A heresy in Silicon Valley

“Our leadership believes that working with the Chinese communist party is inconsistent with our culture and mission.”

Quick. Without searching online, what US tech company recently made that statement? Which same company stated the following about democracy, technology, and the state?

“The engineering elite of Silicon Valley may know more than most about building software. But they do not know more about how society should be organized or what justice requires….

“The world’s largest consumer internet companies have never had greater access to the most intimate aspects of our lives. And the advance of their technologies has outpaced the development of the forms of political control that are capable of governing their use…

“The corporate form itself — that is, the privilege to engage in private enterprise — is a product of the state and would not exist without it.
The ability of our most vital institutions to protect and provide for the public requires the right technology…

“And we believe that as a result, over the long term, the strength and survival of democratic forms of government do as well…

“We generally do not enter into business with customers or governments whose positions or actions we consider inconsistent with our mission to support Western liberal democracy and its strategic allies.”

Whatever company said this would obviously understand the bigger picture of technological competition with in the 21st Century. It would presumably also understand the primacy of the nation-state for the survival of democracy.

Answer: these are all statements taken from Palantir’s S-1 manifesto. Palantir, the supposedly “secret”, supposedly “dystopian, cyberpunk” (?) data mining company. The company was co-founded by early Facebook backer and supporter of Donald Trump, Peter Thiel and Alex Karp.

Perhaps reflecting its culture war with Silicon Valley, the company relocated to Denver. “Our company was founded in Silicon Valley. But we seem to share fewer and fewer of the technology sector’s values and commitments,” the company said in its S-1 SEC registration.

Yet the heresy for the Silicon Valley ideology is clear.

Do Palantir’s much larger Silicon Valley peers see the world this way?

Mostly not, I’d say. And many are hesitant to say so, reluctant to come out too far in favor of the Western state.

But not everything is clear for Palantir.

A fleeting mention of the “systemic failures of government institutions to provide for the public” in the S-1 discusses the need for the public and private sectors to transform themselves.

True. Yes. But this isn’t just a question of planning and engineering. It’s also largely a question of the human business of politics. Libertarianism, in this way, has been a singularly destructive force for a vital, relevant, effective government in the US. This can’t be remedied through better data alone.

In any case, Palantir is certainly an outlier in the modes of thinking in American technology companies.

(*Note: Through a family member I own shares of Palantir. )

Silicon Valley, innovation stagnation and US-China competition

Suppose geo-economic competition is the name of the game between a country like the US and a country like China. Suppose such a rivalry, using economics to advance geopolitical goals, is more important than the ability to produce war-making hardware because – in superpower terms – it underpins the nations’ ability to shape the future. From there, defense, economy, and even history, to a degree, fall into place by changing the way a superpower is treated by the world.

Peter Thiel
Peter Thiel

So suppose such eventual competition between a country like the US and one like China is built on technological possibilities. Basic scientific breakthroughs, the kinds that invent new industries, will be the foundation of that success. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel is among those in the US who see a crisis in the Western ability to generate the new kind of breakthrough technologies needed to for future robust US growth and the power it brings.

Thiel sees Silicon Valley as the place to find and hatch these new technologies, pointing to the talent the region today attracts increasingly at the expense of post-credit bust Wall Street and dysfunctional Washington. And yet I can’t help but think that looking for productivity increasing-breakthroughs in Silicon Valley is, frankly, looking for them in the wrong place. Wouldn’t the rise of Silicon Valley as the standard for technological progress coincide with the much-lamented post-1970s innovation-stagnation? So isn’t it possible Silicon Valley is, if not a dead-end of sorts, an unlikely source for groundbreaking future technological breakthroughs? I mean the sort that had increased quality of life and extending the reach of industry.

After all, historically the biggest scientific breakthroughs occur in an environment that is often divorced from a waiting, expectant market. Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, was a monk, for example. The father of microbiology, Antony van Leeuwenhoek, was a Dutch draper. Discussing inventive periods in the past, anthropologist

What ever happened to the Concorde?

