What Tech Calls Thinking

Scott McLemee reviews Adrian Daub's What Tech Calls Thinking: An Inquiry Into the Intellectual Bedrock of Silicon Valley.

October 9, 2020

Published 25 years ago last month, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron’s essay “The Californian Ideology” suggested a label for the worldview then emerging from Silicon Valley. The name did not stick, but the essay itself holds up remarkably well -- not only as a snapshot of 1990s cyber-utopianism but also as a genealogy of the influences on digital culture still in effect now, innumerable waves of innovation and spins of the business cycle later.

Barbrook and Cameron traced a set of otherwise unrelated and antithetical lines of thought converging in the Valley. There was a little vintage New Left ideology: “direct democracy within the electronic agora will inevitably triumph over its corporate and bureaucratic enemies.” But there was also a heavily romanticized faith in the free market as imagined by Ayn Rand. Yoking them together, uneasily, was the technological determinism summed up in Marshall McLuhan’s slogan “the medium is the message,” which might be translated into less oblique but equally alliterative terms as “communication systems create consciousness.”

Barbrook and Cameron identified a major blind spot in the Silicon Valley Weltanschauung: the role of massive government funding in the creation of the internet (and, indeed, in making parts of California habitable, much less urbanizable). But an ideology need not be consistent to have an effect. In the 1990s, the road to the 21st century had a fast lane: innovation without regulation. That principle was effectively given the force of law one year after “The Californian Ideology” appeared in the form of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act: “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Only after the turn of the century did the implications begin to register of what, in recounting the history of Section 230, Jeff Kosseff calls The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet (Cornell University Press, 2019). “By offering platforms for users across the world,” Kosseff writes, “Internet enterprises faced the hazard that some users would use these platforms in ways that violated the law, bringing with it the possibility of liability for aiding and abetting that illegal activity.” Section 230 largely indemnified websites and internet service providers from litigation over the content that their users produced or shared. (A site or provider did have to remove patently illegal content such as child pornography or egregious violations of copyright protection, once it was pointed out.)

Under Section 230, the tech industry had the green light to develop platforms and applications for user-generated content. Without its protection, Kosseff writes, "The Internet would be little more than an electronic version of a traditional newspaper or TV station, with all the words, pictures and videos provided by a company and little interaction among users.”

What happened to the Californian ideology as a result of Section 230 is the focus of Adrian Daub’s What Tech Calls Thinking: An Inquiry Into the Intellectual Bedrock of Silicon Valley (FSG Originals). Daub, a professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University, makes no reference to Barbrook and Cameron’s analysis from a quarter century ago, although he points out some of the same influences, especially Rand and McLuhan. (That the essay goes unmentioned is probably less an oversight by Daub than a consequence of Barbrook and Cameron’s insights long since passing into common currency.)

A strain of sardonic allusiveness runs throughout Daub’s reflections on “how the changes Silicon Valley brings about are made plausible and made to seem inevitable” -- beginning with the book's title, which gives a nod and a wink in its title to Martin Heidegger’s "What Is Called Thinking?" The philosopher saw modernity as the nihilistic "forgetting of Being." For tech innovators, that is part of the business model: “Fetishing the novelty of the problem” for which a given device or app offers itself as the solution, Daub writes, “… deprives the public of the analytic tools it has previously brought to bear on similar problems.”

A new digital product will often be celebrated for its power to “disrupt” the staid and ossified practices of everyday life, such as hailing a cab, getting food delivered, looking for work and the like. References to the economist Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction” are invoked a lot more often now than they were in the pre-Section 230 era. “Disruption is high drama,” Daub notes. “The claim that 'things work the way they work because there’s a certain logic to them' is not.” But the emancipatory shaking up of ordinary life proves to be hype more often than prophecy. On the far side of disruption is not only forgetfulness but also disappointment. It becomes especially acute around the promises of communication, expression and connection:

On the one hand, there’s the incredible sense of potential when we’re suddenly connected to a much wider world in ways that even 20 years ago would have seemed hopelessly futuristic. And on the other hand, there’s the feeling that we keep messing it up, that maybe our communication media are such spam-filled, dick-pic-laden, Nazi-promoting cesspools because we’re somehow doing them wrong.

On this point, Daub is far more tuned in to the real significance of McLuhan for the era of user-generated culture than most of the commentary that once insisted that there was a revival of his influence. (That is its own episode in the history of hype, for another day, perhaps.) “[C]ontent for McLuhan simply wasn’t a coequal part of what media were doing,” Daub says. “It was a nullity, a distraction.” The platform or app became the focus of innovation and profitability; content was something created by those who can't code. User-generated content is sometimes indistinguishable from machine-generated simulations -- not because the latter is so well engineered, but because so much online "communication" amounts to conditioned response. The hostile swarms making social media their home are not outliers: "The automatism of it, the lack of specificity of their attack, is part of the power play," Daub says. "It’s the sense of compulsion encapsulated in the infamous phrase 'well, actually': they literally can’t help themselves."

Daub assesses the Silicon Valley Weltanschauung from a vantage point close to it geographically but culturally far removed. He has a way with the stinging epigram: “The troll is in control of when you lose control,” for example, or, “Twitter was happy to claim Tahrir Square, it seems, but Nazis are someone else’s problem.” A certain kind of tech-industry navel-gazing is conducted “to allow David Brooks to be sad about it.”

But What Tech Calls Thinking is more than the sum of its apothegms. Much of its interest comes from Daub's rapid gauging of the distance between the real stakes of ideas that have been converted into marketing tools and sketchy rationalizations. (See in particular the pages on Schumpeter's understanding of creative destruction and the press-kit knock-off.) On the other hand, I have a suspicion that he may be characterizing aspects of the past decade or so that may not continue in quite the same way. The idea that "disruption" is either presumably good or even a matter of meaningful change already seems like an artifact of a more naïve era.


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