What drives Silicon Valley?

It was suggested above that well-grounded critique opens up new areas of insight that can inspire viable responses and inform policy-making (Slaughter, 2017). This chapter suggests that further insights can be gained from a better understanding of the human and cultural interiors of organisations and individuals. After all, it is from the interior dynamics of values and worldview commitments that real-world structures, innovations and consequences emerge into the light of day. Developmental psychology has opened up many ways of achieving greater clarity regarding interior structures and processes and integral methods have proved particularly useful here. In brief, they embody a fusion of the work of many different people that helps us to understand more of what is occurring ‘beneath the surface’ of contested issues (Slaughter, 2010). They shed new light on some of the interior sources or ‘drivers’ that operate in Silicon Valley.

An indicative example can be found in Mark Zuckerberg’s admonition to the staff of Facebook to ‘move fast and break things’ as it reveals much about both. Jonathan Taplin draws on this statement to show how such imperatives arose within the specific conditions of American society and culture. Three influences can be mentioned here – Shumpeter’s notion of ‘creative destruction’, the normalisation of aggressive entrepreneurial practices and, last but by no means least, the pervasive influence of Ayn Rand’s radically individualistic right wing ideology (Taplin, 2017; Freedland, 2017).

These are among the historical and social forces that created Facebook, Google, Amazon, among others, and helped them become what Rushkoff calls vast ‘monopoly platforms’ (Rushkoff, 2016). These organisations currently have as much, if not more, wealth and power than many national governments. John Harris puts it like this:

The orthodoxies of government and politics are so marginal to the way advanced economies work that if politicians fail to keep up, they simply get pushed aside…The amazing interactions many of them facilitate between people are now direct – with no role for any intermediate organisations, whether traditional retailers or the regulatory state. The result is a kind of anarchy, overseen by unaccountable monarchs: we engage with each other via eBay, Facebook and the rest, while the turbo-philanthropy of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates superficially fills the moral vacuum that would once have pointed to oversight and regulation by the state  (Harris, 2016b).

Mason comments what must be obvious to many that as ‘monopolies (they) should be broken up.’ He adds, ‘if Facebook were a bank, it could not exist; nor Google if it were a supermarket,’ (Mason, 2017). In this view an underlying reason why that has not occurred is due to ‘the structure of hedge-fund-driven modern capitalism (which incentivises the creation of monopolies), together with political cronyism’ (Mason, 2017). Back in 2016 Facebook reportedly earned a cool US$8.8 billion and counted close to two billion people, or about half of the world’s Internet users, as its customers (Cadwalladr, 2017). Yet such gains also impose equally huge losses on publishers, newspapers, authors and a wide range of associated professions. Over time its customers become used to the dumbed-down alternatives that pour forth from countless unverified sources. Vital questions about where Facebook’s power ends, where its limits lie and to whom it is accountable have eluded successive U.S. governments that, at minimum, have failed to apply their own anti-trust rules and regulations. Inscrutable algorithms, deep penetration into the texture of so many human lives and vast wealth appear to make Facebook almost invulnerable to top-down intervention. There are, however, other possibilities.

While much attention has been paid to the wealth and apparent instrumental power of these organisations, rather less attention has been paid to investigating them from within, so to speak. Yet doing so reveals new ways of understanding them and perhaps reducing their dominance. Two previous examples of this kind of work are informative. One is Urry’s Societies Beyond Oil: Oil Dregs and Social Futures (Urry, 2013); another is Oreskes and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt (Oreskes & Conway, 2011). Urry deployed his considerable talent in ‘depth sociology’ to understand how ‘carbon interests’ became so powerful and was able to characterise the kinds of futures to which their continued dominance leads. Oreskes and Conway took on the cultural power of the exceptionally well- financed U.S. ‘climate denialist’ clique. They revealed in detail exactly where it started, the techniques and assets it employed and how careers were destroyed en route to establishing denialism as continuing disruptive force in US political life. The point is this: when credible efforts are undertaken by well-qualified people to return some of these hidden interior phenomena back into the limelight there’s no turning back. The hand of autocratic power, money and influence is revealed. Motives, purposes and outcomes are identified and called into question. Importantly, in the present context, the knowledge so gained cannot be erased. This is, in other words, a fair and legitimate way for societies to recover from multiple failures of governance and to regain from the oligarchs what was never theirs in the first place – an assumed social licence to operate as they wish.

