Historical Parallels with Current Debates about the Ideology of Silicon Valley

29 02 2016

Henry Ford, 1919


What are the political values of  Silicon Valley’s leaders? How do the values prevailing in Silicon Valley influence the ways in which tech companies are run and the interactions between tech workers and the rest of the population? These questions have recently been debated extensively in the media. Interest in this topic has been increased by stories about conflict between “tech bros” and the homeless in San Francisco (see here),  Y Combinator’s apparent interest in the idea of a minimum income for all citizens (see here), the ongoing fight between Apple and the FBI (see here), controversies about gender (see here) and race in tech companies (see here), and the astonishing data showing that Bernie Sanders has been out-fundraising Hillary Clinton in Silicon Valley (see here).

It has long been clear that few people in Silicon Valley could be placed on a traditional US political spectrum (i.e., one that extends from Bible-thumping patriots on the right to ultra-left social workers on the left). There is certainly a libertarian segment within the Valley, but the reality is even more complex than that.   In my view, perhaps the best journalistic piece about Silicon Valley’s ideology was Timothy B. Lee’s article in Vox earlier this month.  Lee’s paper digests the research on the political views of of Silicon Valley’s elite that has been done by Greg Ferenstein, formerly of the  popular Silicon Valley blog TechCrunch (see here and here).

Lee writes that:

If you’re used to thinking about politics along conventional left-right lines, the Silicon Valley ideology Ferenstein sketches might initially seem like a mass of contradictions — it’s simultaneously anti-regulation and pro-government, libertarian and pro-Obamacare. But Ferenstein argues that these views start to seem more coherent once you understand the unique perspective of technology elites.

In an interview with Lee, Ferenstein claimed that Teddy Roosevelt’s ideas correspond with those of Silicon Valley today. “Theodore Roosevelt. Progressivism — meaning modernism — jumped from the Democrats to the Republicans in the early 20th century. The idea of government efficiency became very popular in Roosevelt’s short-lived Bull Moose Party. Around this time, scientists and engineers started to develop the modern technocratic state.

The word progressive then got co-opted by the labor movement and populist movements a few decades later. But Teddy Roosevelt’s progressivism has been in the American timeline for a while. I think it’s becoming powerful now thanks to the rise of the tech industry.”

I can kinda see why Ferenstein gravitated towards this historical example in the course of trying to make sense of Silicon Valley’s politics. Teddy Roosevelt, the iconoclastic Republican who eventually broke with the GOP in the 1912 presidential election, is an early example of an individual whose views are hard to label. However, I don’t think that Teddy Roosevelt’s militarist, nationalist, and hyper-macho ideology has much in common with the pro-feminist, pro-globalization, and proudly multicultural Silicon Valley of Mark Zuckerberg and Cheryl Sandberg.

As a business historian, what is interesting to me are the parallels between the ongoing fascination with the ideology of Silicon Valley and the amount of ink that was spilled a century ago by people who tried to understand the ideology of Henry Ford, a hard-to-categorize entrepreneur whose innovations disrupted American life. Ford was a vegetarian, a pacifistic, an anti-Semite, and a hater of trade unions and thus combined a variety of left-wing and right-wing positions. His political and managerial ideas fascinated contemporaries, which is why he became a cult figure (think Steve Jobs) who was admired by leaders around the world, including several totalitarian rulers.  I detect a pattern here: whenever a disruptive new industry comes along and changes everyday life, people devote lots of time to trying to determine whether the key entrepreneur or entrepreneurs have a coherent political worldview. (Such efforts may be a foolish intellectual project– I would defy anyone to find coherence in the inconsistent ramblings of Donald Trump).

As a management academic who is interested in entrepreneurial cognition, I’m very interested in another pattern that is revealed here: the people who create new industries tend to be unconventional thinkers whose political views are hard to categorize.





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