David Graeber notes: “Britain [during the Industrial Revolution was] notorious for being just as generous to its oddballs and eccentrics as contemporary America is intolerant. A common expedient was to allow them to become rural vicars, who, predictably, became one of the main sources for amateur scientific discoveries.”  In other words, guys tinkering away at their own projects far from the dealing rooms of London, were a credible source of invention.

1961 illustration by Charles Schridde showing Motorola's
1961 illustration by Charles Schridde showing Motorola’s “House of the Future”

Big breakthroughs, in fact, are often happy accidents of scientists in a world of pure science and discovery.

US Wartime Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development Vannevar Bush acknowledged this way back in 1945, noting that “basic research is the pacemaker of technological progress. “ In the essay ‘Science The Endless Frontier‘ penned on the eve of the kind of multi-decade dramatic growth of the US economy and rise in living standards longed for by Thiel and Neal Stephenson and others, Bush wrote.

Industry is generally inhibited by preconceived goals, by its own clearly defined standards, and by the constant pressure of commercial necessity. Satisfactory progress in basic science seldom occurs under conditions prevailing in the normal industrial laboratory.

Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.

Bush even noted that “discoveries pertinent to medical progress have often come from remote and unexpected sources, and it is

Vannevar Bush
Vannevar Bush

certain that this will be true in the future.”

In other words, for real breakthroughs to occur, you can’t have investors and marketers breathing down the necks of the researchers and scientists in a place. Real breakthroughs tend to occur in free-range, not caged, conditions.

Yet today, the triumph of monetized, market-ready applied science most visible in a place like Silicon Valley reflects a commercial mindset rather than a more universal abiding push for scientific discovery. The broader experience of significant scientific breakthroughs is different, as well. True scientific progress leading to technological wonders goes hand-in-hand with the myth of our human destiny, of being the one species that can shape its own environment and ultimately, our own destiny. Rolling out tweaks and updates foretold in investor updates and SEC documents that try to quantify the ka-ching is not the same.

Thiel’s VC group, Founders Fund, has a manifesto ‘What Happened to the Future?’ that points to the slide in the scope of technology visible in just the last 20 years:

In the late 1990s, venture portfolios…still supported transformational technologies (e.g., search, mobility), but venture investing shifted away from funding transformational companies and toward companies that solved incremental problems or even fake problems (e.g., having Kozmo.com messenger Kit-Kats to the office).

The statement continues

Not all technology is created equal: there is a difference between Pong and the Concorde or, less glibly, between Intel and Pets.com. Microprocessing represents real technological development, peddling pet food on-line, less so.

The presumption that technology has an immediate market value is another lesson learned after decades, yes, decades, of free-market ideology, embraced in the post-Cold War US. So there is an irony that libertarians, like Thiel, hold the primacy of private enterprise over government as an article of faith, particularly when government can have a crucial role in promoting scientific achievement which leads to productivity-gaining advances.

Apple: Not Different Enough
Apple: Not Different Enough

The final word on the matter is really for historians to debate. But we can say today that the current system is failing. We now have a situation where government has been robbed of basic tools it needs to assure a vibrant, competitive technology sector: Don’t believe me? Consider the case Office of Technology Assessment. Without it, now there is concern government agencies and committees in charge of regulation can be overwhelmed by new technology. It means more clunky and inefficient direction for industry. It’s already happening in areas like civilian drones. Uber is another case study.

Ironically, China, an authoritarian capitalist state, doesn’t have to cope with such ideological blinders on technology, science and results. There was a time when science in a communist country would be shoehorned to fit an economic outcome foretold by the political system. The People’s Republic of China in past times pushed its own population to starvation in the drive to develop its steel industry – as a sign of communist progress. Now, a nation like China can simply gather its best scientists into a room and fund them – market be damned – and look for results.

A recent photo from a Chinese moon mission, (Xinhua)
A recent photo from a Chinese moon mission, (Xinhua)

China’s space program is a clear example of this. While not breaking new ground (yet), it is winning the very real admiration of the world’s space scientists in the process. Moreover, China’s focused space program speaks volumes about China’s civilization, about its place in world affairs and about its destiny – all of which is closely watched by the international community. At its current pace, China will eventually begin to chalk up breakthroughs, and the story China can then tell will be, to a use a word from Silicon Valley, “transformative.” Another more universal description for China’s expected success might be “transcendent” – which is what big technology can do: transcend boundaries, borders, expectations.

