The Prodigal Tech Bro

by Maria on March 6, 2020

FYI I have a new piece up on The Conversationalist about that second most fungible resource; privilege.

“The Prodigal Tech Bro is a story about tech executives who experience a sort of religious awakening. They suddenly see their former employers as toxic, and reinvent themselves as experts on taming the tech giants. They were lost and are now found. They are warmly welcomed home to the center of our discourse with invitations to write opeds for major newspapers, for think tank funding, book deals and TED talks. These guys – and yes, they are all guys – are generally thoughtful and well-meaning, and I wish them well. But I question why they seize so much attention and are awarded scarce resources, and why they’re given not just a second chance, but also the mantle of moral and expert authority.”



WLGR 03.06.20 at 1:32 pm

To me, a key tell that these people aren’t seriously interested in challenging the system whence they came is the emphasis so many of them place on the particular evil of companies like Google doing business in China, often framed as “collaborating with” or “getting in bed with” the Chinese government. Aside from the rank racism and Orientalism of the whole “it’s evil now that those sinister totalitarian Asiatic types are doing it” stance, it’s a way for prodigal-techbros to signal their ongoing willingness to parrot an embarrassingly childlike “our glorious leader, their wicked despot” style US exceptionalist ideology, which is still part of the cost of admission to the US power elite. (None of the genuinely despicable things Donald Trump has ever said have ever earned him quite as much scorn among US establishment types as his “we have a lot of killers too” response when questioned about the oh so nefarious foreign policy of Putin’s Russia, a response that enraged those people precisely because it was the plain and obvious truth.)

Books like Yasha Levine’s “Surveillance Valley” or Nick Srnicek’s “Platform Capitalism” are all out there and perfectly accessible, and these people are all allegedly bright enough and skeptical enough to read them and absorb the implications into their worldview; the fact that they don’t seem to be interested in doing so, at least not in public anyway, is surely indicative of something.


kinnikinick 03.06.20 at 1:40 pm

In an old Simpsons, one of the early Treehouse of Horror episodes, a Krusty the Klown doll gets possessed by a malevolent spirit. The family calls the manufacturer’s hotline, and the company sends over a technician. On arrival, he simply picks up the doll and flips a labelled switch on its back from EVIL to GOOD.
There’s something of this in the “reformed insider” narrative, the unreasoning hope that
these guys must know where the system’s control panel is hidden, that now that they’re on our side, they can just “fix things”…


Ebenezer Scrooge 03.06.20 at 2:16 pm

There is not much difference between the prodigal techbros and the prodigal Republicans who go by the name of “Never Trumpers.” Or for that matter, the anticommunist ex-(or sometimes still-) Marxists of the 1950’s.

Some of their authority is legitimate. Consider Milovan Djilas, whose critique of communism was far more subtle and knowledgable than anything coming from the right. Or the never-Trumpers who put their focus where it counts: on Trump’s fascism rather than specific policies.

But I have to agree with kinnikinick @ 2: much of their authority is unreasoning.


Dr. Hilarius 03.06.20 at 5:57 pm

The particular message of the Tech Bros isn’t what’s important. Tech Bros are the product and the message. Americans love rich businessmen. “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” still carries a lot a weight, along with the corollary that being rich means being smart and worth listening to. Tech is just a gloss on rich.


Fake Dave 03.07.20 at 12:05 pm

If Clarke was right and sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then the people who harness technology beyond our comprehension might as well be wizards. Or priests.

Most people (myself included) couldn’t really tell you how a cell phone works and we stare at them half the day. Our whole built (imagined, simulated, etc) environment is full of things we don’t understand and changes faster than anyone can keep up. Our own experiences aren’t enough to convince us that we live in a stable and rational society — that it won’t all end in craters and cockroaches — so we latch on to anyone who can convince us that they know what’s going on, and it will be ok. We hope that they’re telling the truth, but, just like in church, even the obvious lies can be reassuring.

We’re awed and made fearful by powerful new technologies we cannot understand and then placated and made proud by assurances that they are there to serve us. First they tell you you’re going to hell, then they promise to save you (until next week). Hallelujah!


KT2 03.08.20 at 5:00 am

Maria, from the artice, this line is a stunner and a concept which needs a lot more oxygen…
“It’s a teleportation machine, but for ethics”. Excellent. Political parties promote many via an ethics teleporter.

And “a new sector that accepts the reputational currency he has accumulated. He’s not joining the resistance. He’s launching a new kind of start-up using his industry contacts for seed-funding in return for some reputation-laundering.”

“reputational currency” seems like something “we” provide in relief, and – not sure how to put this – like trickle up – they get the kudos, reputation and can spend it like money.

Great article -you probably wrote it in a day yet your history suggests 10+ years in the making.

