Yesterday, we talked about the title (slavery and genocide are great!) and first paragraph (who needs a state when you can have private companies?!). Today, we've got some finer, higher-class bullshit. Let's go!
Paragraph 2: Capitalist as Expert
At the noisy end of the room, Graham was cheerfully encouraging improbable schemes. At the quiet end, Sam Altman was absorbed in private calculations. When founders came over to talk, he’d train his green eyes on them, listen to their propositions, then crisply observe, “What everyone gets wrong about that is . . .” In 2014, Graham chose Altman—who, at thirty-one, is twenty years his junior—to succeed him as Y Combinator’s president. The two men share a close friendship, a religious zeal for YC, and an inexplicable fondness for cargo shorts. But, where Graham proposes, Altman disposes. At Graham’s table, he and others discussed how to stop Donald Trump, then decided to reach out to an affiliated expert: Chris Lehane, a former White House lawyer now at the YC company Airbnb. Altman declared, “The best idea seems to be just to support Hillary.”
Altman has significant experience in two things, if we're generous: mobile social media apps, and tech investment. He is not a politician, and he has no experience in politics. He didn't even get a liberal arts education. And even Paul Graham, not exactly the world's humblest person, realizes political strategy needs experts.
But not Sam Altman! While Graham ask an actual expert, Altman makes a profound declaration: The best way to beat someone is to do things that help their opponent win! Truly a towering intellect.
This is an ideological framing: the two are presented just as different, equally valid styles. Because both men possess thousands of times as much capital as the average American, it is assumed that they do what they do for good reasons, and that they have deep knowledge of everything they approach. In this worldview, wealth confers value and implies intelligence, to such a degree that an extremely wealthy person is assumed to be anyone else's equal on any subject. Sam Altman can proclaim, on any subject, "what everyone gets wrong" about it, and where a steelworker would be laughed at for it, he's taken seriously.
At a hundred and thirty pounds, Altman is poised as a clothespin, fierce as a horned owl. Even in a Valley that worships productivity, he is an outlier, plowing through e-mails and meetings as if strapped to a time bomb, his unblinking stare speeding up colleagues until they sound like chipmunks. Though he is given to gee-whizzery about anything “super awesome”—Small amounts of radiation are actually good for you! It’s called radiation hormesis!—he has scant interest in the specifics of the apps that many YC companies produce; what intrigues him is their potential effect on the world. To determine that, he’ll upload all he needs to know about, say, urban planning or nuclear fusion. Patrick Collison, the C.E.O. of the electronic-payments company Stripe, likened Altman’s brain to the claw machine on a carnival midway: “It roams around but has the ability to plunge very deep when necessary.”
It's Friday afternoon and the temptation to make e̶m̧̧a̸͝i͡l͏ş̀ jokes is great, but we must be strong. Courage! We're almost done for the day.
The Cult of Productivity
In Silicon Valley (and America in general), maximizing the work you're able to do is assumed to be virtuous. It's not just good from a practical perspective, it's good from a moral perspective. There's a pretty straightforward source for this, actually: It came from the Calvinist-dominated Puritanism of early colonial New England, which had gotten its start in Germany.
Moving forward through American history, this was where we got the Gilded Age industrialists who told their underpaid and exploited workers that hard work was for their moral betterment. Children working in factories til they dropped were "building moral character," through the crucible of hard labor, or whatever. Activists and labor organizers had to fight this attitude in the push for the 40 hour week, for safer and more humane factory conditions, and all the other worker protections that came about as a reaction to industrialists' abuses.
That has carried through today in many ways. For example: there's a common belief on the American center-left that working hard entitles you to health care. That sounds nice, sure, but why isn't everyone entitled to health care, whether they work hard or not? And more specific to tech: the startup that works its employees 60, 70, 80 hours a week is just accepted. It's seen as normal, even good to respond to work emails on weekends and vacations. It's just what you do, right?
In practice, what it means is that in the tech sector, many employees' lives are dominated by their employer, to the exclusion of everyone else. It makes it very easy to exploit people, and very hard for them to leave. All their friends are at work, so they won't have a support network if they leave. They don't have any friends telling them "this isn't normal, this isn't healthy, we miss you." And they don't even really have time to look for a new job if they decide they want to leave.
It's important to point out here, I'm not saying Friend or Sam Altman think we should go back to the Gilded Age and strip all protections for workers. I'm sure both of them think the Gilded Age was terrible and unjust. I'm trying to tease out the implicit, unconsidered underpinnings of their ideology. Our ideologies shape what we actually produce and create, every bit as much as our stated beliefs. And their ideology has created that toxic workaholic startup culture.
An aside: Religion in the cult of Reason
It's funny, because Silicon Valley usually prides itself on being above things like religion. But this attitude is straight up called the Protestant Ethic. Max Weber literally wrote the book on it, but I'll just pull another quote from Wikipedia, because it gives the gist reasonably well:
[C]apitalism in Northern Europe evolved when the Protestant (particularly Calvinist) ethic influenced large numbers of people to engage in work in the secular world, developing their own enterprises and engaging in trade and the accumulation of wealth for investment. In other words, the Protestant work ethic was an important force behind the unplanned and uncoordinated emergence of modern capitalism. (Emphasis mine)
I hate to keep harping on ideological spillage, but it's really noticeable here too: Silicon Valley doesn't "like" productivity, or "encourage" productivity, or even "cultivate" productivity. "[Silicon] Valley worships productivity." The language is explicitly religious. Later in "SAMD," when we get into AI, this implicit religiosity is going to be much more important.
In To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov talks about something called "solutionism." He quotes Gilles Pacquet, saying
"Solutionism" interprets issues as puzzles to which there is a solution, rather than problems to which there may be a response.
More broadly speaking, solutionism is the "solve it with an app!" attitude that pervades Silicon Valley. Notice how Altman isn't concerned with the details, because it's just assumed that they're irrelevant. With his vague knowledge of any given area (see the "wealth makes experts" attitude again?), it's just taken as given that he can predict the impact things will have on the world.
This is completely bonkers. In many cases it takes deep expertise to make any kind of prediction at all, and mostly the people who know enough to make a prediction also know enough to realize their predictions are guesswork. The more ambitious projects Y Combinator funds purport to solve incredibly complex social problems, many with hundreds of years of history driving them. It might have been easy to predict that the telegraph would change the world. But was it easy to predict what would come of the combustion engine? Hardly. No one predicted suburbia, urban sprawl, white flight, the incredible logistical control trucking enabled, or any of the social phenomena that came out of any one of those.
People who think they know everything about complex problems, when really they know hardly anything, are extremely dangerous. They will disrupt existing systems that are there for a reason, simply because they don't understand the reason. This failure of understanding is so common it has a name: Chesterton's Fence. Here's the original formulation:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
This gets back to the captialist-as-expert thing. In this ideology, because Altman is wealthy and successful, he must know the details of any issue he attacks. Someone in this frame of mind can't imagine it being otherwise, because it's a core pillar of their worldview. This is another point you'll see me harp on in future posts because it comes up over and over and over.
"Upload all he needs to know"
This sentence scans really strangely. Consider it a preview of things to come: this isn't metaphorical, just aspirational. These are singulatarians. When they say upload, they really, really mean "upload."
All right, I'm more than 50% over my self-imposed word limit again, so I'll shut up and let y'all go get drunk or whatever. Next week we'll cover autism, douchebaggery, and if I've got space, one half of the secret sauce driving the entire capitalist engine: MCM'.