The Great Reaction
America’s elites are a house divided. Ranged on one side are the people who rule the mighty institutions of modern life: I mean government, politics, bureaucracy, media, the university, the scientific establishment. They represent the forces of order. Across the divide stand the technical or “Silicon Valley” (SV) elites. They engage in a peculiar form of capitalism, and are agents of invention and disruption – of change. In a perfect world, the forces of order and change would attain some sort of balance. In the actual world we live in, the two sides are so out of whack as to push the clanging machinery of American politics to the edge of the cliff.
As with so much else, the turning point came with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016.
Already baffled and demoralized in the Wild West of the digital information landscape, the institutional class perceived Trump’s triumph as a horrific existential threat. They were used to conflating democracy with their own dominance of it. Trump in the White House was therefore perceived as a failure of the system – of democracy itself. That was the level at which dazed elites sought to explain the event.
The preferred explanation turned an accusatory finger back at the digital world, and, by implication, at those who profit from it. That should surprise no one. The institutional elites, lords of order, have always loathed the untrammeled nature of the web. Trump, they believed, could only have won because the information sphere had been sabotaged by social media vandals. Populist rot from the web had overwhelmed the shared facts and norms needed for democracy to function. Reasoned argument then yielded to nihilistic rage.
Even reality seemed up for grabs. Here is Barack Obama, speaking in February 2018: “Essentially we now have entirely different realities that are being created, with not just different opinions but now different facts – different sources, different people who are considered authoritative.” He added: “it is very difficult to figure out how democracy works over the long term in those circumstances.”
Since the hard rain of 2016, the institutional elites have pursued a fever dream of reaction. Even at the cost of great disorder, they aim to turn back the clock. President Trump, that vandal-in-chief, must go, of course. But the informational chaos that made him possible must be returned, by fair means or foul, to some pale version of the twentieth century. Elite control must be restored. The political web must be curated by those who know truth from falsehood. The SV elites, wayward billionaires in tee shirts and sweat pants, must either be coopted or broken.
The people of the institutions are adept at measuring advantage: and they have observed a change in the landscape that seems to favor the reaction. While the web was born in an anarchy of sites, today it is dominated by a handful of gargantuan corporations. Vast amounts of content are concentrated in very few hands. The possibility exists of a democratic analog to the Chinese internet police.
When a presidential candidate like Elizabeth Warren attacks Big Tech for having “too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy,” that is the obvious subtext. When that compass of received opinion, the New York Times, ritually rants on Facebook and argues “The Case Against Google,” there is more to it than meets the eye. The forces of reaction are on the march. The political seeks to regulate the digital. It isn’t quite a war of the elites – but certainly a family quarrel, with nontrivial consequences.
The Hippie Elites
This dispute makes no sense unless I say more about the character of the SV elites. At least three circumstances set this group apart from their institutional cousins.
The first is San Francisco. The city was Mecca to the hippie movement, and it imparted to the hacker culture that begat Silicon Valley a freewheeling, anti-establishment, hippie-dippy kind of idealism. As far back as 1984, Stewart Brand could proclaim, “Information wants to be free.” In 1995, John Perry Barlow declared the “independence” of cyberspace: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel… You have no sovereignty where we gather.” From a messianic faith in technology to an obsession with clean and unclean food, San Francisco has gotten into the DNA of the tech culture, even as it moved north and east.
The distance between the Whole Earth Catalog and a trillion-dollar corporate monster like Google may be thought too great for any confluence of values: but I dispute that. Systems are powerfully informed by their origins. Google’s mission, we are told by Sergey Brin, is “to organize the world’s information, making it universally accessible and useful” – a pragmatic rephrasing of Brand, with a small (but significant) difference. Google’s unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil,” could have been nailed over the doorway of an old-time hippie commune. Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Most players in Silicon Valley believe, to this day, that technology can be a humane and liberating force. How far their actions have departed from this ideal I will explore momentarily.