More on changing tech please. Thanks.


b9n10nt 03.08.20 at 8:24 am

Tech is NOT just a gloss on wealth…to the tech.

To the tech, tech is the intersectionality of wealth & progress.

That’s a sweet spot of motivated reasoning, wherein the reasoning has a nutritionist, a therapist, and a sleep doctor.

They, the tech bro’s, are exactly what we thought they would be.


barras 03.08.20 at 7:29 pm

Here’s a tech-bro who could have been driving a 6 figure car and living a life as a man-child who enjoys geeky hobbies (as I’ve seen several who cashed out from one of several “unicorn” companies over the last 2 decades):;a=commit;h=76bc8cb97fc35673c42fe84fe6a9d6887260419a

The open-source database that he worked on is now one of the flagship products of a company that’s making money hand over fist by selling rebranded free software products such as Postgres (and simplifying their management with a nicer web-based management console and a few other ancillary goodies):


Chetan Murthy 03.08.20 at 8:26 pm

Most people (myself included) couldn’t really tell you how a cell phone works

Most techbros couldn’t, either. Most of the people who get rich enough in the tech biz to become execs are at best mediocre techies who discovered that their real talent was for salesmanship (at best) and backstabbing (or worse). Y’know, *businessmen*. They have at most a *superficial* understanding of the technology, and probably even worse when it comes to the social and political implications of the tech. The *idea* that somehow their brief time actually hands-on building-or-fixing stuff, qualifies them to opine ….. guffaw. They’re doing what got them rich: “find a likely sales-pitch that has traction, and go push that sucker.” It doesn’t give you *any* information as to the actual truth-status of that pitch. And FFS the -history- of some of these fuckers should give us all pause.

[I’ve been hands-on since 1984, and continue to be so [also not and never have been an exec or manager or whatever]. I helped debug Twitter during their annus horribilis of 2008. I’ll lay it out in a dick-measuring contest with anybody when it comes to actually understanding the *technology*. And yet I was completely blind-sided by the sociopolitical fallout from social media (probably b/c I use almost none of it). At least I have the sense to not pretend I know more than the people who study that for their profession.]


oldster 03.08.20 at 11:24 pm

Just to add to what Chethan Murthy said:

Most of the people who build cell-phones cannot tell you how cell-phones work.

The chip-designers know nothing of how packets are routed on the network. The app-writers don’t know how touch-screens work. The people who build the batteries don’t know how encryption works. The people who design molds for the plastic cases don’t know how accelerometers work. And so on and so on.

This is just the inevitable consequence of complexity. Some people will have a rough sense of how the whole system works, down to some level of detail. But nobody understands the whole thing anymore, to the level of detail at which the individual producers understand there individual portion.

This is just to reinforce what CM says: tech bros don’t earn any deference from their supposed knowledge.

Furthermore, Facebook delendum est. If there’s a socially useful function in that ecosystem, alongside Zuckerberg’s appallingly bad behavior, then it can be replaced by a public non-profit on the Wikipedia model.


WLGR 03.09.20 at 11:32 am

While obviously the veneration of wealthy Silicon Valley techbro executives meshes well with the veneration of businessmen in general, and techbro culture is saturated with all sorts of neoliberal, ancap, and alt-right ideology, it still seems a bit too reductive to argue that tech is just a gloss on rich. Just think about the long-running tradition of “liberal” or even “left” techno-utopianism embodied in cultural vehicles like Star Trek (or in real life, the Cybersyn project of Allende’s Chile) the co-opting of which into the right-wing neoliberal capitalist ideology of modern Silicon Valley has been an extended historical process that didn’t happen overnight and deserves to be studied in some kind of depth.

Now you could definitely make a good case that this process was a more or less inevitable development of the contradictions inherent in left-liberal techno-utopianism, as for instance Barbrook and Cameron did in their classic 1995 critique of “The Californian Ideology,” but the hero-worship of modern techbro entrepreneur figures like Elon Musk still contains layers of ideology that aren’t necessarily part of the hero-worship of more traditional “businessman” figures like Warren Buffett, and some of those differences are potentially pretty important.


Fake Dave 03.09.20 at 5:45 pm

Yeah it doesn’t seem like understanding the underlying technology is as important as being able to sell a vision of the future. We’re supposed to be bootstrapping our way toward this post-scarcity utopia where poverty and privation don’t exist anymore because information is the only currency that matters and it’s free to everyone. The problem is everything keeps going wrong.

Paywalls, copyright trolls, and proprietary code pretty much kept the dream of free information from happening. Fake news and clickbait proliferate. Twitter exists. Instead of setting us free, the technologists have created a nightmare world of control and coercion where we’re all addicted to our phones, we can’t go anywhere without being tracked and surveiled, and marketing has replaced speech. What’s a freedom loving techno-utopian to do?

