A diatribe against a mindset
But bear with me, it has to do with how we design technology
You’re reading DisAssemble, a biweeklyish philosophy of tech newsletter aimed at those interested in creating better digital products.
They are apolitical.
Or they think they are. They say they only believe in progress. Progress, for them, is conceived by innovation and birthed by capital.
They approach the world through the eyes of an engineer, or a scientist. They use a magnifying glass and tweezers to examine all things, looking for areas to optimise. The world, for them, is a problem - or at best a machine - to be solved, fixed.
Despite their antagonism towards politics, and the belief that they transcend such petty matters, they are heavily political. Whether they are aware of it or not, they are highly libertarian-oriented, with merit-based technocracies being their preferred form of governance (at least until AI arrives).
They are highly skeptical of non-scientific worldviews. The codifying taxonomies of science are true, objectively and fundamentally. They are skeptical or outright hostile to of other ways of understanding the world.
These are the tech bros, the 'rationalists', those with the Silicon Valley mindset. They usually take the form of startup founders, VCs, or engineers.
Of course, it would be wrong to paint all of these types of people with one broad brush. Rationalists may disagree with a startup founder who may disagree with a bitcoin evangelist. But it's important to understand the deep overlap in ideology that these groups have.
It's obvious enough by examining their heroes and leaders. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are the godfathers of these groups, with Elon Musk and Peter Thiel being the current patriarchs. Other key figures include Naval Ravikant, Sam Harris, Paul Graham, Steven Pinker and a plethora of others who espouse progress and growth, as defined in the technocratic rationality of the enlightenment.
It’s important here to say that my thinking often is similar to those who have this mindset. Yours probably is too. Their way of thinking - lets call it the Silicon Valley Mindset (SVM) - is undoubtedly efficacious. But I, and likely you, reflect on how we think.
For many people with the SVM - who design and build the technical (and accordingly, cognitive) infrastructure of our world - this is often the only way to look at the world. Indeed, it is often carried forth in a manner closer to a religion than a tool to be assiduously deployed.
In his book, The 7 Types of Atheism John Gray claimed that the ancient Greeks believed that happiness was more important than the discovery of any inherent, objective truth. But with the onset of Christianity, things changed. Christianity demanded fidelity to a single truth: that of the story of Yaweh - the Christian God who became the God, and who was all things at all times. This became the only way of knowing truth, and the only truth.
Those with the SVM have a not dissimilar outlook.
Their way of knowing and being is the objectively correct way of knowing, to the exclusion of all others. This, they think, is a conclusion that can be arrived at if a person - any person - simply uses the structure of logic that, to them, undergirds the universe. In other words, their way of knowing is the best way of knowing if you use their way of knowing - a bit of a tautology.
Nevertheless, through this rationality and the concomitant scientific method, all things can be isolated, abstracted and understood. Indeed, the individual can be a 'disembodied', neutral observer in any scenario by embracing these methods of thinking and repressing others.
This is why so many with the SVM are into methods that embrace separateness, such as stoicism and self-quantification.
Full control over one's life is paramount. Those with the SVM believe that the mind can be neatly withdrawn from fleshy substance. It is through the lens of Cartesianism that they see themselves - they think, therefore they are.
And with this abstraction, those with the SVM can be dispassionate observers and discuss any topic - whatever they feel - using the same SVM - all the while claiming they are apolitical (as though it were possible to not have inherently political framings), believing in the marketplace of ideas (as though ideas could be isolated from power and social structures, among other things). In their minds, their maps are equal to the territories.
It is the very quality of being abstracted from the messy, situated, embodied, and open-ended that causes those with the SVM to think the SVM is better than other ways of thinking, not worse. Other ways of thinking and creating, involving the embodied, the pre-cognitive, the emotional, or the relativistic are not well received by those with the SVM.
The SVM sees nothing as off the table: “Why, and how could it be wrong to discuss anything? We are separate, neutral and objective.”
This delusion leads to troubling places. Scott Alexander Siskind, the well known rationalist blogger, who is closely intertwined with Silicon Valley, has at times aligned himself with Charles Murray, a political scientist who uses scientific rationality to propose key links between race and intelligence. Even when Siskind decides to oppose this argument, he supports objective debates about it, as though such a thing were possible, let alone useful.
Yet even questioning the dubiousness of these activities is something that sets Silicon Valley in an uproar. Surely James Damore was just using science to highlight what was true, and accordingly, what should be? The idea that science could say anything about what should be is not to be questioned for those with the SVM, despite David Hume crucially debunking this idea more than 300 years ago.
Importantly, the way that they see things through their rational, abstracted worldview - which they see as objective - almost in principle suggests an inexorability and linearity of the way society moves. Yes, only their way of thinking correct, but only their future is correct too.
The ubiquity of the belief of a predictable, technology-infused future that fosters inevitable progress hides how contingent it is. As noted, Christianity speaks to an inevitable future, and passed this tenet through the Enlightenment and into thinkers such as Hegel and Marx, who saw history unfolding through the ‘World Spirit’ or humanism, respectively. Both of these philosophers tended toward an inevitability in the movement of human society. These influences run through the SVM as well - as does Bentham’s utilitarianism - and displays how this thinking of the past and the future is not an objective way of thinking - but a contingent, historically inflected one.
The SVM sees their form of future - a technological utopia - as inevitable but somehow also reliant on more technology and more people (because that’s an unqualified good thing according to their utilitarianism). Faster. Exponentially faster. Tumour-like.
Much like the accelerationists, their goal is to make the 'future' - of what of course is one of many futures - inevitable. And the only way they see this happening is through controlling the world by naming, categorising, quantifying all things - including the social - and processing this distilled quantity through technology.
In this way there is an objective, ‘view from nowhere,’ sense of good that travels forward. History has a story, and the story is good. Just ask Steven Pinker, who writes biblical-like treatises, which despite being scientifically and qualitatively questionable, tell a story of progress acting as a god that the bends the future toward good. Unlike accelerationists, who felt that speeding up the future would result in some kind of a collapse, the SVM posits differently. All you have to do is follow the SVM, and the utopian future will come about.
Yet for all their faith in progress and humanity they have very little faith in the human. Humanity is a good so long as it guided by the algorithm via technology. Techniques like 'bayesian thinking' can make humans into algorithms, if available technology is wanting.
The contradictions don’t stop there. Humans are flawed in their irrationality, yet the SVM claims that humans still need to colonise and control in order to make the future.
More people, more technology - an unqualified good. Life itself, whether it currently exists or not, is a good, on some scale only privy to the god of progress.
I’ve built a bit of a strawman. I’ve used a broad brush to paint a lot of people. I won’t deny that.
But the intention is to create a cognitive space of which to be aware. This is a newsletter about designing technology, and the implications of how the SVM percolates through technology’s design and its manifold onward effects is vital to highlight.
Most importantly, the SVM’s sense of inevitability, that the future will occur in a particular way, and it will make us all better, is the most vital consideration to interrogate. Examples of how this inevitability thesis is false are abound.
From Facebook being used to impact elections, to bicycles being used as a form of female empowerment, to emails being used as to-do lists, the way that technology is used cannot be predicted with certainty.
As discussed in a previous newsletter with Jenny L. Davis, technology affords (or doesn't afford) particular behaviour in particular ways for particular people. Many of these ways cannot be predicted until a technology is situated within a context and used by a particular group of people.
And this is just use of technology - this doesn’t even begin to examine the second and third order effects, nor the mediating effects of technology on our behaviours.
In order to combat this, we have to rethink our framing and our approach to designing technology.
But I’ve rambled too long. So let’s save that for next time.