Adrian Daub’s “What Tech Calls Thinking” is one of the most insightful critiques on the tech industry that I’ve read. The book identifies, deconstructs and challenges the ideas, values and philosophies that permeate Silicon Valley. Daub unmasks terms like “innovation,” “disruption,” “risk-taking” and others, asking us to wrestle with their true foundations and implications, as opposed to tacitly accepting them.
“What Tech Calls Thinking” open with a discussion of “dropping out”; on figures like Elizabeth Holmes, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and others who attend prestigious universities but drop to found innovative companies that make them billions of dollars. When connected to the chapter deconstructing the tech world’s “genius aesthetic,” Silicon Valley promotes a view of education that is utilitarian and “pretty openly transactional.” Going to institutions like Stanford or Harvard become “less about patient incubation of talent than a brief pollination with prestige…”
Daub’s argues that the dropout genius approaches institutions of higher learning like a consumer. The leaders of Silicon Valley, who stay in school long enough to only get the gist of how the world works, retain a limited and myopic view of the world at the same time that their platforms garner global reach. This has troubling implications for society and a world as complex as ours.
In the chapter “Genius,” Daub talks about how the writings of Ayn Rand have influenced the tech industry. He writes of Silicon Valley Randians who place a big emphasis on heroic individuality, enlightened self-interest and personal freedom. To put more simply, the founders and CEOS of tech giants believe that pursuing what is best for themselves is ultimately best for the world (though they would argue it is the reverse), therefore, criticism is tantamount to fighting progress.
Daub gives a biting examination of the ramifications of Silicon Valley exec adopting Randian thinking and the self-image of some of the most rich and powerful people on the planet as the resistance vanguard:
Rand’s kind of resistance doesn’t require you to change the way you live your life; it doesn’t require you to grapple with a completely new picture of the world. It requires you to do what you’re already doing, but now with the added halo of the political.
The paradox here is that companies and institutions in Silicon Valley are are invested in a kind of hyper-individualist version of the world while being some of the most collectivist working environments of any occupation. It’s a structure where much of the research, labor and costs are socialized, but the benefits and cachet are privatized to the Steve Jobs and Elon Musks of the world. And when we think of social media like Facebook and Twitter, platform design and engagements algorithms cluster users into like-minded groups and then polarize them against opposing groups. In many ways, tech companies make the most money exactly for their power to get us to act more like collectives.
Surprisingly, the chapter I found the most interesting was the chapter on “Desire.” It talks about the theories of religions and literature scholar René Girard became influential in Silicon Valley, particularly for people like Peter Thiel.
Girard developed a mimetic theory of desire—that “anything you desire is a mirror of another person’s desire for that same thing.” This idea makes me think of the work of David Golumbia and others who critique the strand of computationalism in tech and science communities. Computationalism is the underlying presumption that computer-based expertise trumps all other expertise because everything in the world is ultimately reducible to computational processes. To appropriate Frank Pasquale, it assumes that “at bottom, humans simply are patterns of stimuli and response, behavior and information.”
If you view the world through a computationalist lens, it make sense to think your desires are merely a mirror. After all, all humans are made of the same stuff (atoms, cells, organs, brain functions, etc.), have the same kinds of impulses (eat, sleep, secure shelter, socialize, have sex, etc.) and basic needs. So the equation becomes simple: if you know the desires of one human, you know the desires of them all. Luckily, you already know the desires of one human—you.
On an individual level, tech CEOS who are influenced by this theory likely have a built-in way to solve their cognitive dissonance—or maybe to not have it at all—when the products they make come under fire. When read with Daub’s chapter on “Failure,” your desires are the world’s desires, and therefore, everything you do, on net, is a good thing. The scary thing is this gives a moral cover for and pseudo-objectivity to a kind of techno-narcissism. It allows for the tech industry to frame critics as regressive or unenlightened. At minimum, it likely dissuades tech leaders from engaging in meaningful introspection, of themselves and the industry they work in.
Overall, “What Tech Calls Thinking” is probably for readers who already have a critical relationship with big tech, but it provides some great insight and breaks things down in clear language. Aside from the clever prose and clear examples, the chapters (Dropping Out, Content, Genius, Communication, Desire, Disruption, Failure) build on each other while remaining connected to the central thread of Silicon Valley’s cyber-libertarian philosophical foundations. Though I definitely recommend that you make time to read the whole book, the penultimate graf on the last page is a succinct summary:
Confronted with the uncanny smoothness of their ascent, Silicon Valley’s protagonists fetishize the supposed break and existential risk entailed in dropping out of college to found a company. Confronted with the fact that the platforms that are making them rich are keeping others poor, they come up with stories to explain why this must necessarily be so. And by degrading failure, anguish, and discomfort to mere stepping-stones, they erase the fact that for so many of us, these stones don’t lead anywhere.