Sunday, August 11, 2013

Silicon Valley: the New Heart of America’s Moral Wasteland

Something that never ceases to surprise me in discussing politics in Kenya is how ideology-free most debates are.  People talk about bringing in the pork for their communities (the barely-coded language of ethnic chauvinism), about which communities (bear in mind that these are not class-based divisions) benefit from state largesse, and lots and lots about process.  Critics of the existing political establishments, and most reformers, are big on process.  Efficiency, good-management, and sound, corruption-free governance are the watchwords.

And in a country wherein corruption was built into its political structure during and after the colonial era, these things are important.  But because process is inextricably tied to the realisation of some desired social and economic state, is seems pointless to discuss process as something entirely divorced from ideology.

I’m reminded of the website of the short-lived Moderate Party in California (here’s an old post on the cult of political moderation and centrism).  The party described its agenda as being to “fix government”, “create jobs”, and “improve education” through “collaboration”, “innovation (finding practical, common sense solutions, embracing new and creative thinking, and rejecting bureaucracy and rigid rules)”, and “results”.  Their slogan: “Smarter Government, Better Outcomes, Faster Progress”. 

That’s a whole lot of nice-sounding nothing.  Who, after all, would be opposed to “fixing government, creating jobs, and improving education”?  And who’s going to object to “results”?  The obvious problem is that this kind of “politics” mistakes the means for the ends, and the “how” for the “what.  This fluff is the meat and potatoes of technocrats in the United States, and the nyama choma na ugali of much Kenyan political discourse.

And, it turns out, the arugula and muesli of another community which is beginning to flex its financial muscles as a way of dabbling in politics.  The story of this community’s conversion from hostility to the messy and seemingly-unnecessary world of politics to the beginnings of committed if not entirely serious engagement is laid out in George Packer’s excellent article in the New Yorker magazine (very much worth reading in its entirety), “Change the World: Silicon Valley transfers its slogans—and its money—to the realm of politics”.

For me, the story pairs well with another about the shallow, self-serving culture that grips the capital of our decaying nation.  Because if Washington, D.C. represents elites’ fascination with their own importance and the drama of morally-vacuous power politics, Silicon Valley demonstrates how a culture enamoured of its own financial success, disinterested in the socioeconomic conditions created by that success, and which mistakes its own ascendancy for the common good will attempt to suck the life out of our politics.

Because “politics” is more than elections, campaigns, and government policy.  As much as those formal manifestations of the process it includes individuals’ and communities’ struggles for livelihoods within economic contexts which are shaped by political interests—the interests of businesses large and small, those of families, of industrial groupings, of political parties, and of people who care about labour laws, the environment, religion, education, their community, or themselves.

Like Kenya’s technocrats and the empty vessel represented by the Moderate Party and its proponents, the would-be powerbrokers in California’s Silicon Valley—as described by Packer—believe that process can be a substitute for politics, without being able to see that a) a given process is inherently political or that b) political endeavours should be attached to some clearly expressed moral end-point.

The obsession both with its own commercial success and with the politics of process means that the Silicon Valley community has spent so much time in navel-gazing that it is now looking up to realise that it is surrounded by a moral wasteland.  Life for the region’s former residents has been transformed as housing prices skyrocketed, driving what Packer describes as a “twenty-per-cent rise in homelessness” and turning Silicon Valley into “one of the most unequal places in America”. 

The report, A Portrait of California, describes the “Silicon Valley Shangri-La” (one of the “Five Californias” laid out by the report) as comprising “extremely well-educated, high-tech high-flyers...entrepreneurs and professionals fuelling, and accruing the benefits of innovation, especially in information technology.  In this community, “seven in ten adults completed college; four in ten hold a graduate degree; and median earnings top $63,000.  The top 10 percent of earners take home more than $200,000 per year”.  And yet, “men’s median earnings are double women’s” (and that’s after discounting those women who do not work) and “the bottom 28 percent of adults earn less than $25,000; two-thirds of them are women working in education, office administration, and other low-paying occupations” (Portrait of California 38). 