A second circumstance is the capitalistic start-up culture that nests, weirdly but comfortably, within the same heads that brim with visions of people power. I won’t try to improve on Arnold Kling’s take on the subject:
Large, established organizations develop a “culture of no,” in which lots of people have veto power and there is little incentive to say yes. It makes sense, because a lot of people have a stake in the existing way of doing things, a major failure could cause an otherwise-thriving organization to get into trouble…
With start-up culture, the culture is MFABT (“move fast and break things”), as Zuckerberg put it. When you have an idea, you don’t encounter a culture of “No, we veto your idea. Forget about it.” It’s more of a skeptical optimism: “Here are all the doubts we have about your concept. But go ahead and try and show us what you can do. We won’t fund you now, but if you meet these milestones we’d be interested.”
If you are truly willing to move fast and break things, you have a very different attitude to risk and failure than what is found in Washington DC (where failure, being fatal, is habitually denied or even doubled down on). The constant churning and gambling on new ideas is winnowed by a Darwinian process of selection: for all the idealism, reality rules Silicon Valley with a heavy hand. Your concept either works or it doesn’t. Your product either sells or it doesn’t. Post-truth never enters the equation.
The outcome has been a flood of innovation that, for better or worse, has altered the texture of human relations in the last two decades. By contrast, our political life resembles a gigantic intellectual recycling plant, where the worn-out old – nationalism, socialism, populism – is converted into the insipid new.
The last and least-remarked difference is youth. Elizabeth Warren is 70. Mark Zuckerberg, who runs the company she wants to break up, is exactly half her age. Thousands of young people enter our established institutions, but they must bow before their seniors. In Silicon Valley, the 30-year-old billionaires set the tone. The disparity in energy levels is therefore breathtaking. The tee-shirted indifference to protocol can leave a Washingtonian stammering. Idealism, wild ambition, love of risk, a joy in being disruptive “chaos monkeys” – all are part of the maddening attributes of youth.
Even the quarrel with the institutional elites is in part generational. SV people may blithely tell themselves that they disrupt the status quo for the greater good, but to the gray heads in Washington and New York they resemble children playing with dangerous toys. In the style of tough parental love, the keepers of order have delivered a warning: grow up and enter the safe, quiet spaces of Kling’s “culture of no,” or your toys will be taken away.
The Road to No
The power elites reject any trace of blame for the disasters of 2016. They do not in the least believe that they failed the public. On the contrary: they believe the public was manipulated through its worst instincts. In that sense, the public failed them. The fault lay with fake news, bald lies, Russian meddling – but above all with the demented digital netherworld, with social media, with Facebook. Zuckerberg has assumed a place next only to Trump and Putin in elite demonology. He stands convicted, in their eyes, of the crime of ending the twentieth century.
The problem is that in a democracy pledged to protect freedom of speech, digital technology now promotes types of speech that are destructive of democracy. The evident solution is to apply massive pressure against the corporate owners of online platforms, and force them to detoxify their content.
Our institutional elites are rarely clever enough to engage in successful conspiracies. But they think with a hive mind, and they attend to obsessive compulsions, so that their words and actions, at times, can appear closely coordinated. In the past three years, a relentless political and regulatory campaign has been waged from all quarters against the masters of Silicon Valley.
There have been multiple congressional hearings, at which the tech companies were hectored for an astonishing array of transgressions – including, randomly, bringing “catastrophe” to the news business and inciting “genocide.” There have been fines: by the FTC, a record $5 billion against Facebook for privacy violations associated with the Trump campaign; by the EU, a total of 9 billion euros against Google for its “anti-competitive” brokering of online ads. There’s a federal anti-trust investigation of “big tech” on the horizon, and various proposals in Congress to regulate the industry more tightly. Besides Warren, two Democratic presidential candidates are promising to “break up” the tech giants – and most of the remaining candidates are willing to entertain the notion. The ritual dance of the politicians has been performed to the drumbeat of all those New York Times articles and opinion pieces, which, in turn, have set the tone for a news media with a very special interest in taking down the digital competition.
The SV big fish have reacted with confusion. Accustomed to judging themselves in the flattering light of their idealism, they seem perplexed in their new roles as movie super-villains. Shortly after the 2016 election, Zuckerberg brushed off the fake news uproar as “crazy.” “Voters,” he said, “make decisions based on their lived experiences.” This was empirically correct but politically not, and the barrage of criticism that followed compelled him to retreat, apologize – and temporize. Facebook now pleads that it is “working to stop misinformation and false news.” Google does the same. In fact, both companies have invested serious money into rooting out online lies, but this has earned no applause. The politicians want curation, not truth. Theirs is an honest reaction: an existential hunger for Life Before Trump. Neither the tech elites nor anyone else can deliver on that.
