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There is no 'Them'
On the politics of the Other
Beware of the other’s dream, because if you are caught in the other’s dream, you are fucked.
-Gilles Deleuze, ‘Qu’est-ce que l’acte de création?’
I recently spent a rushed weekend in Los Angeles, a city I was born in, once lived in, and which I (re)visit every chance I get. I’m one of those invitation collectors who’s actually a homebody and mostly dislikes travel, but will bundle invites as an excuse to visit a city and knock them all out.
Thus was I sitting at a very well-appointed and welcoming shabbat dinner table this past Friday. The specific host family and guests are not directly relevant, other than to mention these are extremely media savvy people who in fact make a living in The Spectacle (much as I do) and are by no means the ‘normies’ that techies often dismissively cite.
The conversation was wide-ranging and generally warm…until we got to the topic of technology, and I suddenly felt as I did in the late 90s when backpacking around Europe. Cut to scene at a youth hostel in Belfast or Brindisi, and I was the lone representative of a hegemonic entity that had defined and marked everyone’s lives, and I had a lot to answer for. In the case of backpacker me, it was the United States of America and its assumed depredations throughout the world; in the case of shabbat guest me, it was me as emissary (and, worse!, defender) of ‘Big Tech’ which has wrought so much turbulence in our lives.
In the same way that the hostel scenes possessed their own ironies that still gleam in distant memory—one Spanish dude who was letting me have it about evil America was literally wearing blue jeans and eating McDonald’s—this scene also had its odd juxtapositions: everyone at the table had not only made their names thanks to such society-threatening services as Twitter, but when they had sparked cancel-worthy controversies (as everyone in the public eye now inevitably does), tech provided them with the weapons to fight back against the legacy media that demanded they follow the elite party line. Without tech, the ‘Cathedral’ would have chewed them (and anyone else) up and spit them out.
Me: “But tech—Twitter and Substack and podcasts and all the rest of it—they’re like the AK-47, the mass-market tool of the oppressed against their oppressors, that can turn a band of insurgents into a threat even for hegemons,” I protested.
‘Them’: “But tech is making teen girls completely crazy. And then the techies have the gall to keep their kids from using it, because they know it makes their kids crazy,” replied the hostess.1
Me: “Look, if you’d asked a Bohemian peasant in 1618 if the printing press was a good idea—note, that’s the first year of the Thirty Years’ War, the bloodiest war in European history until WWII—they’d also say it was probably a horrible mistake. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment and antibiotics and human rights that the literacy trade worked out.”
And on and on it went.2
The issue of the net impact of technology is something I’ve addressed ad nauseum before, and my final view is that of the (mis-told) story of Zhou Enlai when asked about the impact of the French Revolution: too early to tell. My suspicion is that, just like that pessimistic and hypothetical peasant in 1618, we’re similarly on the cusp of a radical shake-up in the reigning order. Gutenberg’s gadget gave us everything from the nation-state to constitutional democracy to encyclopedic and empirical notions of ‘truth’, all of which I think are about to be thrown out the window before arriving at some (hopefully) superior post-post-Enlightenment era.
What’s more interesting than yet another technology debate is the form of address used by my shabbat interlocutors: the ‘Them’ and the ‘They’. ‘Them’ is the object of the outsider’s suspicion and conspiratorial fear. ‘They’ have done something, in some coordinated and seemingly unstoppable way, even if the ‘They’ encompasses a vast cast of companies and characters. At its extreme, it’s the ‘They’ of QAnon people going on about the pedophile ring that rules the world behind the scenes. In less unhinged form, it’s a ‘Them’ that buckets someone like Tim Cook alongside the Y Combinator founder leading a three-person company. The former (as well as analogs like Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg) are the emblematic figureheads, even though (to my mind), the latter much better embody the soul of Silicon Valley. Either way, they’re on the ‘Them’ bus together.
Very occasionally there really is a sort of ‘Them’. There was a disorganized ‘Them’ inside Facebook trying to make the ads system make money before the IPO, creating the targeting, Newsfeed, and mobile attribution products that have powered the company’s gargantuan revenue until this very day. I described some of it in my memoir Chaos Monkeys. There seems to be a ‘Them’ around this ‘Supreme Court’ of Facebook, an Oversight Board that was cobbled together but doesn’t seem to do much of anything.
That’s the real problem with the ‘Them’: it ascribes a level of willful agency to organizations (or entire industries) which are really baskets of disparate individuals and agendas grappling with happenstance and an intractable reality. It’s an illusion only readily maintained by outsiders, as insiders have seen how the sausage is really made. Nobody who’s opened a Facebook dashboard and seen figures in the billions blinking back at them would believe that any ‘Them’ could possibly manipulate this seething mass of humanity in a controlled, willful way.
The real Facebook struggle is to somehow manage all this complexity in scalable ways: an algorithm that sorts the billions of pieces of content created per day; machine learning that hopefully doesn’t filter out the noxious detritus of imperfect humanity in too, too wrong a way; some imperfect body of policies that placates often incomprehending regulators and is still implementable by overtaxed operations people. The thought that any set of people, no matter how motivated, could deploy grand designs of overt social control over that globe-spanning mess seems delusional when you realize the scale of it.
