(Back to part 3)

Well this took a turn. I'm going to set the article aside for now, because it's now very clear there's outside context that needs talking about. That outside context's name is...

Peter Thiel

It's way too late to mince words, so let's be clear: Peter Thiel is a vengeful neo-fascist wannabe-vampire. He is also one of the most prominent venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. Among other things, he sits on the Facebook board and serves in an advisory role at Y-Combinator. His investment advice is often treated as near-gospel.

Many of us have asked that Thiel be removed from these positions of influence. As things stand today, Thiel has enormous power to shape the future of companies and people in Silicon Valley ("Altman’s approach to investment has been shaped by Peter Thiel," SAMD tells us). Thiel doesn't believe women should have the franchise, so I don't believe he should have any power over anyone else.

He remains, and Altman continues to defend him. Why? Well, some of it is personal: Altman has said he considers Thiel a personal friend. But that's not all of it, and anyway that wouldn't explain people like Zuckerberg (who has himself been shockingly craven in addressing technology's role in the rise of American fascism). No, there's also a philosophical and ideological issue here.

Liberalism and Diversity

First, I should point out that by most normal measures I'm a liberal myself. A lot of people just use "liberal" and "left" interchangeably, so definitely by that I qualify. And compared to some of my friends on the left, definitely I'm a liberal in the sometimes-pejorative sense of being too squishy and accommodating of the right, and extremely wary of any kind of use of force or viewpoint-based exclusion.

All that said, Altman's "liberal" defense of Thiel is like a funhouse mirror version of every liberal value I hold. He said he would not cut Thiel out of YC because,

YC is not going to fire someone for supporting a major party nominee. That's a dangerous path to start down. [...] Cutting off opposing viewpoints leads to extremism and will not get us the country we want. Diversity of opinion is painful but critical to the health of a democratic society. We can't start purging people for political support.

In the strange alternate universe where I had a face-to-face conversation with him about this, Altman would probably point out I don't think companies should be able to fire employees for their political views. It's true, but it's also a false equivalence. I take that position because of the power imbalance between an employer and an employee. Thiel is not an employee, he is a "part-time partner." He does not work for YC, he is part of YC.

It also misses another point: Thiel holds power over others. A man who doesn't believe women should have the franchise has power over women trying to put startups through YC. This is not asking that someone whose politics cannot impact their work be fired. There is no way to separate his politics from his work.

And that's where Sam Altman's weird version of liberalism shows up. For Altman, liberal ideals are not about protecting the weak from the strong, or ensuring they can be free to express themselves in the face of vast power gulfs. For Altman liberalism means insulating people from consequences for their speech, not just from the state but from other private citizens. Any consequence other than more speech is, in his view, illiberal. This kind of bizarro-liberalism is common in tech and especially among tech's elites. It shields people like Thiel from any consequences when they cause people harm. And mostly, it is deployed to shield the powerful from the weak.

"No politics week"

In another you-can't-make-this-shit-up twist, while this was sitting in my drafts because I was too worn out to finish it, Hacker News[1] declared a week-long ban on political posts. Hilariously, this happened the same week that Trump called a tech summit (something obviously within the realm of what HN is supposed to discuss). There's so much unexamined ideological baggage here that the HN mods have probably had to subcontract with UPS.

FIRST! Demanding no discussion of politics is itself inherently political! We straight white cis etc men can usually afford to set politics aside. It affects us, but our fundamental rights, up to and including our basic right to exist, aren't up for debate. Minorities and women do not have this luxury. They can't avoid politics because doing politics is straight up self-defense.

SECOND! What falls under a ban on politics? Did they ban discussion of venture capital? Of wages? Of deeply political software? No, of course not, because the ideology of Y Combinator demands that we ignore the politics inherent in all of these. So what this ban really means is "only the politics deeply embedded in the moderators' own ideologies are allowed this week."

They're privileging a specific, narrow political viewpoint. And they don't mean to! They don't even realize they're doing it! At the risk of sounding a lot more like Zizek than I'd like, this is what ideology is. They genuinely don't even recognize that these subjects are political because, in their worldview, there is so obviously a correct position. Anyone who thinks otherwise must be crazy. It's not from SAMD, but it very well could be, because this is how the whole article works. It makes these broad claims without even understanding it's making a claim, and then assumes we'll all be on board.

Silicon Valley's failure

This is where and why the tech industry has failed so badly in so many ways this year. Our titans of industry don't even recognize that computers are making disastrous mistakes humans would not, or when they do, they see them as inevitable and unfixable. Why? Because in the Valley, it's religious dogma[2] that you solve problems with computers, or at most with more engineers to teach the computers. You don't solve problems by giving humans a more active role. And, vitally, many people in tech do not realize they're making this assumption. It's just a basic element of the world to them.

Fixing racist bile in search results, or enormous amounts of fake news influencing elections, or disturbing harassment driving people off your platform, requires recognizing this assumption and rejecting it. Well-intentioned techies will need to learn from the liberal arts they love to rag on, because people in the liberal arts have spent decades thinking about and working on this exact problem. How do you find your own ideology-induced blindspots? And how do you overcome them? There's no one solution, but lots of people have made progress on this. It's on us to pay attention.

This ties back to Sam Altman because YC owns HN, but it's also tangled up in his weird version of liberalism. Because Altman doesn't recognize the ideological underpinnings of his stance, what has happened over the last year hasn't made him reconsider. I've been there, so I know what it feels like: you get the sense that you're biting the bullet, that in a world with no good options you're doing the hard thing and sticking to your principles. Without seeing the source of your principles, you literally can't recognize that new facts have falsified those principles. That they're now demonstrably wrong. Because you don't even recognize that they come from the thing proved wrong.

You see this all over the tech industry on different issues. "Meritocracy," automation, centralization, failure to address abuse, and so on, they all boil down to Silicon Valley's dominant ideology, and our resistance to examining it. That ideology has made our industry sick. If we're not careful, it will kill it. Or worse, it will turn us all into propagandists and spies in the new age of fascism. You might think this is hyperbole, but I mean it very literally. Our ideology shapes everything we do. It's time to stop hiding from it, and to stand up.


  1. For those who don't know, Hacker News is a tech forum run by YC. It has a...reputation, especially in the left-tech world. ↩︎

  2. I mean this literally. The reaction when you push back on it is very similar to the reaction when you insult someone's religion to their face. ↩︎