“This is a book about the history of ideas in a place that likes to pretend its ideas don’t have any history.” Thus, begins Adrian Daub’s arresting and extraordinary book that is a dizzying concoction of Marshall McLuhan’s prescience, Ayn Rand’s unrelenting obstinance, and everything in between. Silicon Valley’s obsession with resurrecting and resuscitating time worn ideas and repackaging them as novel forays in innovation, is more a leitmotif of the tech industry than a temporary zeitgeist. As Daub reasserts, taking journalist Franklin Foer’s powerful quote as an aide, Silicon Valley companies “have a set of ideals, but they also have a business model. They end up reconfiguring your ideals in order to justify their business model.”
Daub, in a refreshingly original and enthusiastic manner demonstrates how Silicon Valley shibboleths such as “dropping out,” “disruption,” “genius”, and “failure” are elevated to sacrosanct ideals, thereby fawning an entire industry egged on by a more than just eager media, which just cannot wait to lap up Horatio Alger success stories. Consider “dropping out” for example. Once considered to be a symbol of inadequacy and a notion of incapability, this term is now arguably the playbook for supposed greatness. Equated with the exploits of tech moguls such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs et al, “dropping out” is bandied about and extolled with a frequency that borders on the intolerable. Daub informs his readers that this phenomenon of glorifying a ‘drop out’ culture, can be traced back to the counterculture of the late 1960s. Those were the times when the doyen of hippie culture Timothy Leary advocated an entire generation to turn on, tune in and drop out. This birthed, in the words of Daub, “elitism that very visibly snubs the elite … while nevertheless basking in its glow.” This is the same elitism that waxed eloquent over the “dropping out” from Stanford of the notorious Elizabeth Holmes who fell from grace post an unraveling of her fraudulent blood-testing organisation, Theranos. But as Daub, genuinely asks, “what did she drop out into?” Forking out $1 million out of a superrich family friend, to add to a generous dosage of monetary assistance from her father, Holmes had it all covered. Dropping out, my foot!
“Disruption” is yet another word which tech has appropriated for itself as an uncompromising neologism. It is as though continuity is an anathema, even if such a continuity happens to be perfectly well balanced, harmonized and functioning in a totally steady state. Nothing can compromise the motto of “Move Fast and Break Things.” “If it ain’t broken, then don’t fix it” has become a dated concept, a draconian and antediluvian throwback to passive and muted thinking. Except that, as Daub illustrates, such conventional thinking could in fact be the need of the hour. “As the poet Charles Baudelaire wrote in the 19th century, when the world around him was modernising at a breakneck pace: ‘The form of a city / changes faster, alas, than a mortal’s heart.’ Keep living the way you’re living, and soon enough you’ll find yourself living in the past.”
The origins of the term disruption, as employed in its contemporary connotation may be attributed to the wisdom received from can be traced to the philosophy of “creative destruction” expounded by Austrian political economist, Joseph Alois Schumpeter. In a six-page chapter forming part of his book, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Schumpeter introduced to his readers “The Process of Creative Destruction.” He held forth on how the ancient is consistently replaced by the modern. To quote the economist himself, “the same process of industrial mutation—if I may use that biological term—that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of creative destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.” This ‘Schumpeterian’ notion, as Daub educates his readers has been taken to irrational levels by the tech fraternity. “Disruption is possessed of a deep fealty to whatever is already given. It seeks to make it more efficient, more exciting, more something, but it never ever wants to dispense altogether with what’s out there. This is why its gestures are always radical, but its effects never really upset the apple cart: Uber claims to have “revolutionised” the experience of hailing a cab, but really that experience has largely stayed the same. What it managed to get rid of were steady jobs, unions and anyone other than Uber making money on the whole enterprise.”
This fixation over the notion of “disruption” is also syncretic with the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s principle of accelerationist humility. As Daub educates his readers, this tenet is emblematic of an extreme form of something that forever denotes an idea of disruption. This search for altering things in perpetuity irrespective of an underlying necessity ensures that a world of artificial churn and a perpetual motion machine keeps perceptions occupied and dogmas, well entrenched.
If Ayn Rand’s remorseless capitalism is a bedrock that is yet to be outgrown by some of tech’s superstars such as the irreverent Peter Thiel, the influence of the Esalen Institute and its former speakers still permeates the fabric of the functioning of the technology landscape. The brainchild of a Stanford graduate named Dick Price, who was influenced by a lecture titled “Human Potentialities”, and delivered by Aldous Huxley, the Esalen Institute was a veritable brewery of philosophy. Aiding Price in the establishment of this institute were Michael Murphy, Frederic Spiegelberg, Gregory Bateson, and Fritz Perls. Prominent and most wanted (and vaunted) speakers taking to the rostrum included, R. Buckminster Fuller, Ken Kesey, Linus Pauling, Joseph Campbell, and Huxley himself.
The gestalt characterizing Esalen was the human potential movement, one of the longest-lasting institutions of New Age spiritualism. The tech industry seems to be on the firm grip of the “Esalen Principle” these days. As Daub informs us, the Institute’s current CEO comes from the Wikimedia Foundation, and the institute itself offers courses in “Designing the Life We Want” taught by Silicon Valley consultants. Daub also visits some other prominent thinkers whose philosophy has been appropriated or rather misappropriated by corporate money bags to further their capitalist cause.
“What Tech Calls Thinking” – thought provoking, turbulent, and topical.