The following is an excerpt from the introduction of Noam Cohen’s new book The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball.
Silicon Valley surely is unrivaled in the American economy in its claims to “serve mankind.” So much so, in fact, that the satirical TV show Silicon Valley has a running joke that whenever a start-up founder is introduced, no matter how absurdly technical his project may be, he assures the audience that he is committed to “making the world a better place.” Paxos algorithms for consensus protocols … making the world a better place. Minimal message-oriented transport layers … making the world a better place. Yet strip away the satire, and you find that Google works from the same playbook. The company assures us that it collects and stores so much personal information about its users to better serve them. That way, Google sites can remember what language you speak, identify which of your friends are online, suggest new videos to watch, and be sure to display only the advertisements “you’ll find most useful.” Even when Google is being paid by businesses to show you ads, it’s really thinking about making your life better!
Facebook similarly insists that it acts in the best interest of humanity, no matter how its actions may be perceived. For example, there is the Free Basics project, which provides a Facebook-centric version of the Internet for cell phone users who cannot afford access to the actual Internet. Critics in India objected to Facebook’s apparent largesse, seeing the program as pushing a ghettoized, fake-Internet experience for poor people merely to keep its audience growing. Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, didn’t back down, however, describing the dispute as a choice between right and wrong, between raising hundreds of millions of people out of poverty through even limited Internet access or leaving them to suffer without any access at all. He made a public appeal by video, which concluded, “History tells us that helping people is always a better path then shutting them out. We have a historic opportunity to improve the lives of billions of people. Let’s take that opportunity. Let’s connect them.”
Certainly, from time immemorial, moguls have believed that their own prosperity must be good for all of society, but only the recent batch of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have acted as if money were an unanticipated byproduct of a life devoted to bettering mankind. Marc Andreessen, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who serves on Facebook’s board, was scathing when he learned that the Indian government had sided with the critics and blocked Free Basics. The government’s decision was “morally wrong” and punishing to the world’s poorest people, Andreessen wrote on Twitter, offering yet another example of how India has been on the wrong track since its people kicked out their British overlords. “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?” he asked sarcastically. Andreessen quickly apologized when he saw the furious response to those comments, particularly within India, but they nonetheless proved that he belonged among a tiny class of public figures who would have the self-assurance to make such a statement in the first place, to trash Indian democracy and self-determination in defense of their own belief systems and their own particular business models.
The Know-It-Alls is the story of these powerful, uber-confident men, starting with Andreessen, who helped nurture the World Wide Web to prosperity in the 1990s before switching to investing. It ends with Zuckerberg, who has the most ambitious plans for linking the world within his own commercial online platform. Along with Andreessen and Zuckerberg there’s a bevy of tech Internet billionaires, including Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn, and the early Facebook investor Peter Thiel. They are a motley crew — some, like Hoffman, are outwardly friendly, cuddly even, while others, like his good friend Thiel, cultivate an aura of detachment and menace. Some, like Brin and Page, one suspects would prefer to be left alone with their computers, while others, like Bezos or Zuckerberg, seek the limelight. Some were born to program, others to make money. But they share common traits: each is convinced of his own brilliance and benevolence, as demonstrated by his wildly successful companies and investments, and lately each is looking beyond his own business plans to promote a libertarian blueprint for us all.
Collectively, these Silicon Valley leaders propose a society in which personal freedoms are near absolute and government regulations wither away, where bold entrepreneurs amass billions of dollars from their innovations and the rest of us struggle in a hypercompetitive market without unions, government regulations, or social-welfare programs to protect us. They tap into our yearning for a better life that technology can bring, a utopia made real, yet one cannot escape the suspicion that these entrepreneurs may not fully appreciate what it means to be human. That is, not just to be a human individual — the unit that libertarianism is so obsessed with — but to be part of a family, a community, a society.
Note: Footnotes can be found in the book.
By Noam Cohen