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Book Review—What Tech Calls Thinking

Einam Livnat
May 4, 2021

What Tech Calls Thinking: An Inquiry Into the Intellectual Bedrock of Silicon Valley
by Adrian Daub
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $15.00

In the 1999 film Pirates of Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs (Noah Wyle) and Steve Wozniak (Joey Slotnick) ditch the scene of a clash between UC Berkeley students and police in 1971. As they catch their breath, Jobs says: “Those guys think they’re revolutionaries. They’re not revolutionaries, we are.” Director Martin Burke shares what is now a common opinion about tech capitalists, that it is not the antiwar activists “who were determined to overthrow the establishment,” but entrepreneurs like Jobs and Gates “who changed the way the world thinks, acts and communicates.” When the tear gas settles, after all, the activists have little to show for: at best shortening a genocidal war on Vietnam—a trifle compared to the iPad or blue screen of death.

The idea that the tech industry represents a paradigm shift from tired old corporate America is nothing new. In the 1990s, we heard about the marvels of the “New Economy,” which Doug Henwood characterized as “the latest incarnation of an old elite desire to put workers and the ugly things that sometimes come with them out of sight.” The expression fell out of fashion after the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, but the tech industry’s ethos of oblivious conceit is more embarrassing than ever. In a strangely-titled book, Adrian Daub debunks some of the more obnoxious pretensions that have emerged from the matrimony of venture capital and tech. What Daub is referring to in the title are those trimmings of pseudo-philosophy and intellectual posturing that tech industry mouthpieces use to pat themselves on the back. They see their industry as an ethereal, creative and revolutionary boon to society.

Strangely perhaps, some of Daub’s punching bags are not techies in the usual sense, but people he sees as representatives of tech ideology, such as Elon Musk (cars and Mars), Elizabeth Holmes (ponzi-pharma), and Peter Thiel (string-free finance). At any rate, this particular flavor of capitalist ideology that the industry has concocted for its purposes is fairly easy to ridicule, and Daub just can’t get enough of how inane it can be. With a flick of the wrist, Daub takes on the “genius dropout” myth, which is really just individualism and fake anti-establishmentarianism, perhaps with a faint residue of ‘60s counterculture. The likes of Jobs, Gates and Zuckerberg only need to dabble in college coursework, drop out, maybe drop some acid (you know, so they can think outside the box), and they’re ready to “disrupt” an industry.

Another target is platform-fetishism, especially in corporate social networks—a grotesque manifestation of MacLuhan’s maxim “the medium is the message.” Google, Facebook and Twitter are only responsible for the platform (the medium), and are so very proud of it. This means that the users who create the content, being non-employees, work without pay. And it means that these companies take no responsibility for the content, as they just shovel it around. “Twitter was happy to take responsibility for Tahrir Square, it seems, but Nazis are someone else’s problem,” Daub writes. “To create content is to be distracted. To create the ‘platform’ is to focus on the true structure of reality.” Now, this is all true, but why? Are techies so obsessed with platforms because they haven’t read enough Adorno? No, it’s the same profit motive behind any other industry. These corporations are beholden to their real customers, who are not the users but advertising companies. Every decision is made to maximize user “engagement” through ads, everything else follows. Daub is so delighted to expose the insipid ideological excrescences of the industry that he often glosses over the economic and social machinery behind it.

FSG Originals, October 2020, 160 pages

In some cases, Daub seems to miss what is actually intelligible or true—even if trivially so—in the tech-bro shibboleths. For example, he derides the product designer David Kelley, who is not quite a tech figure per se but provides “an inadvertent example of what tech calls thinking.” As Daub relates, Kelley said that tech companies used to be “focused on products or objects,” whereas in recent years  they’ve “climbed Maslow’s hierarchy a little bit.” The issue is Kelley’s glib evocation of Maslow in order to seem profound, the hierarchy of needs having become a tidbit of TED-esque popular psychology. Kelley was not referring specifically to tech in that context, however. And his idea, which really goes back to Edward Bernays, is that exploiting psychological and social drives in order to sell commodities is a winning strategy.

