Who’s in charge here? This was the question to which my broken brain kept returning during Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress in this spring’s Cambridge Analytica hearings. Not just in the immediate, this-is-a-fucking-circus sense, but from a wider and far more troubling perspective. On one side sat septuagenarian elected officials, men and women entrusted by the voting populace to protect against monopolistic malfeasance, utterly clueless regarding the whims and initiatives of Big Tech, which is to say, the American economy. On the other sat Zuckerberg, one of the world’s most powerful men in terms of money, data, and access to eyes and ears, stating under oath that he had virtually no idea how his $590 billion company made money, much less how it had compromised democracy and inadvertently undercut entire industries. Who was really under inquiry? And perhaps more pressingly, who was getting fucked?
Two new non-fiction books try to make sense of the hellish morass in which we find ourselves, Silicon Valley’s reckless decimation of American institutions and the U.S. government’s being too dumb or too apathetic to stop it. Lucie Greene’s Silicon States: The Power and Politics of Big Tech and What It Means for Our Future (Counterpoint) undertakes a holistic, historical survey of tech’s relationship with the public sector, forecasting implications on elections, media, healthcare, education, and philanthropy. Operating under the premise that as goes San Francisco, so go the nation and the world, Cary McClelland’s Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley (Norton) limits its scope to the Bay Area proper, contrasting slow-moving local government with social idealism and an accelerating private sector. Both purvey an authoritative treatise on public institutions’ flailing attempts to keep Silicon Valley in check, but struggle to paint a tangible future and suffer from dubious criticism of their own.
Greene’s thesis, based on her work as a “futurist” at the marketing firm J. Walter Thompson, is that Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple — “GAFA,” in her parlance — have assumed the roles of wireless public services simultaneous with eroding trust in government. Her research synthesizes academic studies, interviews, and market trends, depicting a present in which regionalism has been almost entirely eradicated. In Greene’s conception of “Silicon States,” automation and income inequality have come dangerously close to crushing lower income classes, GAFA’s monopoly of data and services make for a “consumerist police state,” and the Bay Area resembles an old factory town. (Although Netflix is frequently cited in the investment world as one of Silicon Valley’s too-big-to-fail big five, it doesn’t factor into Greene’s projections.)
Greene’s chronology traces the diversion of American technological innovation from government defense to unicorn startups. Where many of Silicon Valley’s forebears applied their ideas to military and business development, she notes a shift in the 1970s among entrepreneurs—many inspired by Stanford’s engineering school ethic — to consumer-facing hardware produced by independent companies. These early Disruptors (among them the immortal Steves, Jobs and Wozniak) embraced a countercultural attitude, envisioning an online future of open systems and open borders. This concept of a decentralized, libertarian internet endures today, long after VC dollars pushed valuations into the stratosphere. “We regulate water, power, roads, and television,” Greene writes. “But the internet is still defended as somehow different, and ‘special.’”
No matter that, by Greene’s account, Silicon Valley produces houses of cards, companies predicated on ephemeral services rather than tangible products, corporations built for Disruption first and profitability second. In ensuring a borderless, demand-driven consumer state, GAFA guaranteed they’d be the only ones capable of governing it. In becoming so huge, ubiquitous, and critical to the greater American economy, they effectively realized the deregulated libertarian future their forefathers anticipated. It’s in the details that Greene’s prognostications grow fuzzy. Her vision of the future of healthcare and education is mostly limited to wellness apps and touchy-feely online college alternatives. For someone who claims to be suspicious of their companies and motives, there’s a startling amount of Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Peter Thiel apologia — as if their sheer power makes them infallible regardless of politics or influence.
The attention granted Zuckerberg is maddeningly imperceptive. After Greene painstakingly enumerates the business advantages Zuckerberg derives from bringing free internet to developing countries, she casts him as a legitimate presidential candidate; his cross-country tour and Hurricane Maria livestream make him “a touch tone-deaf” rather than a sociopathic imperialist with a nasty habit of lying to his customers and no idea how his product works or what it’s even for. Considering the proposition of a Zuckerberg presidential run, Greene speculates, “Facebook could be a powerful force in defining a successful candidate and affecting the outcome of an election.” (Lucie, my SXSW panel-appearing friend, that ship has sailed.)
