anti-elitism that allows them to ignore accumulated knowledge, but instead of arguing for a less elitist model his critique slips back into the original, academic elitism, suggesting that tech entrepreneurs have only a shallow understanding of what are really complex problems only understood through years of academic study and university lectures.
  • Daub suggests that Silicon Valley is economically dependent on content, but refuses to engage with it – devaluing it both in partnerships and in moderation of their platforms. Content, he thinks, is a key driving force, but in doing so he reduces the people who use the technology to bystanders without any agency at the same time as ignoring the enormous explosion of creativity and content that the Internet has brought about.
  • Daub wants desperately to paint Silicon Valley tech bros as adolescent Randians focused on individual independence and rationality, but in doing so engages in the same rote simplification you find in the TED-talks he despises. Yes, there are people who read Rand in the Bay Area, but it is the most communitarian and liberal-leaning area in much of the US — so claiming Rand is the intellectual lodestar here is clearly not just a stretch argument, but a disappointingly sensationalist one.
  • When Daub turns to trolls he produces an interesting essay that is entirely decoupled from any analysis of Silicon Valley. The communication patterns that he is studying are not typical or unique for the area, and he makes this point himself, so claiming that the troll is a Californian species is not only not credible, but borders on guilt by association.
  • For someone intent on criticizing the shallow argument offered by tech thinkers, Daub suprsingly often falls for the temptation to make quick jabs and lazy attacks. In an otherwise interesting chapter on Girard and mimetic desire – and there is something to his criticism here – he writes “It’s highly dubious that Girard would have thought that the PayPal mafia was the solution to mimetic desire. Thiel likes the PayPal mafia so much he renders it sacred”. This is tweet-level trolling, from the mouth that condemns it.

We could go on, but let’s not. I think the reality is that this book is an important read. A book that could have been more, and should have been more, than it ended up being. I think Daub should have written that book. In that book we would have had to face harder questions, like questions around how progress and technological innovation really should be coupled in a democratic society or questions around what the Internet should evolve into if we could build it further into the future. It could be a book about the history of ideas clashing here – Ellul, Postman, Winner and on the other side the likes of Herman Kahn, John McCarthy (with his extreme optimism) and Herbert Simon. Or why not a real discussion about the ideas of Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil as key missing elements in the intellectual endeavor undertaken in the Bay Area.

Because this is the thing: a majority of tech leaders are interested in the intellectual debate about their industry and, in my albeit limited experience, committed to understanding how to best solve the fundamental challenges we are facing. That is quite the audience to be addressing – compare that with the leaderships and elites of past decades!

That is, I think, why it is so disappointing to see tech criticism succumb to the formulas and gestures of generic capitalist critiques.

But Daub’s book can be read for the nuggets of constructive criticism it contains as well, and that alone makes it worth your time (some resist this idea of constructive criticism – I remember Morozov telling me in a chat at Google that it was not his job to come with alternatives, that Adorno had it right when he said that the criticism should not engage in alternatives but tear down the edifice and then stand back – I can respect that, but think it, personally, a waste of time).

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