Integral perspectives and the Silicon Valley worldview

Integral methods can be used in many ways. Theorists and practitioners can plunge into them in such depth that their investigations become abstracted and lose touch with reality. Here, as in previous work, they are employed lightly to reveal insights that can be taken up and used by virtually anyone. They use three sets of criteria: the four quadrants (windows on reality); four levels of worldview complexity and six values levels (Table 2). In earlier work some key reasons for applying Integral thinking were summarised thus:

While most people and the vast majority of civil and commercial organisations around the world certainly appear to have benefitted in the short term from the vast expansion of on-line options and capabilities, a much darker picture is emerging. It concerns not only the extraordinary cultural and economic power being wielded but also the nature of the underlying worldview and values – which are the main foci here – and where these appear to lead (Slaughter 2015, p. 243).

Table 2 Summary of quadrants, worldviews and values by Slaughter (2012)
1 The four quadrants (or ‘windows’ on reality)
a. The upper left quadrant (the interior ‘world’ of human identity and self-reference);
b. The lower left quadrant (the interior ‘world’ of cultural identity and knowledge);
c. The upper right quadrant (the exterior ‘world’ of individual existence and behavior);
d. The lower right quadrant (the exterior world and physical universe).
2 Four levels of worldview complexity
a. Pre-conventional (survival and self-protection);
b. Conventional (socialised, passive, adherence to status quo);
c. Post-conventional (reflexive, open to complexity and change);
d. Integral (holistic, systemic, values all contributions, works across boundaries, disciplines and cultures).
3 Six value levels
a. Red (egocentric and exploitative);
b. Amber (absolutist and authoritarian);
c. Orange (multiplistic and strategic);
d. Green (relativistic and consensual);
e. Teal (systemic and integral);
f. Turquoise (holistic and ecological).

What became clear over time was that the Internet had morphed into something like an extreme version of Bentham’s Panopticon where individuals were routinely subjected to extreme surveillance. Today that merely looks like a first step as entire industries are now feeding off of data traces routinely expropriated and on-sold for exploitation by the advertising industry (Zuboff, 2015). There’s little sense among the main players of any compassion, empathy or care for the higher goals or aspirations of humanity.

“The dominant paradigm is one of covert exploitation, erosion of individual agency and autonomy, and a sheer lack of transparency and accountability, reminiscent of authoritarian dynamics rather than of a digital well-being with equal and active participation of informed citizens,” (Christodoulou et al. 2021).

What emerges overall is a picture of societies and cultures becoming hollowed out by extraordinary monopoly power and, at the same time, becoming increasingly polarised and angry. Many formerly proud professions are in decline, unemployment is rising and criminality penetrates even the most private spaces. A look at three key figures from Silicon Valley – Mark Zuckerberg, Ray Kurzweil and work by Google’s chief economist Hal Varien – helps make sense of this perverse reality. In the former case an interview published in Time magazine clearly revealed elements of Zuckerberg’s interior life. It showed, for example, that he is dismissive of external opinion and equates critique with ‘turning the clock back’. He denies that pervasive advertising is in any way ‘out of alignment’ with his customers and is ‘concerned with nuance and subtle shades of meaning only to the extent to which they are useful to him’ (Grossman, 2014). Within such a pragmatic and instrumental frame terms like ‘values’, ‘human nature’ and ‘society’ have little or no meaning. This is significant when the broad impacts of Facebook are considered.

Similar issues arose in relation to Kurzweil, Chief Engineer at Google and well known for his views on the coming ‘singularity.’ This is supposedly a time when humanity merges with its technology and achieves a kind of disembodied immortality. There are fringe admirers, of course, who eagerly anticipate such ‘post-human’ futures. Yet a review of various accounts of this work strongly suggest that this perspective can be characterised as ‘high technology and hubris’ in about equal parts. Reductionism and category errors abound, for example, in Kurzweil’s ‘theory of mind’ where the vast complexity of the latter is reduced to mere ‘pattern recognition’ (Pensky, 2015). Another concern is the ‘constant conflation of biological evolution’ with ‘technical evolution.’ For Kurzweil ‘biological evolution, cultural development, and the advancement of computing technology are all part of the same immutable force.’ In this view, ‘the advance of technology is as inevitable as biological evolution’ (Pensky, 2015).