Cars, for example, do much more than take us from A to B these days. They are marketed (and thus often seen) as bearers of social status and family values. The first example Kelley gives of climbing the Maslow hierarchy is his design of a Prada store, in which customers can interact with each other via video feeds as they try on clothes. Indeed, socializing is higher on the Maslow hierarchy than merely being clothed. Daub seems to be reading too much into Kelley’s pretension, and counterposes it with this: “Kelley doesn’t say ‘The philosopher Martin Heidegger proposed that human subjectivity can be understood only as a mode of being-in-the-world,’ or anything like that.” Quite. Bringing out the big Dasein guns for Kelley’s “human-centered design” would perhaps satisfy a few academics. But more to the point, all Kelley was saying is that corporations intervene on our fantasies, emotions, and social interactions. The evocation of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy is apt, albeit Maslow on Prozac—a commodified ersatz of his hierarchy’s upper strata. Sadly, this is the only hierarchy of needs that most people know (hence the need for Prozac). It is almost as if Daub cannot help but take the subjects of his critique too seriously—giving them too much credit as a launchpad for giving them none.

Another example is a chapter devoted almost entirely to the sterile fascination with René Girard’s mimetic “philosophy” among accumulators like Peter Thiel. It is not that Daub’s deconstruction is misguided, he usually hits the nail on the head. Here too, however, Thiel explains in an interview how Girard influenced him, and it makes perfect sense. Both master and protégé are as shallow as Steven Pinker on Twitter, but what else would we expect? In general, why are we so interested in the idiosyncratic inspirations of such uninspiring people as a venture capitalist? Thiel could just as well have been inspired by Madame Blavatsky, Jordan Peterson, or any other bourgeois mouthpieces on their way to the dustbin of history.

Daub focuses primarily on the epiphenomena of tech foolishness instead of its core ideology, which is really just capitalist ideology in silicon garb: bootstrap-individualism and blind idolatry of the ruling class. For one, the tech moguls are in a better position than old-money capitalists to promote the false idea that they can do good while doing well. They are not as directly engaged in extracting fossil fuels or financial speculation, for example. They actually preside over the making of ubiquitous products and services, where true love is in unlimited supply in emoji form. Second, the fetishization of the tech industry promotes the false generalization from unrepresentative capitalists like Gates (who used to actually write code) and Musk (who still engineers at Tesla) to the ruling class at large. In other words, tech moguls help promote the false notion of the “genius capitalist” who actually makes things for the benefit of all.

The latter myth is a critical component of capitalist ideology, or common sense. (Have you ever wondered why people evoke “common sense” as if the first word does not immediately invalidate it?) In a chapter that touches on this theme entitled “Genius,” Daub pans the idea of the (Ayn) Randian hero as embodied by people like Musk. Daub’s focus, however, is not his function as a misleading poster child for the ruling class, but just how ludicrous he happens to be. This is but another easy target—a walking meme whose tantalizing “vision” grips the unimagination of aspiring bros the world over. The important role of Musk, Gates and Zuckerberg, however, is that they personify the Randian hero simply by being billionaire engineers, thus giving the false impression that their class provides humanity with a useful service. In reality, even most tech moguls are ex-engineers at best. They retire from actual work once they become very rich. More importantly, the majority of the ruling class (the top 50,000-odd capitalists who run the show) have never been engineers, scientists, or thinkers of any kind. They are owners. And the only service they provide is managing the human species headlong into extinction. The tech industry straps a toolbelt on a deadly parasite.

What of the connections to Wall Street, the military industrial complex, or the marketing industry? That is not the main thrust of the book. Instead, we get the sense that Daub is more concerned with the kind of intra-academic jabbing characteristic of humanities departments. There are quite a few critics who have dealt with the pernicious social and economic functions of the tech industry, such as Shoshana Zuboff, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Noam Cohen, and Meredith Whittaker. Daub’s book is an entertaining supplement to these studies.

Einam Livnat is a teacher and labor organizer in Oakland, California