From the category archives:

Silicon Valley seminar

CT Seminar: The Political Ideologies of Silicon Valley

by Henry Farrell on November 29, 2023

Back in April, Johns Hopkins’ Center for Economy and Society and Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences held a workshop on the political ideologies of Silicon Valley. It was a great event, in large part because it brought together a somewhat disconnected community. People had been thinking about Silicon Valley in history, in sociology, in cultural studies and political science among other disciplines. They had read across disciplines out of necessity, to keep up with the ideas – but they often hadn’t had a chance to meet the people they were reading. So this gave them an opportunity to talk. And as an unanticipated by-product of the meeting, we invited people who attended the meeting, and a couple of others, to write short pieces about their understanding of the ideology or ideologies of Silicon Valley.

If you want to read the seminar as a PDF, it is available here. If you want to remix it (it is made available under a a CC BY-NC 4.0 DEED AttributionNonCommercial 4.0 International License ), then click here to download the .tex file. If you want to link to the entire seminar, it’s all at you want to read the individual posts online, you can find them all below.

The participants in the seminar are as follows:

From November 1-2, the UK government hosted its inaugural AI Safety Summit, a gathering of international government officials, AI business leaders, researchers, and civil society advocates to discuss the potential for creating an international body to govern AI, akin to the IPCC for climate change. On its surface, ‘safety’ appears to be an unobjectionable concern after years of instances in which AI systems have caused errors that have denied people state benefits and cast them into financial turmoil, produced hate speech, and denied refugees asylum due to mis-translations of verbal testimony. 

Yet the conception of safety that motivated the Summit is unconcerned with this category of harms, instead looking to a future hundreds of years from now where advanced AI systems could pose an ‘existential risk’ (x-risk) to the continued existence of humanity. The ideas behind the emerging field of ‘AI safety,’ a subset of which operate on the assumption that it is possible to prevent AI x-risks and to ‘align’ AI systems with human interests, have rapidly shifted from a hobbyist interest of a few small communities into becoming a globally influential, well-resourced, and galvanizing force behind media coverage and policymakers’ actions on preventing AI harms.

Where did these ideas originate, what material outcomes are they producing in the world, and what might they herald for the future of how we regulate and live with AI systems? [click to continue…]

1. Ideology

Silicon Valley’s ideology is this: Libertarianism for me. Feudalism for thee.

In more detail:

• Surveillance, manipulation and coercion; at first, just for profit, later by necessity, and ultimately for the hell of it

• Disruption and capture, not competition; monopoly or at least duopoly in each industry it envelops.

• Oligarchy to begin with, creeping autocracy for the win. Overseas autocrats the best of friends.

• Pick me or China wins.

• Ever-increasing inequality and the concentration of capital within a small, interconnected group who back each other’s companies and public moves.

• There is no such thing as human rights. There is only identity politics and culture war, which are profit centres.

• Far right white supremacism; libertarianism for white men, forced birth for white women. Eugenics for everyone else.

• A series of bullshit dark utopias designed to drive the hype and private equity cycles, distract and dazzle gullible politicians and policymakers, and convince everyone else that there is no alternative. E.g. crypto-currencies, Facebook’s Metaverse, AI and, of course, Mars.

• Systematic racism and misogyny in the workplace, the destruction of organised labour, the ever-worsening of working conditions, extreme inequality.

• Denigration of human agency and creativity, beginning with writers, artists and musicians. Systematic destruction of their ability to earn a living and suggest alternatives.

• Obsessive optimisation along narrow spectrums; externalisation of risks and costs to others, i.e. workers, ‘data subjects’, the public sector.

• Gutting of independent media, hatred of journalism in particular and accountability in general. Buying out or shutting down all opposition.

• State subsidies and tax dodging. Hollowing out the state. Making private – both in terms of ownership and secrecy – what used to be accountable and universal public services.

