Breaking news from (maybe) 2020: It was so, so much worse than we thought
About a year ago I wrote a proposal for a non-fiction book about what I termed the Silicon Valley swamp.
I wrote it not so much out of enthusiasm as obligation. Like many journalists in Silicon Valley, I had watched this swamp fill and ferment over the past decade or so, all in the name and service of “Disruption.” I had watched tech leaders become increasingly politicized, and the cliched liberal politics of the Valley veer rightwards into the worst form of libertarianism. I had seen nerds become bros, and bros become crypto-fascists (in multiple senses of the phrase.) And that was just the stuff that could be seen with the naked eye, and smelt with the naked nose.
Of course, in common with most Pando readers, I knew that things in the Valley were actually far worse than they seemed. That the cancer at the heart of Uber had long metastasized across an entire new generation of diseased startups. That Facebook, aided and abetted by the odious Peter Thiel (a Pando investor), had done so much to appease angry, paranoid “conservatives” (actually: bigots), and so little to guard against infiltration by rogue intelligence agencies, that it was no longer accurate to say it had merely helped to elect Donald Trump.
But my proposal wasn’t for a politically partisan book. In fact, I argued that the blame for much of the awfulness that would soon follow should be pinned not on Trump but on the Obama White House and the (Hillary) Clinton State Department. It was under the safe, cozy-capitalism, neo-liberalism of the Obama/Clinton era that young, cool Silicon Valley dudes and dudettes like Pierre Omidyar, Sheryl Sandberg, Megan Smith and (god help us) Shervin Pishevar got their taste for working with The Man. More specifically, they got their taste for working with government to advance American foreign and domestic policy.
Think of the applause given to Jack Dorsey for postponing routine maintenance during Arab Spring, or consider the revolving door between Google and DC (Megan Smith as America’s CTO!). Recall too (if you can) security-cleared TED talkers like Alex Ross and Jared Cohen whose laminated Park Hopper passes allowed them to skip between Mountain View and the Harry S Truman Building at will.
What could possibly go wrong with that kind of coziness? I mean, sure, Uber might hire a bunch of ex-CIA folks to smear its critics, but apart from that? Weren’t we all on the same side? Good vs evil? American Techno-boyscouts vs Evil Foreigners?
And, of course, soon Hillary Clinton would be in the Oval Office and the real fun could start: Larry Summers’ mentee, Sheryl Sandberg, as Governor of California; more state folks at Uber all the better to spread American capitalism to China and beyond; not to mention a standing army of ex-CIA spooks ready, willing and able to help keep the wheels turning in the same direction.
So long as America didn’t elect a nazi – lol! – everything would be fine.
And then America elected a Nazi, and Silicon Valley did what Silicon Valley does: It looked at the data and pivoted.
Ok, now the government is run by right wingers… click click… data says we should fire our left-leaning political strategists and lobbyists and… click click click… hire some right wingers. The new America hates women… not a problem… click click… out with the Sheryl for President buttons and in with… click, buy… Mark for President buttons. “Hey Mark, you believe in God and fishing, right?” Click, click, you do now.
Out of sight and oversight, all the major tech companies modified their plans, and their workforce, in similar ways. Yes, the new administration has a whiff of the Beerhall to it, but they’re also the elected government – and the decision (the Rubicon) of deciding to partner with the elected government was crossed long ago. We worked with the old guy, and we’ll work with the new guy.
What does that new partnership between the Valley and the Trump Administration look like? My prediction: What we’re hearing today about Facebook’s role in the election will be chickenfeed compared to what will come out about how tech giants have colluded with the Trump administration since November. Wonder why so few tech companies are willing to publicly distance themselves from Trump and Thiel’s tech advisory counsel? Why the tech leaders speaking out about Trump - Omidyar, Musk, Hoffman - also happen to be the ones whose data is the least interesting to the NSA? Turn to 2020 for answers.