A chapter surveying the state of digital media is similarly obtuse. Greene is vaguely cognizant of the contradictions Facebook, Google, and Twitter propagate as both platforms and news disseminators, the humanitarian crises spurred by fake news and prioritization of “open discourse” over suppression of hate speech and personal attacks. But somehow she’s more critical of what she perceives a liberal skew on supposedly neutral platforms. Regarding Facebook’s curated News Feed, Microsoft’s Danah Boyd is quoted: “I am painfully aware of the neoliberal value systems that are baked into the very architecture of Facebook and our society as a whole.” Greene bemoans Facebook as a left-of-center echo chamber instead of a cesspool of Fox News grandparents ripe for exploitation by Russian hackers.
As for what the U.S. government could be doing better, Greene suggests our contemporaries in the European Union, who tend to be more hostile to monopolies and shitty mergers, might offer a few pointers. In addition to restrictions placed on Airbnb, Uber, and data privacy, she cites Margrethe Vestager’s recovery of €13 billion in taxes from Apple, €110 million from Facebook for misleading documentation during its purchase of WhatsApp, €250 million from Amazon for illegal tax benefits, and €2.4 billion from Google for intimidating competitors. In contrast, the U.S. and U.K.’s respective highways to hell began with the dismantling of social programs under Reagan and Thatcher, followed by the establishment left’s move to the center in the 1990s. 500 Startups’ Dave McClure is quoted: “The people who run some of the largest companies probably have larger populations of users than many countries. I don’t think we’re holding those folks up to the same level of standards.” Yet Greene still can’t bring herself to denounce our tech overlords. “Perhaps it’s unfair to cast Silicon Valley companies in such a Machiavellian light,” she vacillates. “Their founders probably didn’t even register the collective impact their technologies would have on society as their uses skyrocketed.” (Similarly, Alfred Nobel probably didn’t imagine that his nitroglycerin hobby would lead to the mainstreaming of dynamite, and yet, here we are.)
Cary McClelland’s Silicon City likewise captures the allure of mass Disruption in light of inflexible government locked into four- and eight-year cycles. A panoramic collection of civilian interviews, it's intended to resemble Studs Terkel, but the effect is much closer to Humans of New York. While the interviews themselves are something of a mixed bag—the investors, academics, and city planners predictably have a better grasp of what’s going on than the sculptors, pawnbrokers, and tattoo artists—McClelland’s portrayal of systemic iniquities upon individual lives makes for an affecting read.
The San Francisco of Silicon City is deeply dystopian, a city in which income inequality is exacerbated by the very companies which provide its economic lifeblood, gentrification has pushed service workers hours away from their workplaces, and Google buses drive past homeless people in perpetuity. But for McClelland, it’s a true microcosm in that the civic issues which most desperately plague San Francisco — infrastructure collapse, climate change, mass incarceration, and failing schools—are those which form lines of division across America. “The challenge for the Bay Area is not whether it can choose one identity — libertarian tech super-city or state-sponsored liberal utopia,” he writes in the prologue, “but whether it can find some harmony where the best of each can merge.”
Taken together, McClelland’s interview subjects convey San Francisco as a progressive Shangri-La under siege, but echoes of Greene’s diagnoses emerge in every chapter. An urban planner details how Stanford’s century-old mission dictated the wider system of values in contemporary tech. Like Greene, McClelland manages to map the unlikely combination of libertarian and leftist values vying for supremacy within any city assembly. A former member of the Board of Supervisors cites the futility of municipal government in a wireless world. “The whole idea of taxing a business located in your jurisdiction is to offset the impact of the workers on housing availability, transit, parks, other city services,” he says. “Today, cities like Palo Alto and Menlo Park are collecting business taxes from tech companies headquartered there, but they aren’t dealing with the housing impacts the workers create.” Yet even in 2018 Apple is able to hold entire municipalities hostage by dint of the tax revenue it provides, while Amazon pits cities against each other in a Hunger Games-style battle royale to see which municipality will prematurely capitulate to the company in exchange for the right to house its next campus.
McClelland’s passages are softly prescriptive. “It is as if everyone has focused for so long on their own problems that they’ve grown civically nearsighted and lost the ability to see problems in another part of the city, across the street, even next door,” he writes in a chapter introduction. And while the interviewee most defensive of tech’s influence on the Bay — a VC, of course — comes across as a villain (“The progressives of San Francisco have too much of a voice...They want a whole bunch of people to leave and make room for low-income people. They want the city to go backwards”), he does raise a harrowing question: Without Big Tech, what would sustain San Francisco’s economy? Might San Francisco be another waning port city, Baltimore West, or a resources-strapped post-industrial factory town like so many of its Northern California neighbors?