Illustration by Charles Schridde
A future postponed (Illustration by Charles Schridde)

Meanwhile the US may still be debating what happened to the unbroken period of productivity-gaining inventions associated with American ingenuity. The sense of crisis in the US is palpable. But that, as Thiel noted in a 2011 New Yorker article, is not necessarily a bad thing. Says Thiel:

“It seems like we’ve not been thinking about the right issues for a long time…I actually think it is a big step just to ask the question ‘What does one need to do to make the US a better place?’ That’s where I’m weirdly hopeful, in spite of the fact that a lot of things aren’t going perfectly these days. There is a very cathartic crisis that’s gone on, and it’s not clear where it’s going to go. But at least everyone knows things are rotten. We’re in a much better place than when things were rotten and everyone thought things were great.”

And that kind of crisis thinking may be what’s needed to get back on the track to technological progress, the sort that reflects the possibilities of people, and that extends a sort of arc of meaning forward into the future.

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Graeber, Thiel, Stephenson: Utopia, Risk, and Space

This too is possible: painting by Robert McCall
This too is possible: painting by Robert McCall

To imagine a better future, you have to entertain some sort of utopian vision. This notion comes to mind reading about the debate between David Graeber and Peter Thiel. If there is one lesson from the past it’s that utopias are doomed to failure. But another lesson emerging today (if Thiel, Graeber, and Stephenson – and a bunch of others are right) seems to be that utopian visions are needed to point the way to great things.

One of my favorite lines from the New York Times’ take on the debate is on what entrepreneur Peter Thiel saw as the roots of the innovation stagnation:

[He saw] a loss of nerve and sclerotic bureaucracies. He cited the anarchist slogan “Act as if you are already free,” and praised initiatives like SpaceX, the private space technology company started by his fellow PayPal founder, Elon Musk.

The innovation stagnation has occurred in a time that has lacked utopian idealism, a time when the market capitalism triumphed, and quite clearly triumphed over the imagination of non-market dreamers. To get a sense of this change in mindset in past decades, read this description of Cold War utopias from an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum on Cold War design.

The late 1960s saw the last surge of utopian thinking in the 20th century. Visionaries on both sides of the Cold War envisaged new ways of living.

Radical design groups in the West, with names and images like rock bands, used architecture to challenge social conformity. In the Eastern Bloc, a new generation brought a cosmic sensibility to design.

Many of the most startling schemes reworked Cold War technologies. Inflatable buildings, geodesic domes and electronic media, once conscripted for military use, were now re-imagined as tools for nomadic life or instruments to liberate mind and body.

Do we still think like that? A good amount of the Graeber-Thiel debate has focused on what has gone wrong in recent years, allowing this malaise to take hold in the developed world. Whatever the cause, these days the West, under geo-economic threat from China and geopolitical threat from Russia and the jihadists,

NASA artist rendering of a Bernal Sphere
NASA artist rendering of a Bernal Sphere

is exiting a kind of strategic vacuum it has been in since the end of the Cold War. If the imaginations and livelihoods of people in countries like the US, France, Italy and the UK are to be vital in shaping the future, risk must be embraced again to accomplish Big Things.

We might be seeing it occur – just now. And the catalyst won’t just be the ideas of Graeber, et al but geopolitical pressure, which had a huge role in Cold War thinking. As an example, look at NASA’s recent decision to outsource its low earth orbit delivery systems: NASA has been unable to articulate a Big Goal for years. The agency has been beset by bureaucratic inaction and the whims of congress for decades. The cancellation of the Space Shuttle program forced the US to rely entirely on the Russians – yes, those Russians – for rocket engines to get US satellites to space, while US astronauts had rely on Russian vehicles to get to the International Space Station.

But Russia, in retaliation for sanctions placed on it over its annexation of Crimea and actions in Ukraine, have said it is pulling out of the ISS in the future and likely won’t sell rockets engines to the US, either.

