When was the last time you remember the attorneys general of 48 states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico standing together to launch a major joint probe? I don’t recall it ever happening in my lifetime. Yet on Sept. 9 a deep mix of liberals and conservatives, Southerners and New Englanders, courtroom sharks and legal eagles, stood in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building to announce a joint investigation of Google’s dominance of our market for information.
Google now “has the power to control what we read and manipulate the people and companies we do business with,” said Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in announcing the undertaking. “It can crush its competition, and consumer choice, merely by submerging competitors’ websites in a murky sea of search results.”
Google now picks the answers to two-thirds of all the information queries made by Americans. It vacuums up more than 80% of all online ad spending in any given year. Along with just a few other tech firms it has developed a chokehold on many arenas of public expression.
Facebook has become the de facto newspaper for hundreds of millions of people. Amazon sells half of all printed books and 80% of all e-books, and collects half of all U.S. online retail spending. Apple and Amazon recently became the first companies to ever reach a valuation of $1 trillion. 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 both the personal and professional lives of Americans. They set the rules. We follow them. What’s worse, those rules are often extraordinarily foggy, dark, and byzantine, making it impossible for neutral outsiders to monitor whether they are applied capriciously.
Concentrated power of this sort would be much less of a concern if the top tech firms were as varied in vision, peopling, and priorities as the rest of our country. But Silicon Valley is a remarkable monoculture. There is shockingly little political and intellectual diversity. The closer you get to the place, the clearer this is.
Prominent insiders have been warning for a couple years now that the tech industry is bedeviled by groupthink, and resistance to ideas and evidence that don’t fit its prevailing wisdom. Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal and nurtured many other star companies, excoriated Silicon Valley last year 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% 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.
In a New York Times story headlined “Silicon Valley Is Over, Says Silicon Valley,” tech leaders working at a more middle level of the industry voiced similar concerns. Several said they were considering leaving the tech hub to get away from its “left-wing echo chamber that stifles opposing views.” A Wall Street Journal article titled “Google vs. Google: How Nonstop Political Arguments Rule Its Workplace” describes how endless politicization is as damaging for the company’s productivity as it is for national intellectual balance.
The preferred self-image in Silicon Valley is the brave outside-the-box thinker who goes his or her own way, convention be damned. But when it comes to politics, Silicon Valley is one of the most homogeneous and internally conforming parts of our country.
That can be seen in voting. San Mateo County, which covers much of Silicon Valley plus some rural areas, produced extraordinarily lopsided voting results in 2016: 76% for Hillary Clinton, 6% for third-party candidates, 18% for Donald Trump. In the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders got 41% of the vote. As Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged in his April 2018 testimony before Congress, Silicon Valley is “an extremely left-leaning place.”
That was also the conclusion of a major 2017 study by researchers from Stanford. It surveyed more than 600 “elite technology company leaders and founders,” and documented a strikingly uniform political orthodoxy. Just 8% of these tech barons voted for Donald Trump. Fully 82% want universal health care even if it causes tax increases; 79% support abortion; 82% want strong gun control. They are twice as likely as the average Democrat to rank combating climate change as “extremely important.”
The top priorities among Silicon Valley elites, the Stanford study found, are personal autonomy and maximizing private satisfaction. Silicon Valley paragons have little interest in tradition, and little attachment to any particular culture. They are globalist in outlook, and disconnected from both national patriotism and traditional American approaches to civil society, which emphasize local communities, neighbor-to-neighbor care, tightly knit families, religious support, and self-help.
Contrary to impressions given by much of the media, the computerati are not, as a group, philanthropically generous. In measures of charitable giving by households, tech centers like San Francisco (where donations were 2.7% of local income in 2015), Seattle (3%), and Austin (3%) lag far behind middle-American cities like Salt Lake City (5.5%), Memphis (5.6%), Atlanta (4.6%), Nashville (4%), Grand Rapids, Mich. (4.6%), Jacksonville (4.2%), Dallas (3.8%), Charlotte (3.6%), and Houston (3.7%).
The new tech elite prefer algorithms to alms, and are much less interested in lifting up or comforting people than in liberating us all from traditional boundaries, personal limits, and the constraints of human history. Aspirations among techies are always “universal … futuristic … disruptive … able to revolutionize,” notes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder. The guiding spirit favors big, elite-driven, technocratic solutions that don’t just solve human problems, but actually up-end society. Writer/entrepreneur Rich Karlgaard sees a throwback to the Progressive era idea that “the smartest people should run society along scientific management principles. Life organized as a Frederick Taylor factory.” Coincidentally, all this will generate fantastic wealth and global power for the technocracy. There are now at least 70 billionaires, and more than 75,000 millionaires, just in the small region hugging the west and south shores of San Francisco Bay.
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. Journalist Greg Ferenstein has undertaken detailed studies over many years of the political mindset in Silicon Valley. He and others have found that “Silicon Valley’s ideology is pro-market. But it is not pro-liberty. Liberty is not a value. They are highly, highly collectivist.”
The monolithic nature of political and cultural views in Silicon Valley, combined with the breadth of today’s tech monopolies, has deep implications for some of today’s most consequential debates on free speech, civility, and democracy. Tech companies now impose extremely opaque and seemingly arbitrary processes to regulate posting of videos, purchase of advertisements, inclusion in search results, and other actions that have become central to participation in public life. Within the last year, authors and organizations ranging from the Wall Street Journal to ProPublica to PragerU, from Democrat presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard to Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have complained that their content has been banned, deleted, warning-labeled, or “de-monetized” (stripped of ads or other moneymaking capacity) by tech hubs. “If this can be done to me as a member of Congress running for the highest office in the land, it can be done to anyone,” warns Gabbard.
Tech professionals often insist they are value-free and objective in their judgments, that 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. (The television show “South Park” created “Smug Alerts!” as the San Francisco counterpart of L.A.’s smog warnings.)
The classical American tradition is that truth is messy and best found through the vigorous competition of ideas. Let many voices and factions contend — fools and knaves included. Never anoint any in advance with the oil of infallibility, 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.
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,” ruled the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark Associated Press v. United States case that blocked commercial crimping of First Amendment free-speech rights. Yet many important issues that are vigorously contested across the U.S. are now viewed as non-debatable within the narrow ideological confines of Silicon Valley. And many public-spirited citizens worry that this ideological narrowness is increasingly being enforced in the online networks operated by today’s tech class -- our new town halls.
It isn’t just people outside of the tech bubble who are concerned about this. A string of insiders at Google, Facebook, and Twitter have recently offered public warnings that their employers have serious internal problems with balance, fairness, and objectivity, and that this colors the way search findings are presented, videos are curated, accounts are suspended, errors are corrected, and individuals and groups are allowed to make public arguments.
“We have a problem with political diversity,” fretted Facebook software engineer Brian Amerige in 2018 on an internal message board. “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.”
This “has gotten exponentially worse” in the last two years, warned Amerige. That’s 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.” Unsurprisingly, the messenger was immediately hit with HR complaints by others at his company who said they were offended by his comments. And like numerous other iconoclasts at Facebook, Google, and Twitter who have spoken up over the last two years, he is no longer employed by any Silicon Valley combine.
The rest of us, however, have no place else to go.
Karl Zinsmeister, a former domestic-policy adviser for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and President George W. Bush, is editor in chief of Philanthropy magazine, where he has written on this topic in depth.