Between the wall and the valley

Silicon Valley’s Visions of Absolute Power

Silicon Valley’s Kool-Aid encompasses long-term visions of both techno-utopias and techno-dystopias. The unifying fantasy is that, in the long run, technological advance will endow man and/or AI with absolute power. In the utopias, men become gods and mankind conquers the galaxy; and in much more ambitious versions, the entire universe itself. (It would be orders of magnitude harder to reach other galaxies than other stars.) In the more common dystopias, man won’t be able to compete with AI, or the elite will but the commoners won’t (this is Harari’s version). In either case, the Valley’s Kool-Aid is that technology will revolutionize human life and endow some—depending on the narrative: Silicon Valley, tech firms, AIs, the rich, all humans, or AI and humans—with god-like powers. Needless to say, this technology will come out of Silicon Valley.

In reality, a small oligopoly of what Farhad Manjoo calls the Frightful Five (Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon) have cornered unprecedented market power; and stashed their oligopolistic supernormal profits overseas, just to rub it in your face. Apple alone has an untaxed $216 billion parked offshore. Far from obeying the motto “data wants to be free,” these oligopolistic firms hoard your data and sell it to the highest bidder. The dream of tech start-ups is no longer a unicorn IPO. Rather, it is a buyout by one of the oligopolists. If you are a truly successful firm in the Valley, you have either benefited from network externalities (like the Frightful Five which are all platforms with natural economies of scale), or you have managed to shed costs onto the shoulders of people who would’ve hitherto been your employees or customers (like Airbnb, Uber and so on). Silicon Valley is, in fact, more neoliberal than Wall Street. While the Street has managed to shed risks and costs to the state, the Valley has managed to shed risks and costs to employees and customers. That’s basically the Valley’s business model.

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