Joining the swamp

Why I'm joining a DC think tank

I’m joining the DC ‘swamp’, or at least one little part of it.

You can read the Lincoln Network post about it here.

For those unfamiliar, the Lincoln Network is about the only DC think tank with any presence in Silicon Valley. They host regular events, put on panels with key Valley figures, throw conferences, host a popular podcast, and generally keep a constellation of Valley players in their intellectual vicinity. On the DC side, they try to shape policy with a pro-tech and market-oriented stance increasingly rare, well, anywhere in the discourse.

This might seem like it’s coming out of the blue to my readers, but it’s part of a larger theme.

My overarching goal in both writing Chaos Monkeys and launching The Pull Request was attempting to bridge what’s now a yawning chasm between the tech world and everything else. One critique I would level at tech is that they’ve neglected their responsibility to plead their case both to the powers that be and the common users of their products. It may well be that one of the necessary delusions of Silicon Valley is ignoring the East Coast power centers of NYC and DC, but that’s an increasingly unsustainable delusion.

To riff on Trotsky: techies may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in them. We’ve reached a point of almost universal disdain and resentment of technology; it’s perhaps the only bipartisan position left in our national politics. The Left hates tech for having blown up the elite firmament of media that they dominated, and for minting ambitious billionaires who show considerable disregard for the status quo ante. The Right hates tech for supposedly censoring free speech and conspiring with the Left to impose a certain vision of the world (though most numbers show conservative media dominating on certain social media platforms).

The story is of course bigger than the age-old one of whether Facebook should or shouldn’t censor this or that vaccination or Russiagate story. Whether it be topics like crypto or skilled immigration policy, the policy agenda of tech is often very much at odds with a DC political world that either doesn’t understand tech, or is actively trying to brake the industry’s influence. I’ve often remarked that, as naively optimistic as the industry can often be, tech offers one of the few generative visions of the future currently on offer in our so-called ‘marketplace of ideas’. Everyone else wants to slam the brakes or find a non-existent reverse gear on society; only tech is looking toward a brighter and different future.

Too often though, that bright vision is warped and the path forward detoured for the sake of misguided (or frankly, self-interested) incumbent prerogatives and/or regulatory capture. Consider how much of what’s going on in tech, even such promising and radical stuff like web3/crypto, isn’t about building technology that’s better than current alternatives, but rather technologies that haven’t been regulated by government or dominated by monopolistic incumbents yet. It’s not about building a better mousetrap, but about building a less-regulated or less-constrained one.

One of the truisms of tech startup life is that most of the real problems in tech entrepreneurship aren’t technology problems, they’re human problems: the CEO can’t manage their psychology, the sales team is mis-managed, the engineering team isn’t getting clear guidance from the product side on what to build, etc. A poorly-run startup will ignore the human problems and tackle only technical problems as they seem more straightforwardly solvable: many a startup has gone under with running technology and an absolutely shambolic management culture.

Similarly, our society is plagued by a host of fundamentally human problems—inability to adapt to new media, inability to properly regulate new technologies, inability to square legacy politics and business practices to new technology—that require human solutions. While technical solutions like improved ranking algorithms can help at the margins, I don’t think the negative externalities of technology (and I’d be the first to admit they exist) have purely technical solutions, nor are such solutions the exclusive responsibility of technology companies.

Politics is downstream of culture, but both are downstream of technology and economics. We will not weather well the the drastic changes that technology is already causing via wishful or legacy thinking (or by dragging tech CEOs to DC for performative but pointless grillings). The technology sector is what’s both most emblematic of this country, and arguably, what we do best. It’s time technologists took more seriously their responsibility to plead their case in front of the powers that be, ideally, unfiltered by an often hostile and misleading media. It’s time we fixed the human side of the startup known as the United States of America.

As a logistical note, this won’t change The Pull Request at all. I’ll still be writing as regularly as ever (and hopefully more so) while a fellow at Lincoln Network. Some of my writing might go in a bit more of a tech policy direction, but that was already under PR’s broad purview anyhow. As always, welcome any feedback from readers.