Friday, May 19, 2023

"Silicon Valley’s Civil War"

From Tablet Magazine, May 14:

Tech’s leadership is splitting into two elites—and the battle between them will shape America’s future

With an estimated net worth of over $1 billion, Marc Andreessen, co-founder of the Netscape browser and venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, is far from an everyman. And yet Andreessen’s biting criticisms of the “entrenched oligarchic structure of the present regime” have made him one of the surprising figureheads of a growing anti-elite movement that could—depending on which side wins out—reshape America’s political and social future.

Andreessen is one of the more prominent names in a new class of tech wealth that includes figures like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel whose political vision and methods conflict both with dot-com tech titans like Bill Gates and Pierre Omidyar, as well as with those of old world industry and media, like Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner. While it might seem strange, given his own position of power, for someone like Andreessen to criticize elites, the truth is that elites have cliques, just like the rest of us. And in the cafeteria of America’s billionaires, Andreessen and his peers are hurling food and spoiling for a fight, while the incumbents are calling in favors at the State Department and New York Times.

Of course, neither camp is driven solely by high-minded ideals, but both maintain fundamentally irreconcilable views of the kind of country they want to build. While Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, respectively, founders of LinkedIn and eBay, pledged $27 million to help artificial intelligence “vindicate social values of fairness … and justice,” Andreessen publicly laments the ill effects of training artificial intelligence on the “woke mind virus.” Marc Benioff’s company, Salesforce, announced last year that they would tie executive pay to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives, which Andreessen has sharply criticized.

While these disagreements may look like a contest between conservatives and liberals, the reality is not that simple. Garry Tan, a successful investor who is now the president and CEO of famed startup incubator Y Combinator, has been a vocal critic of San Francisco’s progressive politics in recent years, while affirming that he has “always been and likely will always be a Democrat.” He and Andreessen, like others, appear to believe instead that this disagreement is centered around the embrace or rejection of a certain set of principles—uncovering and amplifying the best talent, valuing meritocracy over credentialism, fixing problems by circumventing institutions, and thinking from first principles—which underpin the tech industry’s runaway success.

Both camps also believe that the other team is the root of the country’s (and maybe the world’s) problems. It’s a fight worth watching, and understanding, because its outcome will have long-term implications for all of us.

From the late 1990s through the late 2010s, the dominant American elite was represented by what political scientist Samuel P. Huntington once called the “Davos Man”—a reference to the Swiss resort town where the World Economic Forum (WEF) holds its annual conclave of elites—who believe that an interconnected global citizenship is the key to humanity’s future. Their worldview relates to the way they made their wealth, starting with an investment banking boom that was driven by decreased regulation and technical advances in computing in the 1970s and 1980s, combined with the birth of the internet. Today it is dominated by executives in finance and management consulting, who mingle with early tech pioneers, academics, and NGO executives.

The Davos elite view the improvement of society as a management consulting problem, like estimating the number of pingpong balls in South American coastal resorts or mapping out the supply chain issues of the Fortune 100, which is precisely what made them successful in the business world. It’s marked by trends such as social entrepreneurship, impact investing, triple bottom line, and ESG, lauded for their professionalized ways of improving the world while (or by) making it more efficient.

This philosophy was accelerated by developments taking place in the late 20th century, when digital technology made global commerce and communication even easier to realize, and liberal democracy’s triumph over Soviet communism was thought to mark the end of grand geopolitical wars. The institutions birthed in that era reflected this view of the world: the Clinton Foundation, with its vision of global interdependence; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which focused on global health and reducing extreme poverty; George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, chiefly concerned with spreading democracy throughout the world. Certainly, these organizations have achieved some laudable accomplishments. The Gates Foundation, for example, single-handedly revived the field of malaria research and helped vaccinate millions of people from measles and tuberculosis.

By focusing on global issues, however, America’s Davos elite let its attention drift from the homeland. Because they came of age in the internet and global commerce era, they primarily identify as citizens of the world, rather than any one nation-state. The New York Times called this group “new globalists” as far back as 1972, noting their belief that “multinational business is creating the basis for peace and a new world order.” The collective power of these multinational corporations and nonprofits seemed to supersede American hegemony. A wave of global associations formed to consolidate and amplify this denationalized power, including the World Economic Forum, the Business Roundtable and the Trilateral Commission.

In the late 1990s, the internet—and the data it contains—became a primary “resource” for this new, stateless society to control. Under the stewardship of the Davos elite, the American federal government, instead of being made to serve its own people, was repurposed as a globalized tool to manage and secure stores of data. In the mid-2010s, just prior to the tech backlash, FBI Director James Comey pushed aggressively for Congress to mandate the inclusion of so-called “backdoors” in the products of tech companies like Apple and Google, which would be used by federal surveillance agencies. Apple vigorously pushed back on this request, stating in a public letter that backdoors would “undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect,” and affirming that their dissent came from “the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country.”....