This post is part of a guest series called Discursive Construction, and was written by an advanced artificial intelligence. The bold at the beginning is the prompt, and the rest was written by the AI. If you’d like to support this project, please buy me a coffee.
The thing no one seems to get about the culture around tech startups is that it’s a new culture. It grew out of a new kind of commerce, a different politics, a new economic ethos. New modes of commerce drive new modes of governance. New modes of governance drive new kinds of politics and citizenship. It’s not that this culture is better or worse than the one it supplanted, but they are different. They have different values and therefore have different products.
In traditional legacy businesses, a stable culture is a good thing, a way to ensure loyalty and continuity. In a startup, a stable culture is dangerous. It’s an obstacle to the most important goal of all: survival. If you want to be quixotic enough to start a company, you have to embrace being able to start from scratch. You have to be prepared to think on your feet and learn what rules you need as you go along, because more than likely they don’t already exist.
The values of some members of this culture are dangerous outside the context of the startup world. I’m not talking about the norms of the industry, which are disruptive and disruptive innovation is our business. I’m talking about values that are counterproductive to building a good society, like the ethic of Libertarian free-market absolutism. I’m talking about the highest valuation being the winner at all costs rather than making a great product, which can lead to infighting to “win” that competition, not collaborate on creating a much better world for everyone. I’m talking about the engineering mindset that solutionism can solve society’s problems if they are just aware of them, without any critical eyes to assess whether the solution is effective or even desirable. I’m talking about the deficit of faith in our innate creativity that makes us think we can’t do it on our own, that we need to be saved from ourselves by the same heroes who gave us algorithms.
Big Brother used to be how governments kept watch on their people by installing CCTV cameras and soliciting denunciations and infiltrating religious and political groups. Now it’s app developers and data scientists who don’t even know we’re being watched. Big Data knows what we think and how we feel and what we buy and who we talk to. It knows every time someone wants to know where they were on a given day. It knows our passwords, it knows how much money we’re worth, it knows where the terrorists are and who your friends are. It knows what we read, what we listen to, what we watch, and how much money we make — and that’s just LinkedIn. It doesn’t yet know what we did last night, but it’s getting there.
Social networks are public utilities, but they are also companies that pay taxes and produce profits, so their investors want them to focus mostly on growth. Companies with a lot of venture capital want to grow, want a bigger valuation, a bigger exit. The only way you can do that is by tracking more users, having more advertisers pay more to reach them, selling more products to those users that they don’t need or want. These companies will track every possible thing they can, because the more they know about you, the more valuable it makes them (and their shareholders).
I grew up believing that big corporations were soulless, that corporate culture had nothing whatsoever to do with personal values because corporate values were all about making money and dictating behavior, sanitizing individuality and ruling with fear. Now I see that the real evil is the evangelical capitalist mandate to grow and grow and grow and “move fast and break things.” This is not mere growth. This is cancer.
I’m no social conservative, but I do believe that civilization means building the structures of society that make it more possible. And I’ve come to believe that the best, most important form of politics is a good society, where individuals can flourish. And a good society is not a place where any company can track me from cradle to grave, from inbox to Google Glass™. A good society preserves human individuality, so people are free to be who they are rather than being the data they produce.