• The spoils to the strong, the costs to the weak. Might is right. Winner takes all. The state is an enforcer, not a support. Let the long tail starve.

Silicon Valley ideology is a master-slave mentality, a hierarchical worldview that we all exist in extractive relation to someone stronger, and exploit and despise anyone weaker. Its only relations to other humans are supplication in one direction and subjugation in the other, hence its poster-boys’ constant yoyoing between grandiosity and victimhood. Tech bros like Thiel, Musk and Andreesen are the fluffers in the global authoritarian circle jerk. Putin is the bro they’d be tickled to receive calls from, making them feel they’re on the geopolitical insider’s inside track. MBS is the bro they envy but tell each other scary stories about. Like most of them, MBS inherited his head start in life. He has all the money, all the power, a nice bit of geo-engineering on the side, and he dismembers uppity journalists without consequence. A mere billionaire like Thiel can only secretively litigate them out of business.
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When he opened the seminar that prompted these essays, Fred Turner said that Silicon Valley built more than semiconductors or search engines or smart phones or sharing platforms. Indeed, he suggested that Silicon Valley’s true product is ideology. In my notes, I wrote and underlined, “Silicon Valley creates and retails visions of the future.”

This resonated with my own research. Money—the main technology I study—is one way to do futurity, as I (and many scholars including Finn Brunton, another seminar participant) have argued.  We only accept money from other people today because we think that someone will accept it from us tomorrow, and so on, into multiple tomorrows. When we invest, we are laying bets on particular visions of the future. [click to continue…]

The Religion of the Engineers; and Hayek Its True Prophet

by Henry Farrell on November 13, 2023

Marc Andreessen’s recent “tech optimist manifesto” is one of the most significant statements of Silicon Valley ideology. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s actually less a political manifesto than an apostolic credo for the Religion of Progress. The words “we believe” appear no less than 113 times in the text, not counting synonyms.

The core precept of this secular religion is faith in technology. From Andreessen’s opening section: “We believe growth is progress … the only perpetual source of growth is technology … this is why we are not still living in mud huts … this is why our descendents [sic] will live in the stars.” [click to continue…]

The Agar Plate of Cryptocurrency

by Finn Brunton on November 10, 2023

One useful way to think about Silicon Valley ideologies is through looking at cryptocurrency. Payment systems like Paypal were as much a part of the Silicon Valley story as platforms like Facebook. They have always been entangled with political aspirations. According to Peter Thiel, Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon was required reading for Paypal’s leaders. They wanted to displace the US dollar with their own private currency, building a new global economy. Then came Bitcoin, and Ethereum, and a whole host of privately issued cryptocurrencies that entangled various political aspirations with the desire to make a whole heap of money on the foundations of blockchain.

Cryptocurrencies, as a category of technology, are extraordinarily well-suited to hosting ideologies. Extraordinary relative to what? Consider email. Email can certainly be a subject of ideological concern – I wrote a whole book about how it became a space for negotiations about speech, markets, and political and private power. But at the level of developing the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) to copy text files from one box to another, at the level of fiddling with address and transport schemes for messages, it partakes of the implicit ideological background radiation of a network technology developed in modern society, but without attempting to deliberately embody a coherent political-economic system of theories, goals, and policies. You might call email an ordinarily ideological technology. Crypto’s very foundations are a set of explicitly ideological projects whose ongoing thrash and debate inspires forks (when one protocol splits into two or more), fights, and further development at the level of protocol and platform.

Put it this way: can you imagine someone identifying politically, in seriousness, as an “email maximalist”? Or someone saying that email is the postnational “flag of technology”? Back in the early years of digital cash, Tim May – an actual no-kidding ideologue who wrote manifestos and coined -isms for his mutant strain of militant libertarian political economy – described this problem. For purposes of developing the technology, “it’s fairly clear what ‘encrypting’ or ‘remailing’ means”: making email secure and private has a stable and shared set of concepts and questions. But “the situation becomes much murkier for things like digital money … just what is a ‘digital bank’?”