The reality is that the titans of Silicon Valley no longer represent the start-up culture. They are comfortably established, defensive of their winnings, and entering that terrible condition known as middle age. Brin and Page, the Google founders, have turned the corner on 46. Jeff Bezos of Amazon, ancient at 55, is recovering from a messy divorce. Even Zuckerberg now has a wife and two kids to worry about, and might be less inclined to “break things” than in the old days. These are astute men. It must occur to them regularly that they can protect their gains by striking a bargain with the “culture of no.” The most interesting episode in the quarrel of the elites, I would guess, is taking place inside their heads.
Google and Amazon would seem to need little persuasion to align with the forces of reaction. As a matter of politics, Google is the most openly progressive of the digital giants, having enjoyed intimate connections to the Obama administration and the Hillary Clinton campaign. Brin declared himself “offended” by Trump’s victory. As a practical matter, the company updates its algorithm, without explanation, more than 500 times a year. These are editorial decisions about content, no different in substance from the editorial planning of the New York Times. In other words, Google already curates the web. The process would have no trouble fitting smoothly into the elite ideal of a scientifically irrefutable search engine that defeats the lies of populists. (Republicans, of course, believe this nefarious mission-switch has already occurred.)
By virtue of owning the Washington Post, Jeff Bezos is a major stakeholder in the anti-Trump crusade. He apparently thinks that the president, using Saudi agents, was behind the leak of embarrassing selfies that helped destroy his marriage. (For his part, Trump has bestowed on “Jeff Bozo” one of his least imaginative Twitter handles.) With a new mansion in Georgetown and a new Amazon headquarters in the suburbs of Washington, Bezos looks ready to settle into a new life as a pillar of the old establishment.
There is no question of giving up control, no question of allowing the business model to be torn apart by politicians. A convergence has begun to take shape, based on visceral loathing of Donald Trump. Tech lords like Brin and Bezos now acknowledge that someone, somehow, must say no to technological disruption when it goes too far.
What remains of the quarrel of the elites thus hangs, precariously, on the enigmatic figure of Mark Zuckerberg.
The ‘To Be or Not To Be’ Moment
Zuckerberg isn’t the controlling jerk of The Social Network, but neither is he the world-connecting idealist of his fond imaginings. In truth, he makes an unlikely Hamlet: a mind attuned to the practical and the specific, with an engineer’s respect for numbers and contempt for empty abstractions. Not surprisingly, he often sounds lost in Obama’s age of fractured realities. Not surprisingly, too, he’s been forced to apologize a lot.
Some of the more alarming things he has said appear to be attempts to give concrete form to impersonal processes: that Facebook is “more like a government than a traditional company,” for example, or that “a squirrel dying in front of your house” may seem more relevant than “people dying in Africa.” Even the famous mantra about a willingness to break things is a fairly literal description of Facebook’s trajectory from college fad to billion-dollar commodity.
Beyond question, Facebook is the most subversive of the big digital platforms. You go to Google to get information. You go to Amazon to buy goods (including books). But you turn to Facebook to “self-assemble” around some cause or interest – and to plan the momentous leap from online chatter to street protests. Globally, the platform has been a potent enabler of what I have called the revolt of the public. It has magnified the reach of populism – another aspect of the same revolt. It provided the political fuel that helped propel Trump into the White House. (The claim that Russians hacked the election is, to put it mildly, questionable, but the Trump campaign’s dominance over Facebook was real enough.)
Zuckerberg now faces a familiar choice: double down on breaking things, or accommodate the political pressure for curation and stability. Last September, on the occasion of Facebook’s fifteenth anniversary, Zuckerberg delivered himself of a manifesto that channeled John Perry Barlow’s contempt for the “weary giants” of the industrial age. Contemplating the “large hierarchical institutions” of the old regime “that provided stability but were often remote and inaccessible,” Zuckerberg chose rather to align Facebook with “networks of people” who shared “the freedom to interact and the ability to share ideas and experiences.” He concluded with a show of defiance:
As networks of people replace traditional hierarchies and reshape many institutions in our society — from government to business to media to communities and more — there is a tendency of some people to lament this change, to overly emphasize the negative, and in some cases to go so far as saying the shift to empowering people in the ways the internet and these networks do is mostly harmful to society and democracy.
