“Tech nerds are smart. But they can’t seem to get their heads around politics.”
This is David Roberts’ bold claim in a recent article for Vox. According to Roberts, the tech elite’s distaste for the traditional political system is expressed by “cherry-picking” policy preferences across party lines. Invoking and interpreting statements of tech world icons such as Elon Musk and Tim Urban, a popular technology and science blogger, Roberts furthermore arrives at the conclusion that the people he calls “tech nerds” stand for “quasi-libertarian anti-politics”. Regardless of personal opinion on the matter, Roberts hit a soft spot here. Testament to the relevance of its topic, the article was widely circulated and discussed in news outlets and social media, where it received heaps of praise but also faced intense backlash. Roberts is not the only one to criticise the relationship between the tech world and politics. In his book “To Save Everything, Click Here”, journalist Evgeny Morozov condemns what he calls Technological Solutionism, part of which is the belief that technology can provide us with more elegant, simple solutions to public policy issues than traditional policymaking. Anti-politics, in this sense, can be understood as the favouring of technological solutions over traditional policymaking. For example, instead of issuing new food regulations the state would rely on individuals self-tracking their consumption with technological devices. Even though the terms “tech nerds”, “tech demographic” and “tech world” are a rather diffuse terms to describe the social group formed by people involved with the digital industry, both Morozov and Roberts arrive at the conclusion that this group as a whole tends to favour this brand of anti-politics.
But is this tech demographic necessarily anti-political? Scouring the depths of Twitter, I stumbled upon the following comment:
Marc Andreessen, cofounder of pioneering internet browser Netscape, points to an important dynamic: if “tech nerds” do get engaged in politics, their frustration with the system mounts quickly. And this is the point where my inner political scientist started ringing the alarm bells. Alienating whole social groups from participative politics surely facilitates anti-political behaviour. Indeed, there are good reasons for the tech nerd’s frustration with politics. Too often do world leaders lag behind current developments in the world of science and technology and thus fail to understand its needs. As recently as 2013, German chancellor Angela Merkel called the Internet “new ground for us all” at a press conference with US President Barack Obama. At this point, the Internet was about 20 years old.
Nonetheless, the tech demographic increasingly impacts our everyday life and reshapes our societies in the most fundamental ways. Facebook and Whatsapp dominate our social communication; Google and Twitter have transformed our approach to information. New technologies emerge out of Silicon Valley every day, yet interaction with the political sphere remains scarce. And what happens when the two worlds collide? They meet in court. The most recent examples are the case of Uber or the proceedings against Google’s search engine monopoly in Europe. Long-lasting and fiercely fought trials are hardly the sign of a healthy, sustainable relationship. Perhaps even more worrying is the intense clash between the tech world and local communities. Activists in Silicon Valley accuse tech companies not only of driving housing prices and living costs higher and higher, but also of exploiting their economic importance to dictate their agenda without respect for the municipal administration. Last year’s Google bus row is one example, but London’s tech city has recently experienced similar clashes with an “’amoral’ tech elite”. These examples show that a lack of integration in existing political processes only encourages the tech demographic to create its own, anti-political solutions. Some Silicon Valley figures, such as venture capitalist Peter Thiel, have taken this quest for anti-politics so far as to suggest the creation of a habitable platform on international waters to escape government regulation. Although advocates of this solution recently had to admit their vision is not feasible, this example underlines how little room the tech elite sees for reconciliation with established politics.
Let us take a closer look at the characteristics of this tech elite on the run from establishment politics. A quick glance at the numbers (published by CB Insights) is already quite revealing. 92% of founders are male, 87% white, 77% are between 26-44 years old, and only 3% of teams lack a college education. In other words: the elite of the tech demographic is an astonishingly homogenous group of white college-educated males. What does this tell us? Most notably, a lack of diversity suggests limited exchange with other groups. The tech elite lives in a bubble where it is constantly confronted with the same beliefs, and therefore reinforces them. As has been argued before, such as in this brilliant piece by C.Z. Nnaemeka, this setup leads to a focus on the self, i.e. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs will develop apps, found companies and invent technologies primarily to cater to the needs of their own demographic – their only frame of reference.
Of course this is not to say that the tech elite will only act out of self-interest. Initiatives such as the Effective Altruism movement have demonstrated that there is a broad consensus in the tech world: the common good and human welfare are goals worth pursuing. At the same time, Effective Altruism also illustrates the negative effects of the homogenous tech demographic. Effective Altruism is a movement spearheaded by tech elites and endorsed by popular figures like Elon Musk. Its purpose is to take classic altruism to the next level and maximise its efficiency by crunching the numbers. What started off as an admirable initiative, however, has spiralled into an obsession with the doomsday scenarios such as advent of Artificial Intelligence. Apparently, the number suggest that preventing AI from taking over the world and eradicating humanity may save billions of future human lives, making efforts to improve current life on Earth seem rather inefficient. Despite the shortcomings of this effort it nonetheless shows that the tech elite is not gearing up to become a new class of vile and despotic Internet age overlords. Rather, the tech demographic has to be seen as what it is: An emerging social group in our modern society, looking for its place and pace.
What happens when the tech demographic does find its place and collaborates with other parts of society becomes apparent in the example of the anti-ACTA movement. In 2012, a coalition of civil rights organisations and tech companies joined forces against what they viewed as an attack on freedom of expression and the right to privacy. After real-life protests across the world, as well as virtual protest by internet giants like Google, ratification of the agreement was eventually stopped. In the resounding success of the movement some even saw the beginnings of a digital demos.
Three years later, this success seems all but forgotten. As clashes between local communities and the tech world intensify, we should indeed be worried about its future role in politics. One way to improve the current situation would be a conciliatory effort by both sides. Through initiatives such as Effective Altruism and their participation in the anti-ACTA protest, the tech demographic has shown that it is willing to complement, and indeed to integrate into existing social structures. The recent setback for Peter Thiel’s lofty anti-political island utopia has come amid concessions that government regulation might not always be negative. Now it is the responsibility of existing political actors to make a move and embrace the tech demographic as a new, yet vital part of their societies, not only as a net contributor to their economies. Conflict is avoidable if both sides meet each other on an equal footing.