Seems like, for a lot of people, the answer has been to blame it all on corporate greed, government meddling, or a toxic bro culture at the top. We can still fix everything if we can just return to the good old days when the Web was free and innovation was more important than profit. The revolution can’t fail, it can only be failed.


rmitch81 03.09.20 at 6:04 pm


One of the scarier aspects of veneration of “billionaire” tech-bros is that it’s not just limited to “the West”. As a case study, youth (under 30) in one country (who by themselves constitute more than 10% of all humankind) is being subjected 24/7 to what Arundhati Roy called “Fox News on crack”:

Social media is another story that reminds one of scenes from Kubrick’s 1971 masterpiece on psychological conditioning.

I live in a tech city where coding “boot camps” have sprouted like mushrooms over the last few years and the spectacularly ignorant “graduates” of these outfits share a similar outlook with the more “fire in the belly” types profiled in last link. These are the ones who provide millions of views to videos of Svengalis like Jordan Peterson and other creeps/charlatans of IDW.


Maria 03.09.20 at 6:16 pm

KT2 – “you probably wrote it in a day yet your history suggests 10+ years in the making” – you are absolutely on the money! This was definitely an ‘all the work while crying’ scenario right up to and, oh, just a little bit after the deadline. I started thinking about the idea in January but yes, many years observing insider/outsider dynamics in tech.


Aubergine 03.09.20 at 11:41 pm

The problem is that these stories get people’s attention not so much because they’re stories of prodigal-son redemption, but because they’re stories of betrayal. Human psychology being what it is, “lifelong critic of bigtech criticises bigtech” is going to get fewer clicks than “former evil henchman runs off with loot, spills secrets of inner sanctum”. It’s the same dog-bites-man/man-bites-dog thing that makes Mitt Romney’s vote for impeachment much more interesting than any Democrat’s, or Mark Latham’s ramblings slightly more newsworthy than the same things said by some random person who was never the leader of the Labor party.

So if repentant techbros do actually stop talking and start sitting down and listening, will that really make space for other people who have been right all along? It’s nice to think so, but I’m not sure.


Kiwanda 03.10.20 at 12:15 am

This sounds analogous to those concerns about Pete Buttigieg and how he isn’t gay enough. Sure, these guys are doing the right thing, and might be in a position to make positive change. But as men who used to work at big tech companies, they lack the moral authority that Maria’s friends have, so they should sit down and shut up.

All but one of the activists mentioned as unrecognized non-“techbro”s are non-American, and the “techbros” mentioned are American; maybe it’s Americans who, whatever their good intentions, lack the moral authority of non-Americans, and should sit down and shut up.

“have even a quarter of the attention, status and authority the Prodigal Techbro assumes is his birth-right”

I don’t see any evidence given that these activist “techbros” are making such assumptions. It looks like Ross Lajeunesse worked in California politics at a high level before joining google, where he worked in a nontechnical role; running for CA senate doesn’t seem like such an assumption of status in that context: he was already a politician. If a period of working at google, and being male, is enough to make him a “techbro”, maybe “techbro” doesn’t mean anything other than “a man who works in tech that I hate solely on the basis that he’s a man who works in tech”.

While Ross Lajeunesse worked in government, and was a lobbyist for google, Tristan Harris co-founded a startup with a few other Stanford CS students; that startup was acquired by Google, making Harris a google employee. Roger McNamee was a mutual fund analyst and is an investor and venture capitalist, specializing in tech. James Williams worked on advertising at Google, with an M.S. in Human-Centered Design and Engineering and a B.A. in English Literature. There’s not much in their educational backgrounds or professional activities that these men have in common, except, for most, some time spent at Google. And yet, they are all examples of that well-known monstrous creature, the “techbro”.


Chetan Murthy 03.10.20 at 4:27 am

oldster @ 10:

Everything you write is true, but I feel like it might be misinterpreted thus:
“sure, these techbros aren’t so knowledgeable, but neither is anybody else.”

And this is true, but I think it misses at least some of my point. My point is that when you find a rich and successful techbro, you’re almost always looking at somebody who left behind actually working on the technology years ago. Years. Ago. They became salesmen and didn’t look back. In this sense, Fake Dave’s

Yeah it doesn’t seem like understanding the underlying technology is as important as being able to sell a vision of the future

is spot-on. They’re salesmen and if it weren’t tech, they’d be selling Fuller brushes, vacuum cleaners, or snake oil.
Lots of people on this blog are academics: almost all of you know how much time and energy, how much focus and dedication, it takes to learn a subject deeply. You can’t do that, and also be a superlative salesman (or at least, it’s vanishingly rare). These people are often superlative salesmen, and hence, they don’t actually know -anything- to any level of detail.


oldster 03.10.20 at 12:02 pm

Chetan @17 —

I agree. Thanks.

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