In What Tech Calls Thinking, author Adrian Daub mounts a spirited critique of what passes as intellectualism in tech culture. He draws upon historical facts and discussions around the intellectual origins of key figures in Silicon Valley and uses that foundation and premise to explore why these views are flawed. Most interestingly, Peter Thiel, who is himself a divisive figure even within the scene, is the centerfold of the author’s ire.
What if what goes by the name of innovation is ultimately just an opportunistic exploitation of regulatory gaps?
The book has 7 chapters, in which each brings forth a specific criticism of one aspect of tech culture. It starts with Dropping out, which examines the hypocrisy inherent in this act of using anti-elitism (i.e., dropping out) as a way to signal elitism. In Content, he critiques the idea of platforms wanting to reap all the benefits of owning the platform while disposing of all notion of responsibility (ironically, this argument is pretty well hashed on Twitter, itself a platform that personifies the argument). In Genius, he critiques tech’s worship of the ideal Randian protagnist and proposes the genius narrative as performance art:
And notice that, thanks to Elon Musk, we actually finally do have a billionaire whose weird tunnel-boring projects are basically a form of performance art—a pure emanation of individual genius, and sort of useless to anyone else.
In chapter 4, Communication, the author takes on the prospect of trolling as a tech culture art form. Desire discusses Girard’s mimetic theory and its application through Peter Thiel’s influence. Disruption discusses the circular theory of disruption (quote below), and finally, Failure closes the book out with a similar theme as the opening, in which the meaning of the act (failure) loses potency (due to it being endlessly cushioned, failing upwards, etc.) and becomes a signaling mechanism for the in-crowd.
The very fact of X having been in charge is taken as evidence that X ought no longer to be in charge.
This is a challenging book for me to write about, at the very least which me, being in the tech industry, writing about this book may be signaling that I am not beyond critiquing my colleagues. The book is relatively short at a hundred pages and some and makes a full-throated, earnest critique of some of the worst parts of the culture within the tech industry. On the flip side, it can often feel like the author is arguing against the worst caricatures; if this were a book about the tv series Silicon Valley, there wouldn’t be much amiss.
The author admits as much. He describes himself as a humanist with very little experience in tech. From my perspective, Tech is often critiqued as a monolithic block, but in reality especially in 2021, comprises of a much broader swath of the American and global economy than one could imagine. It is however not unfair to say that as an industry with incredible amount of momentum behind it in the teens, it attracts its fair share of bad faith opportunists, land grabbing nihilists and ruthless capitalists.
This book can feel frustrating to read through. The themes are broadly valid, critiques fair, and correctly identifies the negative externalities of specific developments. On the other hand, it snubs the inevitability of technological development and sometimes prefer to dwell in the rose tinted glass of bygone eras. Would Uber not happen without Travis Kalanick? What would a ride-sharing app look like in this parallel universe? And more importantly, beyond the critique, how can the collective we ensure that technology development serves the greater good than to pine for a careful examination of history?
As Nick Srnicek, a researcher of digital capitalism, has put it, the great commercial platforms may present themselves “as an empty vessel for market forces,” but in truth they shape “the appearance of a market.”
In between this book, I watched Parasite, the 2019 academy-award winning film by Bong Joon Ho. Reminiscent of the themes in this book, the film examines the classist separation between the wealthy and the underclass in South Korea, and how said wealth shields or exacerbate circumstances and outcomes depending on which side of the divide the person is on. Similar to capitalism, or more accurately since Tech is a manifestation of capitalism, its effects compound upon itself and further widens the gulf between the haves and have-nots, or in this case the digitally fluent and those who aren’t. While progress is laudable (mRNA vaccines are good, for example) and those who perpetuate such progress reap rewards, there seems to be little to no mechanism in the current system to encourage such progress without leaving people behind.
Even as an individual who prides himself as being at the cutting edge, as age catches up with me there are occasionally moments when I undoubtably feel left behind by the revolution of technology cycles. And there will be a moment in time where I will wake up and find myself on the other side of the divide. Food for thought.