Utopian visions in space
Utopian visions in space

In turn, NASA has selected Boeing and SpaceX to deliver astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station. The dual contracts are “a throwback to an earlier era when the US used large space and defense contracts as a way to seed entire industries.” If all goes well and this business of rocket has been effectively put in private hands NASA can “focus on an even more ambitious mission – sending humans to Mars.”

From NASA’s announcement:

The contracts include at least one crewed flight test per company with at least one NASA astronaut aboard to verify the fully integrated rocket and spacecraft system can launch, maneuver in orbit, and dock to the space station, as well as validate all its systems perform as expected.

In other words, NASA, in awarding the contracts, is accepting risk because of the urgency imposed on it by Russia. This is significant, because arguably, what has been missing since the market-triumphed over the US, following the end of the Cold War, has been an acceptance of risk in exchange in pursuing a payoff for undertaking Big Things.

Here is how Stephenson describes the tendency to avoid risk in his famous essay:

In the legal environment that has developed around publicly traded corporations, managers are strongly discouraged from shouldering any risks that they know about—or, in the opinion of some future jury, should have known about—even if they have a hunch that the gamble might pay off in the long run. There is no such thing as “long run” in industries driven by the next quarterly report.

Stephenson’s argument about risk would be familiar to any investor. Greater risk is linked to greater future reward. But something about the triumph of corporations has driven that logic from executive decision-making for non-market ventures. (Yes, Wall Street showed a zeal for risk before the financial crisis) From Stephenson’s same essay:

Innovation can’t happen without accepting the risk that it might fail. The vast and radical innovations of the mid-20th century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable…Competition between the Western democracies and the communist powers obliged the former to push their scientists and engineers to the limits of what they could imagine and supplied a sort of safety net in the event that their initial efforts did not pay off. A grizzled NASA veteran once told me that the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest achievement.

And so today, we have NASA under pressure. And it’s responding. Scott Hubbard, ex-director of the NASA Ames Research Center says that with this decision, along with NASA decision to outsource other commercial transportation, the US has ‘”bet the farm’ on companies filling the gap left by the Space Shuttle’s retirement.

The decision to hand over the low earth orbit launches and transportation to Boeing and SpaceX marks an important step, he says.

“I believe this new approach is America’s “secret weapon” in what some have described as a space race with China. And, as far as I can tell, while the rest of the world is still stuck in a nearly government-only mode, NASA, with the support of the Obama administration, is letting loose the creativity of American know-how.”

“As with the early 20th century airmail routes that helped stimulate aviation, NASA’s commercial programs are now the anchor tenants in the government transfer of space services to the private sector. This in turn will enable a robust new business enterprise and allow NASA to focus on Mars — the ultimate target for exploration.”

The US government is once again opening frontiers, in other words. And as any historian would tell you, opening frontiers is fraught with risk. But the risk it entails also brings rewards. It was the geopolitical nudge from Russia that set off this change within NASA. But NASA’s acceptance of risk would not have been out of place during the historical Cold War. Embracing that risk will allow the organization to achieve escape velocity from its own bureaucratic gravity-field. And what incentive do Boeing and SpaceX have to get the job done, aside from continued funding? The invisible force called: ‘Your country is counting on you.’

But in order to see a time when commercial space services are robust and NASA is focused on its proper role, (‘Explore Deep Space’, as Hubbard says) one needs the utopian vision of the future,  a time in which people book trips to low earth orbit somewhat like they booked trips on the Concorde. Hard to imagine? Depends of where you sit. If you’re a business analyst trying to work out the costs and profits, it may seem daunting. If you’re thinking like you’re already free, bringing “wild fantasies to reality” is not so hard to imagine.

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Where did the future go? David Graeber and Peter Thiel debate

“If you took away everyone’s iPhone but told them we were going to Mars, some people would be happy” – David Graeber

If you care about the shape of the future: watch this debate put on by The Baffler. I think David Graeber’s essay on the future and Neal Stephenson’s Innovation Starvation essay will mark an inflection point when Western minds began looking upward and outward again after a 35-year pause.

Peter Thiel on left and David Graeber on right
Peter Thiel on left and David Graeber on right

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