Coronavirus and vanity capitalism

On 9 June 1972, the Board of Trustees of Stanford University appointed the Welsh cultural critic Raymond Williams as Visiting Professor of Political Science for the winter quarter 1972-3 at a salary of $7000. During his time at Stanford, Williams and his wife Joy carried out the research which led to his book Television: Technology and Cultural Form (TTCF). In the Raymond Williams archive at Swansea University you can find notes on new technological developments in cable and computing, including a television programme on KQED, the ‘community-supported non-commercial public television station for the San Francisco Bay Area and northern California’.  First a teacher walks a Palo Alto school class through a computer lesson, then there’s an item with a Stanford professor explaining how computers can be used to study reading strengths and that one central computer could support all schools in the area in the future.

Williams, whose work is a resource for contemporary internet scholars like Zizi Papacharissi and Thomas Streeter, later wrote:

San Francisco is a beautiful city, probably the most genuinely and actively cosmopolitan in the world. In its Bay Area there are two world-ranking universities and half a dozen others.

But he later noted the contradictions, the imbalance of resources between public and private institutions, and the poverty:

there, in wealthy California – on its own, the ninth-richest state in the world – you only have to travel on public transport to see the real poverty, not only of so many Blacks and Chicanos and some Chinese, but of poor whites, living hard.

Almost forty years later, Alice Marwick, who spent nine months carrying out ethnographic research in Silicon Valley from 2008-2009, wrote in her book Status Update that ‘Silicon Valley culture depends on undocumented labor to build microchips, clean offices, and mow the lawns of technology workers relocated from Bangalore, Shanghai, Dublin and Des Moines.’

Of 1970s California, Williams notes ‘among the jets and the military electronics there is an extraordinary, almost tactile privatisation.’ The final injunction he was given is worth stating:

This is the moment to recall what an intelligent Californian said as we were leaving….: “Don’t let them californicate the world”.

Some may remember that in 1996 Channel Four broadcast a play by Denis Potter, Cold Lazarus, in which, in the year 2368, a team of scientists driven on by a media mogul seek to revive the mind of a 20th-century writer who had died in 1994. 24th century Britain is run by US corporations, and experience is largely virtual. The writer’s head is being held in a cryonics laboratory owned by a pharmaceuticals plutocrat. The plan to broadcast the writer’s memories on television, generating substantial incomes for the media company, is ultimately prevented by an activist for a resistance movement opposed to technocratic control of society, who has found that the writer’s mind is seeking to communicate his desire to die finally and forever.

Potter’s dystopia seemed a trifle fantastic in 1996. But today perhaps the endgame of neoliberalism has been reached with the assertion that death can be prevented and life extended – for those who can afford it. Calico, the California Life Company, a product of Google Ventures, seeks to identify how to prolong life. Other start-ups exist with the same objective with investors including Big Tech billionaires. Silicon Valley’s imaginaries extend not only to life-preservation but to sea-steading – floating ocean cities with ‘political autonomy’, in other words outside the boundaries of normal government. Activities formerly undertaken by nation-states such as space exploration are now the purview of a privileged few billionaires such as Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos – Big Tech, Small State. Their intellectual leader, Peter Thiel, was interviewed by Carole Cadwalladr for the Observer in 2014. He confirmed his desire to challenge the boundaries of mortality, adapting the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas by saying ‘we should not go gently into that good night’.

Today we read reports of private jets ferrying multi-millionaires around the world to avoid crowded airport terminals and private doctors ensuring their clients have home ICUsin case of emergency.

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs often like to suggest they are imbued with the spirit of sixties Californian counterculture. The counterculture was a very male-orientated affair. In her powerful, well-researched book Emily Chang calls the culture of Silicon Valley: Brotopia, or the boys’ club of Silicon Valley. Early Facebook staff member Kate Losse called her book on the foundational years of Facebook, The Boy Kings. She recounts her memory of a company memo being sent round which said that all women members of staff should come to work on Zuckerberg’s birthday wearing t-shirts with his face on the front.

Silicon Valley’s Brotopian libertarianism has given us vanity capitalism. Feminist critiques of Silicon Valley point out that libertarianism is an ideology aimed precisely at privileged young men with no understanding of the ways in which the unpaid labour of women in raising children and holding together families has underpinned their opportunity.

Vanity capitalism embraces all of the counterculture’s narcissism and self-indulgence. There is little room for the state and the public sector. This was the age of John Perry Barlow’s infamous cyber-libertarian declaration:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

Facebook is the paradigm of vanity capitalism, exhibited in its status as a company controlled by its founder, its driving rhetoric of permissionless innovation and the hacker culture, and its technocratic approach to solving global problems.

