© Salim Santa Lucia
Once a hotbed of the counter-culture, Silicon Valley has radically changed over the years – to the point where its has become more menacing than fascinating. Leaders League met with the journalist Fabien Benoît, who traveled to the Bay Area to research his latest book entitled ‘The Valley’.
Leaders League. How would you define the prevailing political ideology in Silicon Valley?
Fabien Benoît. It is very heavily influenced by libertarianism. This ideology, little understood in Europe, has become an important political sentiment in the United States, thanks in the main to the work of Ayn Rand. Libertarians place above all else the freedom of the individual and private property. They reject the state – or ‘big government’ – its taxes, bureaucracy and propensity to restrict innovation with red-tape. According to the libertarian philosophy, companies can be substitutes for states. Elon Musk of Space X or the investor Peter Thiel are avid fans of this way of thinking. In recent years there has also been a strong strand of transhumanism running through Silicon Valley, which advocates advancing the human condition through the widespread use of sophisticated technology. Behind the ideology, it’s clear that crass capitalism and a disregard for established rules have set the tune in Silicon Valley for some time now.
Has the ideology behind Silicon Valley evolved over the decades?
It has changed little by little, yes. In the 1970s, software engineers in the San Francisco bay area were heavily influenced by the counter-culture movement and the new left. For them, computers were a means of creating an egalitarian society based on sharing. Things started to change at the end of the decade. In 1976 Bill Gates, the future boss of Microsoft, sent his ‘open letter to hobbyists’ demanding that developers using his software pay for the privilege. This was a break from the sentiment in Silicon Valley at the time, which was very much about sharing knowledge and improving together.
How did Silicon Valley go from leftism to ultra-capitalism?
As the 1970s went on, the hippie movement died out and its tenets fell out of favor. Specialists in computing and new technologies began to see entrepreneurism as the best way to change society. A number of figures steeped in the left launched their own businesses and became libertarians. This shift was quite smooth as hippies and libertarians shared a number of key ideas, such as the denunciation of bureaucracy and the importance of individual liberties.
In 1993 Wired magazine was launched with a clear editorial line: technology is a tool of freedom and emancipation and the presence of government in public life had to be reduced. A number of left-leaning-thinkers were among the creators of Wired and they were instrumental in cementing the new intellectual framework of Silicon Valley.
Is this new way of thinking dangerous?
It has become excessive. Some companies are so powerful that they can influence elections. These days the Gafa buy up tech startups at an early stage, thus stifling competition and innovation, all in the name of profit. Add to this their policy of fiscal optimization and use of zero-hour contracts and the picture becomes pretty bleak. The mentality of certain directors in Silicon Valley is alarming: a handful of powerful and intelligent people are in a position to bypass governments and decide what is good for everyone. In a nutshell, Silicon Valley has become anti-democratic.
What can be done about this?
Countries can take action. In the US, the idea that the Gafa should be broken up because of antitrust concerns is gaining popularity. Chris Hughes, the co-founder of Facebook, has suggested the company be split into several independent entities.
The European Union has taken on the Gafa. The EU has the size and influence to impose its will on the giants of Silicon Valley, where an individual country would struggle. The GDPR is a good example, even if certain countries, such as Ireland, have done very well by allowing these companies to bend the rules regarding taxes. But above all, it is these companies’ customers who have the power. A boycott might be the best way to rein in companies driven by profit. This is possible as people are no longer in awe of Silicon Valley and have had their eyes opened regarding how companies there operate.
Is it an exaggeration to say that Silicon Valley is more powerful than a country?
No. In terms of GDP, California would be the world’s sixth-biggest economy if it were a country. Countries have begun to name ambassadors to certain Silicon Valley companies and we have seen how Mark Zuckerberg is greeted by governments with the pomp and ceremony normally reserved for heads of state.
‘The Valley’, by Fabien Benoît, is out now in paperback