Don’t blame flawed Silicon Valley for the rot of Wall Street and Washington

The techlash is well underway. Blame Facebook! Blame Google! Blame Amazon! (Apple and Microsoft still seem relatively immune, for now.) And, I mean, there’s a lot of objectively blameworthy behavior there, especially in that first case. But I find myself wondering: why does the ire go beyond that, into irrational territory? What is it about the tech industry that makes it such a particular target?

There are a sizable number of people out there who think — no, who don’t just think, who take as a given, as something no right-thinking person would ever dispute — that the most recent US presidential election went the way it did purely because of Facebook. Russians! Cambridge Analytica! This is of course nonsense. (Hello, James Comey. Hello, Citizens United. Hello, mass media who trumped up Hillary Clinton’s email non-scandal for months.) Why is that?

I think it’s obvious that media treatment of Facebook and Google has grown much harsher since they have begun to realize that Facebook and Google are rapidly devouring the advertising money on which the media feed. I’m not suggesting that publishers are telling journalists to be critical; I’m suggesting that journalists are individually well aware of what’s going in their industry and are individually, but en masse, aligning against the threats to their collective livelihood.

But it’s not just that. There’s an odd tinge of betrayal, and also of hope, to the techlash. I say “odd” but it makes perfect sense. People are especially angry at the tech industry because they view it as the last engine of power which actually might change. It’s the old story about the drunk looking under the lamppost for his keys, writ large.

My theory is that people no longer believe that there is any hope of meaningfully changing the venal rentier systems of Wall Street or Washington. A learned helplessness has set in. It is understood that those titanic forces are beyond all hope; that the system which is meant to control them has been corrupted, by regulatory capture, gerrymandering, court-packing, and so forth.

No vitriol or protest will affect Goldman Sachs or Mitch McConnell. People vent fury, and come together to fight individual horrors like the border camps, but they don’t seriously think the overall system can meaningfully change.

Technology, though — we’re all about change. …Right? We’re the shapers of the future. We’re the hope for a meaningfully better world. …Right?

But as the tech industry has become more powerful, it has also grown more cautious, and more conservative. Over the last decade its influence has attracted an influx of the kind of people who in another era would have gone to Wall Street or Washington; establishment scions who may take on the mantle of subversion, because it’s fashionable in California, but don’t actually intend any.

(This is why I like the blockchain / cryptocurrency world; it’s full of people who want to change the established system, believe it’s possible, have a vision of a new and better order, and think they’re implementing it. Sure, this also means they attract all kinds of charlatans, cheats, and lunatic fringes — but whether they’re right or not, compared to the sclerotic mainstream, their approach is hugely appealing.)

I’m not saying mainstream change is impossible; just that the system has bred learned helplessness to that effect. I’m not saying tech is now a bastion of conservatism; just that it’s less quietly subversive than it used to be.

And I’m by no means saying that Silicon Valley doesn’t deserve criticism. I am, however, saying that raging at it for the absence of outcomes that only Wall Street and Washington can bring is pretty counterproductive. Better to remember that often the fault lies not in our social media, Horatio, but in our elected representatives; and if that system of representation itself has gone awry, there’s may not be a lot that technology itself can do about it.

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