The question is this: what is money, and what has the authority to mint it? That eminently political query lies behind the bewildering myriad of terms used to describe different aspects of crypto- and traditional currencies: centralized, decentralized, distributed; inflationary, deflationary, stable, pegged, speculative; currency, commodity, ticket, asset; private, transparent, pseudonymous, anonymous; reversible, irrefutable, airdropped, contractural; institutional settlement, microtransaction, collateral, on-chain, off-chain; proof of work, of burn, of space, of stake – and more, some presupposing each other, others mutually exclusive. What constitutes identity, ownership, and the rules of exchange? National or extranational, and if so what’s the interface – is there one? – to territorial, central bank currencies? What is mandatory, easy, encouraged, difficult, or forbidden? And, above all, who has the capacity to make these decisions and on what grounds? To develop the technology – to actually write and commit code – you have to start with answers to ideological questions.

This fact has made crypto into an ideological agar plate, a growth medium for political-economic ideas and theories. Some are preexisting, some are widely accepted, some are novel to crypto and its sister technologies, and some are deeply weird. What follows is a tentative, brief, and somewhat snarky typology aimed at identifying and grouping these ideological formations and subformations, and at reflecting on some of the larger ideological changes they reflect.

Hard Money Libertarians

There are lots and lots of libertarians in all their ideological and theoretical variety in crypto, but the main current of old-school libertarianism is the hard money crowd. They believe in money and other financial tools secured by something other than the authority of a central bank to issue and redeem it. Usually this means precious metals, sometimes land, or, in a more avant-garde mode, energy, human labor, or computational work. This conviction is the most salient part of a larger complex of beliefs, from disputing the right of the state to mint money, to debates about humans as rational market actors. Subfactions include:

Digital Gold Currency Entrepreneurs. DGCs were the original internet payment platforms, created at a confluence of market opportunity and ideology – a still deeper history that threads back through gold- and silverbug commodity money activists in American history for more than a century. DGC proponents and architects are still around, and their ideas and examples continue to play a role in modern crypto, albeit diminishing and rather unfashionable.

Heterodox + Austrian Economics Nerds. People who read doctoral dissertations from the 1930s and wrestle with brontosaurus tomes of econo-metaphysics to explain the need for free and private digital banks that can issue their own currencies.

End-the-Fed Activists. Entirely devoted to the destruction of the creature from Jekyll Island, for which crypto provides a useful ally. The End the Fed crew stand like the Archdeacon Frollo in Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, pointing from the book on his desk to the cathedral outside and explaining, “This will kill that.” They would rather not talk about the whole Eustace Mullins thing.


Those for whom crypto in form or another is a means to the realization of a potential future human condition (as opposed to the return of an idealized political-economic past with the hard money crew).

Extropians. Early transhumanists, the Extropians combined a philosophy of human potential with a sci-fi sensibility and a reading of libertarianism focused on emergent order and the potential of free markets to drive technological innovation. This heady cocktail is a cosmic ideology in which new digital currencies are fuel for a cascade of breakthroughs heralding the end of the human condition; it led to much foundational work in cryptocurrencies. Their philosophy, aesthetic, and membership has had a massively outsized and under-recognized cultural influence, not least on the crypto space.

Singularity-Longtermist-Effective Altruism Ethical Wealth Capturers. Slightly tangential to crypto as such but exerting a heavy pull: the utilitarian-utopian ideology of capturing wealth, primarily through production of and speculation on crypto. This captured wealth is supposed to be deployed in worthy endeavors that tend to tip over from near-term priorities like mosquito nets and carbon capture into more futuristic and theoretically groovy projects like friendly artificial general intelligence, space exploration, and existential risk scenario management. Crypto is a means to underwrite this philosophical project, but both the means and the ends share a similar attitude of seeing past the limits of contemporary irrational ideological institutions to a rational, data-driven future order.

