How the Tech Worldview Affects Free-Speech Battles

How the Tech Worldview Affects Free-Speech Battles
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File
How the Tech Worldview Affects Free-Speech Battles
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File
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Back in the early days of the computer era, the common speculation on the psychology of our tech mandarins was that they would be libertarians — devoted to freedom both in economics and social life. That has not proven true. “Silicon Valley’s ideology is pro-market. But it is not pro-liberty,” notes journalist Greg Ferenstein, who has undertaken detailed studies of the region’s political mindset. “Liberty is not a value. They are highly, highly collectivist.”

Within Silicon Valley (a term used here as shorthand for the tech class that clusters not only in the San Francisco area but also in Seattle, Austin, pockets of New York, L.A., Boston, etc.), the favorite self-image and business story line is “brave, outside-the-box, man against the world.” But the opposite is true in politics, where Silicon Valley has become a conformist hotbed.

The county stretching from San Francisco to Palo Alto, for instance (San Mateo), produced one of the most lopsided votes in the entire U.S. in 2016: 76 percent for Hillary Clinton, 6 percent for third-party candidates, 18 percent for Donald Trump. A 2017 Stanford survey of more than 600 “technology company leaders” showed that just 8 percent voted for Trump, while 96 percent favor same-sex marriage, 82 percent want universal health care, 79 percent support legalized abortion, 82 percent want strong gun control, and the fraction saying action against climate change is “extremely important” is twice as large as the Democratic average. As Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged in his April testimony before Congress, Silicon Valley is “an extremely left-leaning place.”

One of the most revealing places to observe the distinct progressivism of tech elites is in their philanthropy. A blog post at charity evaluator GiveWell (favored by many tech donors) sketches their “deep value judgments and worldviews.” Techies seek “to accomplish as much good as possible … not to ‘ensure that we do no harm.’” Their top goal is “improving humans’ control over their lives and self-actualization.” And they contrast sharply with other Americans in being “global humanitarians. … We do not agree with the principle that ‘giving begins at home’: we do not assign more moral importance to people in our communities and in our country than to others.”

Indeed, a 2016 report found that just 7 percent of all donations by Silicon Valley foundations were directed to nonprofits in the area -- this despite deep local need. While tech workers are flush (the median pay package at Facebook was $240,000 in 2017), nearly 30 percent of valley residents now depend on some form of public or private assistance, mostly due to stratospheric housing costs.

Surprisingly, our tech class as a whole is not especially generous. IRS figures show that tech cities like San Francisco (where 2015 charitable contributions were 2.7 percent of local income), Seattle (3.0), and Austin (3.0) lag behind places such as Salt Lake City (5.5), Memphis (5.6), Atlanta (4.6), Nashville (4.0), Grand Rapids, Mich. (4.6), Jacksonville (4.2), Dallas (3.8), Charlotte (3.6), and Houston (3.7) in household giving.

This truth is obscured by the enormous press given to our richest tech moguls for their splashy gifts. These big donations frequently go to very unconventional causes. Google and individual donors like Sergei Brin, Larry Page, Peter Thiel, and Larry Ellison have put up billions of dollars to fund “life-extension” research, and hundreds of individual techies who fear they may reach their end before the life-extension scientists have got their app working are even making arrangements to have their bodies frozen, in the hope they can someday be revived.

A similar millenarian streak is visible in the billions Jeff Bezos is putting into space travel — which he has said will be his main contribution to humanity out of his Amazon fortune. When Earth wears out, he states, he wants to be sure large numbers of us are living elsewhere in the cosmos. Even shorter-range philanthropic projects backed by Silicon Valley fortunes often center on relatively unbounded donor demands. When Mark Zuckerberg and his wife announced they would steer nearly all of their Facebook stock into philanthropy, they said they were aiming during the lifetime of their child to “cure, prevent, or manage all diseases” on the way to an average lifespan of 100 years.

“The rest of us concern ourselves with individuals, neighborhoods, communities, all of which can be improved,” writes Felix Salmon in Wired. Tech billionaires, though, focus on “the whole world, and even hypothetical future worlds.” There is more than a whiff of the superman in this.

The intense abstraction at the core of this style of philanthropy causes Silicon Valley donors to jump completely over and around messy human variables like psychology, history, family devotion, faith, and local attachments. The technocracy wants to liberate people from these traditional boundaries. They favor big, elite-driven solutions to societal problems: brilliant engineers at large companies wielding reams of intimate data to alter human actions.

In addition to favoring the national and global over the local, there is a strong preference for the impersonal and universal over the personal and particular, for approaches that aggregate and simplify humans and their needs in order to push large “scale.” Huge assumptions are made that cultural ills ranging from uncivil debate to poverty can be solved with technical fixes. And always, there is the assumption that people and societies need “transformation.”

Tech professionals insist they are value-free and objective in making these judgments. They are simply rational scientists following the crumb-trails of facts to undeniable truths. The idea that the tech world could have its own blind spots, selection biases, intrinsic desires to believe or disbelieve, its own parochial interests, is fiercely resisted.

