Given the interest in Elon Musk’s flirtation with the Kremlin view on Ukraine, the topic of the Western tech world’s openness to Kremlin narratives has emerged again. I’ve gotten a small spike of interest in a presentation I made at SXSW in 2018. So I’ll share it here again in a downloadable form. If I did the same presentation today, I’d have much to add – including about Elon Musk.
An insecure world for open democracies
“There was a time when strong, meaningful borders were a feature of the nation-state. Dissidents and critics in a democracy could generally enjoy protection of living in them, and governments spoke for their citizens in diplomatic disputes.”
“The adoption of new technology in recent decades – including mobile phones and social media – has eroded that arrangement; states of war and peace are now not so clear. While individuals can challenge governments as never before, they can also be targeted by autocratic states in novel ways.”
Tech evolves and the power of borders erodes. From The Age/SMH.
The billionaire space question
In Silicon Valley having first mover advantage is all-important. Companies like Uber, Facebook, PayPal have succeeded in part by growing quickly enough to shape the terms of the industry and way of business.
As the world looks skyward to the billionaire’s race for space, there is a fear that these companies will use their first mover advantage to fundamentally shape what space looks like.
And of course, what this means for a US-China, or West-China struggle for technological primacy is another issue entirely.
“The question for Bezos, as for the public, will be whether we’re on the road to space colonies in orbit or a corporate colonisation of the stars.”
Full story here.
‘Where are the tech elites in talking about the public good?’
This comment on the difference between the mid-20th Century American titans of finance in the post-war world and the tech elite of Silicon Valley stands out.
Zachary Karabell, an investment guy with experience in China, has written a book called, Inside Money: Brown Brothers Harriman and the American Way of Power, which traces the story of one bank and its role in the rise of the American century. (Source here).
Speaking of the US bankers, Karabell said:
They believed that it was their duty literally to attend to the public good because they understood they couldn’t beggar the commons endlessly but their fortunes and the fortunes of society were ultimately linked and therefore they had a responsibility to make sure that everybody thrived ultimately — because they kind of knew that they couldn’t unless everyone did.
That then extends to the world at large after World War II.
The whole point of the Marshall Plan and creating this post-war architecture…was to fight communism. But it was to fight communism because the belief that capitalism and an open market was a better system to achieve human freedoms and affluence.
And that if you didn’t help [these things] develop they were going to collapse and therefore you were going to be a peril.
Serving and self-serving, serving and self-serving were so intimately and ineluctably interwoven.
And today, where are the tech elites in talking about the public good? And talking about public service?
It seems to be their version of public services is massive private philanthropy on the one hand and some belief in the utopian potential of what they’re doing to break the cycle of human suffering and need.
And maybe that utopian vision will prove to be true, but right now it does seem like that they’re sort of absent.
I think particularly of Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, and Peter Thiel.
There seems to be a communitarian notion of – ‘Can we engineer this new reality? If so, how cool would it be?’ But notions of public good fade away in the glow of their particular imagined, and often unaligned and contradictory, utopias.
In the communitarianism impulse of millennial Silicon Valley, I’m not sure a conception of a public good beyond the notion of user/customer is even present.