When our car gets stuck in the snow on the way to Tahoe, we don’t blame President Biden; well, some political partisans people might, and who knows, poor Federal infrastructure policy might be residually to blame for that poorly-marked turn we missed. But broadly we ‘get’ that national governance is a complicated, multi-tiered phenomenon, and assigning individual agency to this or that person or policy comes off as contrived. Somehow that worldliness disappears (or didn’t exist to begin with) when it comes to tech, which still confronts this unbridgeable chasm when it comes to explaining itself to the normies (and believe me, some have tried).
It’s almost like there’s a ‘Them’ corollary to the well-known Gell-Mann Amnesia, stated here so clearly by Michael Crichton:
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
The ‘Them’ Corollary of Gell-Man Amnesia states that while you understand your industry is some lurching, hacked-together mess—a circus of chance, stupidity, and very occasionally some ambitious act of competence—the moment you read or discuss any other industry, you imagine it like the Borg in Star Trek: this monolithic hive of implacable and malign collective will. Your industry is a multifaceted joke held together by inertia and small-minded greed, but Big Tech is a ‘Them’ of quasi-omnipotent power that requires some rapid dressing down, ideally as humiliatingly as possible.
If the ‘Them’ didn’t exist (as indeed it mostly does not), it would be necessary to invent it: humanity, even sophisticated and worldly individuals, will default to a morality-play script of heroes, villains, and cameo bit players to frame reality. Much of that flattening is just cognitively mandatory: the world is too big and complex to understand in all its nuance. We reduce some big, hairy thing out there—take France as an example—to a (non)representative city Paris and the one dude currently the face of the place (Macron). That personality and backdrop (with a view of the Eiffel Tower of course) becomes the mise en scène of the entire Gallic enterprise in our minds, whatever the 67-million-person reality. Ditto the management and rank-and-file of every company from Twitter to Tesla.
Of course, the normie numbskulls who do this, much of them in East Coast media, are just envious of the West Coast’s demolition of their elite gatekeeping. They are just pissed off at losing fair and square, and tech should do everything in its power to resist the resentful machinations of them: the Sulzbergers, those sanctimonious politicians in DC, the whole lot of them. They don’t know what they’re talking about, and we can never hope to bridge the chasm of ignorance that separates us from them.
Oops. There’s another ‘Them’ again. The Gell-Mann ‘Them’ Corollary strikes again. We all cling to our ‘Them’, even as we repudiate our own Them-ness. After all, we are the other’s other, some Them’s Them. To a large degree, we’re defined less by our own attributes, and more the ‘Them’ we choose to loudly condemn as the real source of our problems.
In that case, it’s a bit odd that both political Left and Right have chosen to Them-ify technology, and claim tech as an enemy in the Great American Crack-Up currently underway. The entire political spectrum will of course still remain a ‘Them’ to the technologists themselves, which is why tech companies, despite their vast wealth, are routinely dragged by media and politics. Tech can’t figure out how that normie ‘Them’ works, and choose to keep on building instead. Rather than join or sympatheize with that NYC and DC-based ‘Them’, they just totally ignore it until that ‘Them’ makes itself unignorable, and the wealthiest and most powerful techies in the world are kowtowing at a congressional hearing.
May the best ‘Them’ win in the end.
Note to subscribers: I’m finally wrapping up the backlog of unedited interviews from 2021, and publishing the last two in the next two weeks. Tomorrow, my interview with Ben Shapiro will go out, and next week my interview with Glenn Greenwald will post. Then onto 2022! As a reminder, most audio interviews will be available on the Pull Request Callin show, listenable either via app or on Web here.
One of the charges you’ll hear leveled against technologists every once in a while is this “best dealers don’t use” accusation that ‘They’ don’t allow their children to use the very addictive technologies they create. Every year there’s another piece in the normie press about it. In fact, every technologist I know struggles with the question of just how much to expose their children to technology, given that they themselves spend 12+ hours per day in front of a screen (professionally). Sure, traditional writin’ and ‘rithmetic and all that, but talk to the smartest technologists at work today, and they’ll tell you how they learned to code because they spent too much time playing video games (the panic of their era) or on BBSes (as I did) or whatever embryonic technology of their time. Do you really want your kids to be raised in the tech equivalent of 1990? The tech leaders of today didn’t have parents who kept them intentionally 20 years behind the curve; they had parents who bought them computers and let them spend ungodly amounts of time in front of them.
In retrospect the real dividing line between the shabbat table and me, or hard-core technologists and even sophisticated users of technology, is the attitude toward legacy society. My co-dinner guests were at heart institutionalists: they believed in society’s institutions and merely objected to much of current management. The notion of The New York Times or Princeton University, in theory, was just fine: they just preferred if they or their views were in charge of them. A true Valley technologist has never met a monopoly they didn’t want to detonate sky-high with technology (thereby reaping gargantuan sums). You either want to bankrupt The Times and make the very notion of a newspaper a quaint memory, or replace its writers with your own; the rest is commentary.
To the institutionalists, this tech ‘will to disrupt’ and the concomitant unwillingness to deal with any of the negative externalities from that disruption, come off as dangerous nihilism. They resemble Bakunin’s revolutionary anarchists, but armed with code instead of bombs. Nobody said the ‘tech’ view of the world was a comprehensive philosophy; I’d be the first to say it has some remarkable gaps. Arguably however, this revolutionary urge to destroy the status quo is an essential ingredient to the Silicon Valley miracle, and what most attempts at Valley copies fail to get right. All the Silicon ‘Sentiers’ and ‘Allees’ and ‘Alleys’ in the world can’t quite reproduce that mischievous disregard for the present, at whatever eventual social cost.