And this is after the expanding elite in Santa Clara County—and indeed in much of the area stretching north from San Jose to San Francisco—has effectively purged the area of its former socioeconomic diversity, pricing out the middle and working classes who not only brought the region its now-diminished racial diversity, but contributed much to the history of political activism, social conscience, and pace-setting for which San Francisco and its hinterlands are today known. 

Packer describes how “private-school attendance has surged, while public schools in poor communities—such as East Palo Alto, which is mostly cut off from the city by Highway 101—have fallen into disrepair and lack basic supplies.  In wealthy districts”, he goes on, “the public schools have essentially been privatized; they insulate themselves from shortfalls in state funding with money raised by foundations they have set up for themselves”.

In walling themselves off as self-sufficient communities, their wealth shielding them from the wreckage that electoral politics, the baby-boomers’ self-interest, and thirty years of fundamentalist Republican Party rule have made of California’s society, the elites of Silicon Valley have developed a politics characterised by an “anti-politics” mentality.  They have grown disengaged from the state’s community and have not felt the consequences of the mutual-hostility that their self-absorption has helped to usher in.

By believing that they can make a good life for themselves and their families, entirely detached from the issues, inequalities, and troubles of their neighbours in California, Silicon Valley’s inhabitants are making a very political argument.  Their socially liberal credentials aside (they need the cheap labour provided by immigration reform, for example, and largely support Democrats), their lifestyles are making a very regressive political statement: it is every person for him- or her-self.  And the wealthy, their argument seems to go, should contribute on an informal basis out a sense of condescending charity, rather than as a social obligation through the structures of governance—which these people find basically an annoying hindrance.

The contempt for government is a common refrain from those Packer spoke with.  There is a sense that the technocrats of Silicon Valley could run the world ever so much more efficiently.  But of course if past behaviour is any indication, they couldn’t be bothered to do so.  Generating technological innovation which quickly becomes an end in itself is, at the end of the day, much simpler than designing a political structure which contends with the economic and social challenges of people’s everyday existences.

Packer quotes Rebecca Solnit describing the tech companies’ buses, which to her “just [seem] like one face of Janus-headed capitalism; it contains the people too valuable even to use public transport or drive themselves.  Right by the Google bus stop on Cesar Chavez street immigrant men from Latin America stand waiting for employers in the building trade to scoop them up, or to be arrested and deported by the government”.  Packer describes how “some of the city’s hottest restaurants are popping up in the neighbourhoods with shuttle stops.  Rents there are rising even faster than elsewhere in San Francisco, and in some cases they have doubled in the past year”. 

This disjuncture of lives, provoked by an obsession with economic and technological growth which leaves so many behind provides another, even more disturbing parallel with Kenya, notorious for its inequality, for the slums which abut walled-off enclaves of wealth, for the decaying matatus which share the road with the WaBenzi and the growing upper-middle classes who roar off into the sunset without casting so much as a glance back at the communities from which they arose. 

One entrepreneur told Packer that “Many see their social responsibility fulfilled by their businesses, not by social or political action.  It’s remarkably convenient that they can achieve all their goals just be doing their start-up.  They actually think that Facebook is going to be the panacea for many of the world’s problems.  It isn’t cynicism—it’s arrogance and ignorance”.

Much of the article is devoted to exploring the fitful manner in which the giants of the tech world have begun to dabble in formal politics, in a manner unsurprisingly characterised by narrow-self interest, clumsiness, and opportunism.  And most of all, perhaps, by a belief that they don’t need to take sides, articulate an ideology, or link their obsession with process to an affirmative vision of a world characterised by a more expansive economic well-being.  Packer identifies Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom as their representative in the world of formal politics.  Newsom (and I would argue, his mentor Bill Clinton as well) is enamoured of technology as an apolitical, technocratic silver bullet which, if applied properly, would make the ills of the world simply go away. 

It is perhaps appropriate that the fulcrum of California’s cultural and to some degree economic engine in recent decades is located in a place and in a state of mind which represents many of the contradictions that people associate with the Golden State.  The “new world” of technology is as mired in politics as any other version of our state’s past.  Their vision just happens to be exceptionally open in its self-interested ambitions and extraordinarily disempowering to the people who fall afoul of its technocratic outlook. 

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