Friday, March 30, 2018

“Dante would hate venture capitalists.” This Easter, let’s consider Silicon Valley’s place in hell


A couple of weeks back, I wrote about the similarities between the Ellen Pao vs Kleiner trial, and a much older legal battle — that involving Ellen Colton and her 1883 suit filed against the so-called “Big Four” businessmen who built Central Pacific Railroad.

Today is Easter Sunday and maybe it’s the church bells ringing outside this coffee shop, mixed with my unsatisfied comprehension of the moral issues raised by Pao, that prompt me to look even further back. All the way, in fact, to 14th century Florence, which was experiencing its very own innovation-led boomtime, today remembered as the crucible of our modern civilization, the birthplace of the light that dispelled Europe’s medieval darkness.

But whereas today Silicon Valley has to make do with humble tech reporters like me, the people of Florence had a far more adroit, and celebrated, commentator on the behavior and morality of their city’s wealthiest citizens. His name: Dante Alighieri.

During the lifetime of Alighieri (1265 -1321), incredible new wealth was amassed in the central Italian city-state, on the success of innovations in the banking and textile industries. Alighieri wrote his epic trilogy The Divine Comedy in part to poke holes in the narratives propagated by Florence’s new tex billionaires. 

“The elite in Florence at that time wanted everyone to believe that their wealth was based on virtue, that it was the result of smart, virtuous people running things in a way that took care of everyone. That the rich would look after the poor and not merely enrich themselves,” said Steven Botterill, an Associate Professor of Italian Studies at UC Berkeley, and an expert on Dante.

Why, I asked Botterill, did Dante condemn Florence’s usurers deep in the pit of hell (tortured by flames while wearing sacks of lucre emblazoned with their coat of arms about their necks), while the prideful, avaricious and prodigal enjoyed lighter pains at his pen? The avaricious, those insatiables who’s treasure was never quite enough, are forced to lie on their bellies in the dirt. The overly or unduly proud shuffle around the escarpments of Mount Purgatory with great stones on their backs. Still, their humiliations have an expiration date.

“Dante did not think that money and intelligence were bad things. He believed in the dignity of hard work and that it should be rewarded. Those who maliciously defrauded others, who set out to bilk them of money, were obviously meant for hell. But he also believed that the overwhelming arrogance of those who benefit off the work of others deserved attentention. It was pride – the belief that you are better or more worthy than others, or a general sense of entitlement – that Dante saw as the root cause disrupting the social harmony of Florence,” Boterrill said. 

“Dante would hate venture capitalists,” he added later, as we discussed the many parallels between Dante’s Florence and our own historical moment. The reason? “He wouldn’t recognize what they do as actual work, and Dante’s chief nemesis was Pride.”

In the Divine Comedy, the first-person pilgrim passes through the Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise in turn, encountering contemporary and classical characters all along the way and learning of their treatment after death. Dante’s pilgrim was led by Virgil, because Virgil had made writing in Latin cool, but didn’t make it full Angel simply because he was born too early to avail himself of the One and True God who later revealed himself through the Roman Empire. Perhaps today a similar tour of the Silicon Valley afterlife would be guided by Gene Rodenberry, because he created Star Trek but died in 1991, too soon to witness the triumphant rise of the futurist technologists, who revealed themselves through venture funding.

With Gene as our guide, where might we find William Shockley, Eugene Kleiner or Steve Jobs? What would they tell us?

Back in 1300 CE Florence, Dante could call upon the widely-shared Christian concepts of Virtue to impugn the powerful. Today things are more difficult for writers of similar aspirations. The very idea of a unified morality system has been dashed stinking to the rubbish bin of communal abstraction – with the possible exception of economics, Adam Smith having been a severe Protestant and believer that Christian morals hold greed and excess in check. But even Smith’s moral theories are less well remembered than The Wealth of Nations, and today when isolated ethical conundra burble up on the front pages, our newly-minted titans of industry have learned just to grin and endure them, perhaps enlisting the aid of top-notch PR talent to speed along the forgetting....MORE

“Dante would hate venture capitalists.” This Easter, let’s consider Silicon Valley’s place in hell