There is a theme gaining traction in some of the writing I’ve come across lately, and I think I just want to flag it as a compelling topic to which I’d like to return in more depth. It’s the idea of Silicon Valley and the tech industry as a new kind of religious center, where there is a sort of blind faith, a zealotry about the redeeming power of technology and the Internet.
You can probably already predict the contours of the discussion: For some, there’s a genuine potential for revolutions in health, education, and overall efficiency that might be born from the tech world, the iceberg of which we’ve only seen the tip. For the other side, it’s a deep skepticism along with almost a parental worry about wayward young entrepreneurs.
A couple of samples that have caught my eye of late — and I should state that I’m less interested in anti-tech alarmism that I feel like comes from the likes of Nicholas Carr and others, as smart as I think he is. Here’s George Packer in a piece more broadly about Silicon Valley and its early forays into politics. But it gets at the theme:
The industry’s splendid isolation inspires cognitive dissonance, for it’s an article of faith in Silicon Valley that the technology industry represents something more utopian, and democratic, than mere special-interest groups. [ . . . ]
When financiers say that they’re doing God’s work by providing cheap credit, and oilmen claim to be patriots who are making the country energy-independent, no one takes them too seriously—it’s a given that their motivation is profit. But when technology entrepreneurs describe their lofty goals there’s no smirk or wink. “Many see their social responsibility fulfilled by their businesses, not by social or political action,” one young entrepreneur said of his colleagues. “It’s remarkably convenient that they can achieve all their goals just by doing their start-up.” He added, “They actually think that Facebook is going to be the panacea for many of the world’s problems. It isn’t cynicism—it’s arrogance and ignorance.”
And then there’s this piece on Medium from Adam Ierymenko, who has a deep-seeded disdain for what he sees as the Valley’s youth-based messianism, which, though a little unhinged at times, gets more to the meat of what interests me about this topic:
All the Valley’s talk about transhumanism, human potential, life extension, and generally “changing the world” is a bunch of hooey. It’s a myth — in the pejorative sense of that term. It’s a fluffy religion meant to snooker young professionals into giving their employers everything they have and working their brains down to the myelin until they become too old to be relevant anymore.
He goes on to suggest that if the technorati think that only their age bracket can have any meaningful effect on the species, that perhaps Mark Zuckerberg should just off himself before he gets into his thirties, because why bother. Again, a little unhinged, but colorful.
As a professional skepto-atheist, as well as a tech aficionado (and not to mention one who really hopes the Singularitarians are right), this discussion hits the spot for me intellectually. Expect more on this from me. I’m in the middle of two books, Long for This World by Jonathan Weiner (who wrote the fantastic The Beak of the Finch), about the quest for longevity and immortality, and Our Final Invention, an admittedly less-fantastic book that warns of the near-inevitability of our demise via the rise of AI.
So I think we’ll be coming back to this.