When technology and biology are ‘plotted on the same graph’ we know that those who view the world this way are living in their own version of what has been called ‘flatland.’ Within that diminished frame what is manifestly missing is any appreciation of the power and influence of the interior worlds of individuals and cultures. Also significant is that from a structural interior standpoint the worldviews and values of these key figures are so similar. In terms of the categories outlined in Table 1 both appear to be driven by ‘red’ to ‘orange’ values and draw on conventional to inverted (incomplete or, more controversially, ‘unhealthy’) forms of post-conventional worldviews.

Zuboff’s critique of the ‘big other’

Shoshana Zuboff’s magisterial treatment of Google’s pursuit of ‘surveillance capitalism’ should be read in the original as it provides a paradigmatic example of an in-depth countervailing view (Zuboff, 2015). Her article ‘Big Other’ takes the form of an extended critical response to, and evaluation of, material produced by Google’s chief economist Hal Varien. Zuboff supports the view taken above that: ‘big data is not a technology or an inevitable technology effect. It is not an autonomous process… It originates in the social, and it is there that we must find and know it.‘ (Zuboff, 2016, p.75) . This is a crucial point. She continues:

‘Big data’ is above all the foundational component in a deeply intentional and highly consequential new logic of accumulation that I call surveillance capitalism. This new form of information capitalism aims to predict and modify human behaviour as a means to produce revenue and market control (Zuboff, 2016, p.75).

Later in the piece she contrasts Varian’s technocratic vision with that of Hannah Arendt who offered more nuanced humanistic view of. She comments that:

In contrast to (Hanna) Arendt, Varian’s vision of a computer mediated world strikes me as an arid wasteland – not a community of equals bound through laws in the inevitable and ultimately fruitful human struggle with uncertainty. In this futurescape, the human community has already failed. It is a place adapted to the normalisation of chaos and terror where there the vestiges of trust have long since withered and died. Human replenishment … gives way to the blankness of perpetual compliance (Zuboff, 2016, p.81).

Zuboff’s calm, clear and forensic examination of Google and its operations lead her to conclusions that are valuable in the present context as they help to inspire subsequent actions. For example:

Google’s tools are not the objects of value exchange. They do not establish productive consumer-producer reciprocities. Instead they are ‘hooks’ that lure users into extractive operations and turn ordinary life into a 21st Century Faustian pact. This social dependency is at the heart of the surveillance project. Powerful felt needs for an effective life vie against the inclination to resist the surveillance project. This conflict provides a kind of psychic numbing that inures people to the realities of being tracked, parsed, mined and modified – or disposes them to rationalise the situation in resigned cynicism. This … is a choice that 21st Century people should not have to make (Zuboff, 2016, pp.83-4).

In summary she concludes that:

New possibilities of subjugation are produced as this innovative institutional logic thrives on unexpected and illegible mechanisms of extraction and control that exile persons from their own behaviour (Zuboff, 2016, p. 85).

Limitations of space preclude further discussion here. Next steps, however, could include applying this kind of exploration to other subjects and creating projects dedicated to revealing the inner worlds of the oligarchs and their leaders in much greater detail.  The next section is devoted to this wider analysis.

Blank book on a table, with shelves of books in the background and library dewey codes 1900 and 2100

Silicon Valley – building or undermining the future?

With such examples in mind it is legitimate to ask if Silicon Valley in general and the ‘big three’ in particular are building the future or, in fact, undermining it. From an Integral viewpoint any attempt to ‘build the future’ from structurally deficient and reductive right hand quadrant (empirical) views of reality is at the very least unwise and almost certainly a recipe for disaster. What can be missed by critics, however, is that the existential risks that have been created by thoughtless innovation and the scaling up of these enterprises to the global level are as dangerous for the U.S. as they are for anywhere else. In summary these examples suggest a broad default or collective profile of the sector, namely that it:

 

  • Arises from ego-, and socio-centric outlooks that serve to privilege ‘me, us and now.’
  • Proceeds from a conventional level of complexity (with forays into post-conventional when it comes to, e.g., financial innovation and marketing);
  • Expresses a range of values from ‘red’ to ‘orange,’ neither of which provides an adequate basis from which to resolve the issues identified here.
  • Largely address the lower right (exterior collective) domain of reality, with an occasional focus in the lower left (for social influence) and upper right (for persuasion and control).