There’s also a sense that, whatever Silicon Valley is hastening toward, its growth and valuations are unsustainable. One engineer points out that after the dot-com bubble, conservative VC money moved to low-capital investments at the expense of ambitious high-capital technology. “Do the five companies currently supporting this bubble make anything that you would call a ‘staple’?” he asks rhetorically. “There was more sense to the world when Ford and G.E. were at the top of the U.S. stock market.”
By either account, the future is gloomy. McClelland’s most optimistic subjects profess faith in revolutionary startups and philanthropic foundations, but his final interviewee is a man in the middle of a hunger strike in front of City Hall. Encouraged by the online popularity of the Parkland survivors, Greene hopes that Gen Z will experience the political awakening which, in her view, eluded millennials. (Her touting of the Parkland students as universally beloved civil rights heroes conveniently ignores threats to their lives from gun lobbyists and Infowars truthers.) But her accounts of Gen Z’s progressive values as pertaining to race, gender identity, and mental health are sweeping generalizations. “Like Zuckerberg, they are motivated by solving problems and seek meaning in their work,” she asserts.
Most frustratingly given their combined 550 pages spent analyzing the systemic pressures prompted by the tech industry and government’s inability to combat them, both books suffer from an incomprehensible demonization of millennials as implacable pools of vanity. McClelland’s subjects characterize Bay Area gentrification as a malicious attack, as if every twenty- and thirty-something in San Francisco is a billionaire Harvard grad who’s personally decided to displace native residents — rather than cash-poor arrivistes adapting to an American economy in which approximately three-and-a-half cities have any industry to speak of at all. “Kids staring at a screen are making six figures a year and don’t have a clue what the world is about,” a tour guide grumbles. Even a San Francisco Chronicle columnist condemns “tech bros,” dismissing them with a simple, “They are billionaires wearing hoodies.” No one seems to consider that if the Google and Facebook employees had stayed put rather than relocating to the Bay, they’d likely be squeezed and unemployed like so many of their neighbors, or that giant swaths of the country are so starved for jobs that they rolled out the red carpet for fascist white supremacists who promised a return to the 1950s.
Greene is an even worse offender, cynically excoriating millennials for their political apathy with a fierce, senseless vindictiveness. “For affluent, urban millennials,” she writes, “nations are so globalized that believing in something as dorky as a common cause like their state is beyond them. They’re too busy taking selfies in Cuba, Instagrams of vegan cuisine, buying Lululemon, and growing moustaches.” (Which, what???) She slams their zeal for Instagrammable “experience culture” as if Instagram, iPhones, Airbnb, and globalization weren’t Silicon Valley’s chief exports. She decries delivery and ride-share apps: “Considering how on-demand culture has already turned urban millennials into a tribe of impatient selfish babies, unable to handle any social realities, let alone wait for taxis (thanks Uber), dates (thanks Tinder), deliveries (thanks Seamless) and — er — anything (thanks TaskRabbit), it’s wild to imagine what this could do to our sense of collective self-consciousness. Is it so bad to wait for a train?”
Greene’s solution? “The issue lies in government and politics not remaining relevant to young people, and therefore creating a vacuum of influence. Silicon Valley companies think like brands. Perhaps government should do the same thing, making its work and role in life seem compelling and valuable, and elections a compulsory part of citizenship.” Or, you know, baby boomers could stop voting for Nazi apologists.
Fortunately for society, Facebook and the rest of GAFA tend to, sooner or later, narc on themselves. Zuckerberg’s flippant dismissal of Orrin Hatch during his April testimony — “Senator, we run ads” — was, inadvertently, a far greater indictment of the company, revenue model, and industry than any the 84-year-old Senator might have levied himself. Greene and many of McClelland’s subjects have all the pieces to ascertain the precise ways they’ve been failed by both Silicon Valley and government, they just aren’t quite able or willing to put them together. But so long as Silicon Valley’s move-fast-and-break-things philosophy offers an appealing alternative to lethargic public institutions, it’s exacerbated by the vicious cycle in which elected officials diminish faith in government by rolling back social services. If Joseph de Maistre was correct in his belief that every nation gets the government it deserves, then here’s to President Zuckerberg.