(Back to part 2)

It's been a bit! I've been busy with exchanging my labor for currency, also just with life. Anyway! Onward and downward (through the article)!

Paragraph 4: Techie "lol Apergers" garbage

A blogger recently asked Altman, “How has having Asperger’s helped and hurt you?” Altman told me, “I was, like, ‘Fuck you, I don’t have Asperger’s!’ But then I thought, I can see why he thinks I do. I sit in weird ways”—he folds up like a busted umbrella—“I have narrow interests in technology, I have no patience for things I’m not interested in: parties, most people. When someone examines a photo and says, ‘Oh, he’s feeling this and this and this,’ all these subtle emotions, I look on with alien intrigue.” Altman’s great strengths are clarity of thought and an intuitive grasp of complex systems. His great weakness is his utter lack of interest in ineffective people, which unfortunately includes most of us. I found his assiduousness alarming at first, then gradually endearing. When I remarked, after a few long days together, that he never seemed to visit the men’s room, he said, “I will practice going to the bathroom more often so you humans don’t realize that I’m the A.I.”

Ughhhhhhh. At this point I recommend you go take a few shots if you drink. If not, I dunno, just be strong for me, ok? This is gonna be a rough paragraph.

Being kind of a dick: not actually the same as Aspergers.

Aspergers is an actual thing. It sits on the autism spectrum. It refers to a highly specific (although not necessarily well-understood) condition. A certain kind of techie loves to self-diagnose "certain Aspergers traits" or whatever. I don't know why. I've thought about it a lot, and I really don't. But it's deeply insulting to people who actually have Aspergers, because it's used basically as an excuse for being 1) incurious about anything outside your tiny little area, and 2) a douchebag. Neither of those are actually what "having Aspergers" means.

This isn't an ideology thing, so much, and I realize I'm ranting a bit. But it's a really awful tic way too many tech people have and it makes me really angry.

Also, "fuck you I don't have Aspergers," no, fuck you Sam Altman, for treating that as an insult.

Ok, back to ideology, I promise.

There is also an ideological component here. Let me re-quote quickly:

His great weakness is his utter lack of interest in ineffective people, which unfortunately includes most of us. I found his assiduousness alarming at first, then gradually endearing

It's "his greatest weakness," but it's really not treated like a weakness. It's treated as one more piece of evidence that he is a Great Man, above normal human concerns like any consideration for people around him who aren't equally much Great Men.

What does this tell us? Well, first, that valuing people based on their effectiveness[1] is normal and good. The mention-in-passing here is actually pretty striking to me, because I think that's a horrifying way to value people. It places business ability over compassion, kindness, generosity, or any other moral value. It's an extremely Randian way to look at the world, and I don't think Altman necessarily even recognizes that.

Notice also "which unfortunately includes most of us." One paragraph later, we're already back to this. Because Altman is a successful, wealthy capitalist, he must be above the rest of us in some meaningful way. It's just taken as a given here, and the author doesn't even recognize he's doing it. It's the perfect example of ideology, because my favorite (kind of glib) definition of ideology is what you do when you do not know you are doing it.

Paragraph 5

When he took over YC, he inherited a budding colossus. The venture capitalist Chris Dixon told me, “They created the greatest business model of all time. For basically no money”— YC gives each company just a hundred and twenty thousand dollars, to cover expenses—“they get seven per cent of a lot of the best startups in Silicon Valley!” Collectively, YC companies are worth eighty billion dollars, a valuation that has grown seventeenfold in the past five years.

Ah, here we go! This is naked capitalism. And I don't mean that in a pejorative sense, either (well ok I also mean it in a pejorative sense, but not just in a pejorative sense). It's just that there's nothing really hidden in this paragraph. It's very upfront about what it is, you just have to know a little bit of economics to understand what's going on.

Background/Aside: M-C-M'

This will be your brief and offensively simplified introduction to Karl! For those of you in the center or on the right, don't worry, there's nothing particularly leftist about this. It's just a convenient way of explaining the underlying transfers of commodities and currency in a capitalist system.

In short, Marx refers to two formulas: C-M-C and M-C-M. C-M-C is when a commodity is exchanged for money, and then that money is exchanged for a new commodity, or "selling in order to buy." M-C-M is the opposite: you start with money, you buy a commodity, and then you resell that commodity: "buying to sell." M-C-M' is the modified form of M-C-M, and the simple core of capitalism: you start with money, you buy a commodity, and then you sell it for more money, or in other words, "buying to sell dearer." This formula, in practice, is how capital accumulates.

Y-C-Y'

The trick YC has pulled here is that, rather than buying and selling a commodity, they buy[2] and sell partial ownership of companies that themselves purport to do something (usually to produce something, but not always). Friend celebrates this as brilliant and maybe it is, but I think it's also a bit disturbing.

Startup founders are generally pretty well off to begin with. YC provides them with very little apart from some advice, the money to make one hire (or two if they really stretch it) for one year, and "exposure"[3]. In exchange, YC gets a significant ownership stake in the company. Most startups fail, but that share can be worth hundreds of millions for the ones that succeed. Since YC barely has costs, it's nearly free money.

This kind of meta-capitalism is a great example of how even well-off people are exploited in capitalism. On the one hand, the mere fact of having capital ($120,000 / company in YC is a lot more than most people can afford, and the mere fact of having money gives YC prestige) gives YC enormous power to accumulate more capital. On the other hand, even the well-off founders don't have capital in significant enough quantities to do things independently, so they have to sell a significant share of their future success just to get started, never mind in later funding rounds. Even if you accept the idea of "meritocracy" as good, merit really doesn't come into it here. There are the 0.1% who have capital and can become even richer basically by default, and the 99.9% who don't, and are forced to help the rich become richer to have their own shot at success.

Wrap up

Whew! Only 1300 words this time! I'm getting better at this. As a quick recap: this post, we saw the really offensive (and kind of out of character? Altman seems like a mostly decent person, just with what I think is a seriously flawed view of the world) faux-Aspergers-as-excuse techie tic. We also saw how YC, rather than just being a standard capitalist company, functions more as a sort of a meta-capitalist. We've already talked about capitalist-as-expert and wealth-as-virtue, but next post (hopefully this week, but I'm not sure if I'll have time) we'll see the capitalist-as-hero narrative showing up for the first time in SAMD. We'll also get a much bigger dose of solutionism than we did last post, so brace yourself!

(Back to part 2, forward to part 4)


  1. Which is its own can of worms. What does "effectiveness" mean? It goes back to the "cult of productivity" stuff I talked about in part 2. tldr: When it's used by people with this kind of attitude, it means your ability to produce profit. ↩︎

  2. You can quibble over "buy" here, but they exchange investment money for ownership shares. That sounds like buying to me ↩︎

  3. Ask your artist friends about "exposure" ↩︎