Vanity capitalism privileges the founder’s monopoly control. This is a particular feature of the digital economy today, but increasingly the establishment of effective monopolies in particular sectors has also become a demand of leading venture capitalists, notably two who sit on Facebook’s board, Peter Thiel and Marc Andreessen. Thiel wrote in 2014

Monopolists can afford to think about things other than making money; non-monopolists can’t…. Only one thing can allow a business to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival: monopoly profits.

 As founder, Zuckerberg retained strict control over the company through a series of ‘voting agreements’ outlined in the IPO filing. Facebook went public, but its founder retained control in an arrangement not uncommon in certain classes of tech stocks. Marc Andreessen argued it protects companies from the machinations of hedge funds and short-sellers, saying ‘it is unsafe to go public today without a dual-class share structure‘.

Control structures were further amended in 2016 to allow Zuckerberg to retain control even after transferring stock to the philanthropic foundation which he runs with his wife Priscilla Chan.  In a statement at the time, Facebook’s General Counsel accepted:

This is not a traditional governance model, but Facebook was not built to be a traditional company. The board believes that a founder-led approach has been and continues to be in the best interests of Facebook, its stockholders, and the community.

In 2017, when Zuckerberg was undertaking a tour of the United States that many people thought presaged a 2020 run for the Presidency, it became known that Facebook’s statutes had been changed to allow him to retain control even if he were serving in government office.

In setting Facebook, Zuckerberg didn’t need permission – from anyone. Silicon Valley’s discourse of permissionless innovation, a phrase coined by Google’s chief internet evangelist Vincent Cerf, has been adopted by right-wing think-tanks as a counter to the ‘precautionary principle’ underpinning so much of environmental and health policy. Avoiding the need to ask permission, on the Ayn Rand basis of ‘who will stop me?’ has become a doctrine for some in Silicon Valley.

 In his open letter in Facebook’s SEC filing for its IPO, Zuckerberg said Facebook’s approach was ‘the Hacker Way’ – striving always for continuous improvement ‘learning from smaller iterations rather than trying to get everything right all at once.’ He reiterated:

We have a saying: “Move fast and break things.” The idea is that if you never break anything, you’re probably not moving fast enough.

All staff had to go through a ‘Bootcamp’ where they learned these principles, even if they were not coders.

Losse says Zuckerberg believed that the best engineers would only join a company where engineers were clearly in the ascendancy. To address the rising cost of housing in the Valley, engineers were offered a subsidy – only after protests was this extended to other staff. Vanity capitalism privileges engineers as logical problem-solvers. Zuckerberg frequently frames challenges – countering terrorism, for example – as an engineering challenge to be solved by AI. This ‘technological determinism’ of course reinforces the mystique and technical superiority of Silicon Valley and its young engineers. Technical language and knowhow has always been used to allow elite dominance of certain new evolving sectors.

This underpins not only Facebook but its founder’s philanthropic approach:

Our mission is to find new ways to leverage technology, community-driven solutions, and collaboration to accelerate progress in Science, Education, and within our Justice & Opportunity work.

Philanthropy, indeed, is the epitome of vanity capitalism.

Technological determinism also underpins Facebook’s attempts to provide basic internet services in under-served countries around the world – the partnership and the Free Basics platform: is a Facebook-led initiative with the goal of bringing internet access and the benefits of connectivity to the portion of the world that doesn‘t have them….The more we connect, the better it gets. (my italics)

The ambitions of vanity capitalism are boundless, though sometimes there is caution in revealing what these companies do. Mark Zuckerberg was asked about Peter Thiel’s Palantir, started with funding from the CIA’s venture capital fund when he gave evidence to the Senate: might they be described as Stanford Analytica? Surprisingly, during his evidence, Zuckerberg said ‘I’m not really that familiar with what Palantir does.’

Vanity capitalism was called out by President Obama, somewhat belatedly, towards the end of his term in 2016. ‘Government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs’ he said at a technology futures conference, ‘because, by definition, democracy is messy….and part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.’ But that was before personal vanity became a presidential characteristic.

Can these Silicon Values survive? Interestingly, one Silicon Valley venture capitalist started to question the underlying model. His name? Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president for Growth at Facebook. He said ‘user acquisition and growth has become such an entrenched part of the Silicon Valley zeitgeist.’ He recalls that his Facebook team made user acquisition a science. But now he fears that the venture capital industry is bidding up costs and creating ‘a dangerous, high-stakes Ponzi scheme’.

In April 2019, the ride-sharing company Uber filed for its IPO, warning that it might never make a profit. Less than a year later its CEO was calling for federal aid for its drivers while denying it was requesting  a Coronavirus bailout. Truly, under Silicon Valley leadership, vanity capitalism is completely californicated.

 This is an extract from my book Facebook, the Media, and Democracy, published by Routledge, where you will find notes to the sources quoted, with updated links related to the Coronavirus.