To the contrary, while any rapid social change creates uncertainty, I believe what we’re seeing is people having more power, and a long term trend reshaping society to be more open and accountable over time.
The message seemed clear: Zuckerberg was still a breaker of things, and Facebook remained a force in the start-up culture. But that was not his first statement on the subject – and it wasn’t his last. Zuckerberg the hacker has been wrestling publicly with Zuckerberg the CEO. Zuckerberg the idealist has just as openly struggled to discover where goodness lies: among those “networks of people” in revolt, or with the political reaction against the detested Trump. The moment called for decision, but the most powerful man in Silicon Valley, Hamlet-like, was unwilling to decide.
On March 30, less than six months after the anniversary proclamation, he came down hard on the side of the institutions. In a remarkable Washington Post opinion piece, he now professed to advocate a “more active role by government and regulators,” to balance the “freedom for people to express themselves” online with the protection of society “from broader harms.” Zuckerberg included “harmful content” and political ads as categories of digital speech in need of regulation. The “networks of people” of the September manifesto, in brief, were to be placed in the hands of their “remote and inaccessible” superiors. Politicians and bureaucrats in search of a final solution to social media would be ceded the right to say no to opinions that offended them.
That may well be a sound business move. Regulation tends to freeze the market in place. But a more abject retreat from a previous position – and from all the idealistic talk about community and “people having more power” – can hardly be conceived. If it is really the last word on the matter, it signals Zuckerberg’s less-than-graceful leap out of the start-up culture, into the arms of those who do not wish him well.
The Speculative Future
On the surface, the quarrel of the elites looks to be mostly over. Institutional people have co-opted or browbeaten the top SV elites into submission. Reactionary Washington can at any time grasp digital San Francisco in a tight regulatory embrace. From Palo Alto, Mark Zuckerberg is calling for just that. The objective is to change the rules of the information game – to make sure that 2020 turns out differently from 2016. A democracy-preserving internet police will curate massive amounts of content and make short shrift of the public’s delusions about populism. The US will return to that happy time before Trump – maybe even to the golden age before this lunatic century.
But on all questions touching technology, and in particular the web, appearances can be deceiving. The digital universe is, for human purposes, infinite. Even a concerted attempt by the largest tech corporations to ban “harmful content,” as defined by politicians and regulators, would leave a vast amount of open spaces to be colonized by the “harmful.” Content and controversy would simply shift to other sites. Reddit has 300 million registered users. Tumblr gets 400 million visitors a month. A few hundred new servers would handle the extra load. And if these second-tier sites were pressured into elite control, the stream of impolitic material would just cascade downward into the impenetrable darkness of the web.
The effect, I suspect, will be the exact opposite of the reactionary dream. In wild and seedy digital gathering-places, far from any pretense of idealism, political discussion will inevitably grow more unfettered, more divisive, more violent. The attempt to impose Victorian standards of propriety on the information sphere will end by converting it into a vicious and unending saloon brawl. No matter how revolting the web appears at present – it can always get worse.
Another possibility arises from the fact that Silicon Valley hasn’t gone away. The start-up culture endures. Zuckerberg may have abdicated, but young people in significant numbers are still moving fast and breaking things, on the way to innovation. The most successful will move into profitable empty spaces. If Facebook, Google, and Amazon smother controversy and disruption in content, new companies will sweep in that promote these qualities and make money from them. They will be managed by youngsters whose ambition makes them immune to political pressure, and who understand regulation minutely enough to evade it – by increased use of encryption, for example. Instead of breaking up Facebook and Google, the “culture of no” will have multiplied them. The boorish public will find its voice magnified. The quarrel of the elites will resume, only with different players.
If this speculation is anywhere near the mark, the triumph of the institutions will prove ephemeral and ultimately self-defeating. The sheer volume and complexity of the information sphere has removed it far beyond the reach of effective curation. Consider the original model for an internet police: China’s. It enjoys unparalleled funding, staffing, and sophistication. The regime wields dictatorial authority that our elites can only envy. Undeterred by all that, over three months of a long summer, web-savvy activists have managed to evade surveillance and censorship, and orchestrated immense protests in Hong Kong. For the keepers of order and dreamers of reaction here at home, these disorders half a world away should be a portent and a warning.