This is very different from the traditional American approach to social problem-solving. It holds that truth is best found through vigorous competition of ideas. Let many voices and factions contend — fools and knaves included. Never anoint any in advance with the oil of undeniability, or let certain participants harrumph that all experts agree, that an issue is “settled,” that citizens have a right not to be “offended,” that only certain points of view may be aired. In the words of a landmark Supreme Court ruling on free speech, American freedoms “rest on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public.”

The rise of monolithic political and cultural orthodoxies in tech-world has deep implications for today’s debates on free speech, civility, and the flow of ideas. Particularly when those orthodoxies are combined with monopolies. Google now picks the answers to two-thirds of all the information queries made by Americans. Facebook has become the de facto newspaper of hundreds of millions of people. Amazon sells half of all printed books and 80 percent of all ebooks, and collects half of all U.S. online retail spending. Apple recently became the first company to ever reach a valuation of $1 trillion, and Amazon reached the $1 trillion value one month later. Five tech firms — Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon — now wield as much capital value as the GDP of any entire country except the U.S., China, and Japan.

These companies constitute a dominating, near-universal presence in the personal and professional lives of Americans. They set the rules. We follow them. So it’s worrisome that many important issues being vigorously contested across the U.S. are now viewed as non-debatable within the narrow ideological confines of today’s tech class and the online hubs they operate — which are our new town halls. Extremely opaque and seemingly arbitrary processes now regulate the posting and monetization of videos, purchase of advertisements, inclusion in search results, and other actions that have become central to participation in public life.

It isn’t just people outside the tech bubble who are concerned about this. In recent months some senior insiders have registered stern warnings about tech-industry groupthink. Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal and nurtured many other star companies, excoriated Silicon Valley as a blinkered “one-party state,” then announced he was moving his operations out of the region to get away from its intellectual narrowness.

Sam Altman, who runs the Y Combinator tech incubator (and is a political liberal), warned that Silicon Valley culture is now too closed to unapproved points of view, and that “restricting speech leads to restricting ideas.” He complained that “it seems easier to accidentally speak heresies in San Francisco every year. Debating a controversial idea, even if you 95 percent agree with the consensus side,” is dangerous in today’s Silicon Valley.

Michael Moritz, who helped launch Apple, Google, and many other tech firms, described the self-righteous behavior he was seeing across Silicon Valley. “Complaints about the political sensibilities of speakers invited to address a corporate audience, debates over the appropriate length of paternity leave … grumbling about the need for a space for musical jam sessions. These seem like the concerns of a society that is becoming unhinged.” He warned that if censorious and entitled U.S. tech professionals don’t put an end to the distractions of today’s politically correct pampering and skirmishing, Chinese competitors may overwhelm them.

At Facebook, a mid-level software engineer named Brian Amerige recently posted a message board statement titled “We Have a Problem With Political Diversity.” It explained, “We are a political monoculture that’s intolerant of different views. We claim to welcome all perspectives, but are quick to attack — often in mobs — anyone who presents a view that appears to be in opposition to left-leaning ideology. … We do this so consistently that employees are afraid to say anything when they disagree with what’s around them politically.”

This is bad for business, the message asserted, and bad for society, because “we are entrusted by a great part of the world to be impartial and transparent carriers of people’s stories, ideas, and commentary.” The problem of political and cultural intolerance “has gotten exponentially worse” in the last two years, according to Amerige. When he proposed that concerned workers form a group called “FBers for Political Diversity” to encourage broader thinking within the company, more than 100 Facebook staff quickly signed up. Others among the firm’s 30,000 employees, however, lodged complaints asking that the group be blocked as offensive.

One philanthropic effort to open up Silicon Valley thinking from within is the Lincoln Network. Aaron Ginn left Texas with a degree in behavioral economics and Chinese and became a Silicon Valley specialist in using data science to market products and grow companies. He is also an active Christian — in a place where religious observance has essentially had to “go underground,” as he puts it, to survive.

 Ginn observed that tech workers who dissent from the valley’s reigning pieties can face harsh personal and professional consequences. “A lot of people who work in the valley were telling me, ‘I have to keep quiet about certain things I believe, or it’s going to be a problem at work.’” That culture of self-censorship isn’t just bad for the individuals involved, and for America’s political tradition, Ginn believes. It is also bad for productivity and entrepreneurship. “A culture where people are afraid to speak up is not going to produce innovative thinking for too long,” he notes.

So Ginn and his friend and fellow tech worker Garrett Johnson decided to do something about the problem. With donor support, they founded the Lincoln Network to provides ideas, research, contacts, and social events for tech workers in Silicon Valley who are open to conservative, libertarian, religious, and other perspectives that are now frowned upon at many tech companies. Ginn and Johnson (who are both members of racial minority groups) would like to expand Silicon Valley’s appreciation of diversity to include the most fundamental variations among people — alternative ideals and worldviews.

“The valley is where the work is being done that is making the future,” says Ginn. “People from all stripes of thinking need to be here.”

Karl Zinsmeister, a vice president at The Philanthropy Roundtable, is author of The Almanac of American Philanthropy, which has been issued in an updated 2017 compact edition. 

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