My swamp book, of course, remains (and will forever remain) unpublished. The half dozen major publishers who rejected it can be divided mostly into one of two camps: Those who didn’t believe Facebook, Uber et al could possibly be so bad; and those who absolutely believed it and so knew that the book was a Charles Harder lawsuit waiting to happen. Such is life, and publishing. I’ve long since quit the Valley swamp and moved on to writing something far more believable: Fiction.
Still, I can’t deny that I’m frustrated by the sudden wave of “holy cow!” mainstream media reporting on how Facebook (and Google, and, and, and…) helped Russians and others swing the election.
The frustration isn’t really the I told you so kind as much as it’s the you still don’t fucking get it kind. I felt similar when the rest of the media world suddenly cottoned on to what Pando reported about Uber and Travis Kalanick way back in 2012. Each “realization” was painful to watch: Oh my God, Uber does bad things. Holy shit, Travis Kalanick is a Randroid. Whoa dude, the two are connected. FUCCCCK, it isn’t just Travis and Uber, the whole of Silicon Valley is infected… and so on, over an excruciating period of weeks and months.
An example: For the past few nights, Rachel Maddow has been examining Facebook’s role in swinging the election for Trump. Guests including Senator Mark Warner and Hillary Clinton have weighed in on the company’s culpability, with Warner criticizing Zuckerberg and co for failing to do enough to check Russian government use of its platform and Clinton insisting Facebook still has a “long way to go” in fully explaining its role during the election.
And yet. Somehow Maddow has spent all this time talking about Facebook and Trump without identifying the obvious glaring connection between the president and the social network. That connection being Peter Thiel. How the hell do you miss a link like that? The guy stood on stage at the damned convention. He’s co-chairing Trump’s tech advisory panel. And all the while he’s Facebook’s longest serving board member and Zuckerberg’s longest-serving mentor. If Maddow – three time World Connect The Dots Champion – can miss that connection then what hope should we have for the rest of the media?
(You don’t need me to explain journalists’ hesitance to mention Thiel’s name: A combination of east coast ignorance of Valley players mixed with a fear of what Charles Harder will do if they make a mistake. But, again, what hope do we have if even the muckrakers are running stupid/scared?)
Maddow will get there eventually, of course. And so, not long after, will the rest of the pack. And if we’re very lucky, a million years from now, that same pack will get to asking the real question: How did Facebook get into its current mess.
The answer to that is a little more complicated. More complicated, certainly, that the brief summary I offered in my book proposal. In fact there are a number of explanations, which combine into not quite the whole:
1) Facebook’s executives and investors, like most of Silicon Valley, are terrified of angry republicans, especially the ones who launch online hate campaigns and target friends and family member. They also need those people if Facebook is to achieve total world dominance.
2) Facebook is also astonishingly arrogant when it comes to the supremacy of data uber alles. Witness its response to almost every scandal and you’ll see an institutional refusal to answer to anyone – humble user or world leader – when it comes to its policies. The data says users want ads defaming Hillary Clinton, so that’s what they get. Spreadsheets beat morality every time.
3) This fear of alienating republicans, combined with that data arrogance, and a smug certainty (shared by most of the country) that Trump couldn’t win, meant the company focused on censoring breastfeeding pictures and did nothing to curtail the Nazis or foreign spies (mothers won’t quit Facebook, but Nazis might!).
4) Even after – especially after - Peter Thiel endorsed and funded Trump, the company kept him on the board and Zuckerberg declined to publicly distance himself from his old pal. Thiel, after all, was the perfect hedge against a) claims of liberal bias and b) the slip possibility that Trump might actually win.
5) When Trump did actually win, that backup plan became Facebook’s only plan. Thiel became the most powerful man in Silicon Valley with responsibility, directly and indirectly, for setting tech policy. Already primed to cozy up to power, Zuckerberg sent his emissary, Sheryl Sandberg to lean in to Trump’s tech advisory group.
Again, if mainstream reporting on Facebook can’t even identify the existence of Peter Thiel then how long will it take them to untangle that mess?
Towards the end of Trump’s fourth term? Somewhere between the President’s impeachment and when Vice President Zuckerberg decides to pardon him?
Stay with us.