Seen in this light the term silicon ‘giants’ appears misplaced since they currently operate more like ethical ‘midgets.’ It follows that if societies are to resolve some of the concerns expressed here then they will want to focus on ways to bring individuals and organisations at every level up and out of these diminished states of being. This is a core concern of humanistic and developmental psychology in general. Within the domain of integral methodology Chris Fuhs proposes a model for assessing the nature and potential of translative change (change within a given level) in contrast to transformative change (movement from one level to another). This work is partly motivated by a need to avoid earlier ‘growth to goodness’ assumptions that are now understood to be overstated (Fuhs, 2013). This is categorically not a question of promoting ever newer and more exciting technologies. Rather, it is finding ways to bring into play more comprehensive worldviews and more sustaining values.

Grounds of hope

The crucial thing to note is that the current techno-capitalist worldview is by its very nature unstable and yet highly resistant to any kind of oversight or limitation. The Internet oligarchs have continued to flourish over the years when it became clear that humanity requires a genuine shift of state, a new dynamic (a transition to sustainability) and completely different direction (a post-growth outlook). The evidence is finally in that high-tech civilisation, despite its real achievements, is on a no-win collision course with the planet (Das, 2015; Higgs, 2014). It no longer makes sense to deny that the direction we should be collectively pursuing is one that moves decisively away from passive consumerism, the diminished rationality of ‘the market’ and endless growth. This is not to say that genuinely innovative, useful and worthwhile uses of IT have not emerged over this period. Rather, ‘IT revolution’ has been undermined and misdirected by an ideology that ignores the human and cultural interiors. Instead of leading to a ‘better world’ it inscribes the collective slide toward civilisational breakdown and eventual collapse (Floyd & Slaughter, 2014).

In a more open and egalitarian world new technologies would not be set loose to blindly impact upon complex social systems through one default fait accompli after another. Rather, they would be subjected to rigorous questioning and testing long before they were widely applied. Indeed, this was a core purpose of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) that, in its brief lifetime, was established to advise the U.S. Congress on exactly these matters (Blair, 2013). During the Reagan / Thatcher era the all-powerful ‘private sector’ in the US comprehensively abolished such initiatives with predictable results. This is only one of a whole series of failures of governance especially, within the U.S. One could imagine, for example, what might have occurred if, instead of repealing the Glass-Steagal Act (to abolish the separation of high street backing and high-risk speculative gaming) Bill Clinton and the US government had put in place the means to probe the implications of high-risk speculative credit-default swops and the like. The Global Financial Crisis (G.F.C.) would have been less serious or possibly averted altogether. But no such attempt was made. Warnings were ignored, taxpayers of the developed world ended up footing the bill and Wall Street continued much as before. While various attempts to institutionalise technology assessment have occurred, it still remains uncommon (Schlove, 2010).

Until very recently the European Community (EU) has been effectively alone in taking steps to ensure that ‘some things are not for sale’. It has taken small, but promising steps to regulate corporations, compel them pay more tax and create new rules allowing users to take charge of how their personal data is used, if at all (Drozdiak, 2017). It has even fined Google 2.4 billion for promoting its own shopping recommendations above those of other companies. This is a beginning. But a great deal of dedicated work will be required before sufficient countervailing power can be assembled on behalf of civil societies to design and implement IT systems that are secure and benefit everyone

Fortunately there are multiple ways forward in shaping this IT revolution that are being pursued by people and organisations of intelligence and good will. In fact the seeds of many solutions to global dilemmas are already emerging. For example, one of many places to begin is Solnit’s work on the role of hope in a threatened world (Solnit, 2016). A different approach from Canada is Rees’ ‘Agenda for sustainable growth and relocalising the economy’ (Rees, 2014). Raworth’s work on a broader and more inclusive model for economics looks promising (Raworth, 2017). As does Fry’s impressive work on what he calls ‘design futuring’ (Fry, 2009). Then, specifically relevant to the issues raised here, are suggestions by Hodson, Taylor and other actors in this virtual space on how, in practical terms, oversight and control can be returned from the Internet giants to individuals, societies and, more broadly, governance in the public interest (Hodson, 2016; Taylor 2014). Having outlined aspects of ‘the problem’ the following sections begin the process of focusing on possible solutions.