NRX + Dark Enlightenment Fascists / Monarchists. The ultimate in tech CEO worship identifies crypto as a vanguard component of an emergent post-national tech-finance elite who deserve to be put in charge. Prolix and verbose in style, characterized by multi-hundred post threads, novella-length documents, and droning podcasts. There are various degrees of overtness about the “race science,” antidemocratic, and eugenicist dimensions of the program. Crypto here acts as an ideological store of value, a membership card or flag of allegiance, and sometimes an outright technical version of a philosophical claim (as with Urbit, which began as a neoreactionary digital feudalist authority-and-property scheme for a computer network).

Smart Contractors + DAOists + NFT Metaversists. Most notably Ethereum. I’m putting this in the accelerationist bucket because many of the technologies and implementations involved reflect a diverse ideological landscape of ways that society and property could be organized, with the technology as a means of getting there. Crypto as voting rights, crypto as a component of consensus or constitutional processes, crypto as a tool for the ownership of intangible property; providing access to savings, credit, and financial tools for the unbanked; self-sovereign identity, polycentricity, 21st century versions of the Hanseatic League: attempts to move towards political processes and institutions that do not yet exist, united by the family of crypto-blockchain tools and imaginaries they use. This subcategory could easily be broken out into several distinct sub-subcategories.


The third leg of the historical stool of cryptocurrency, along with Extropians and hard-money libertarianism. The cryptoanarchist current identifies the protection of transactional data as the most important part of the technology. Their reasons reflect some interesting ideological distinctions.

Cypherpunks. Another small but remarkably influential movement, identifying the components of cryptography that could be used to protect computer users from surveillance. Their shared belief was that the mathematical breakthroughs that constituted modern cryptography should not be classified military secrets, but their reasons were varied – ranging from protecting classic civil liberties and personal privacy from the power of a computerized state, to the promise of the collapse of governments into “crypto-anarchy” due to the proliferation of untraceable, untaxable, unseizable digital cash. These distinctions play out in their current day heirs.

Agorists. Ideologically, agorism is the esoteric postpunk to libertarianism’s pop-punk: intellectual, challenging to get into, more European than American, and with better graphic design. Founded by a couple of ultra-obscure theorists and science fiction writers, agorism is premised on the creation of “counter-economics,” anonymous covert grey and black markets whose operation outside the state diminish its capacity to govern and produce non-state spaces for people to conduct more and more of their lives. Crypto was well suited to adopt into this ideological project, and the Silk Road contraband marketplace was a deliberately agorist project that ran, of course, on Bitcoin and provided its first substantive use case. Numerous copycat marketplaces (several of them honeypots built by law enforcement) may not share the same sense of mission, but they share the operational need: the currency should be anonymous.

Privacy Oriented Civil Rights Defenders. People who recognize the threat of transactional surveillance and seek to avert or mitigate it with currency, among other tools. Privacy is the main benefit of these technologies, and others (portability, ease of transaction) are secondary. David Chaum epitomizes this current. They are part of the deeper history of the analysis of the dangers of governmental overreach; when Paul Armer was warning about the threats of electronic funds transfer surveillance in the 1970s, his reading list included Nixon administration memos on domestic intelligence gathering and Lucy Davidowicz’s The War Against the Jews.

Basic Beige Neoliberalism

Operating in the context of a default finance-capitalist political-economic model of the world. Powerful, entrenched, ubiquitous, boring – the index fund of ideology. The interesting parts relevant to crypto and Silicon Valley clump into three clusters of mutant activity that express, in my opinion, three failures on the part of beige neoliberal ideology to address its crises and internal contradictions. I don’t think any of these qualify as ideologies on their own, exactly. Instead, they act as decadent, cultish, performative ideological formations.

FOMO VCs. Suffering from 0% interest rate psychosis, investors poured money into venture funds, and venture fund bets went beyond wild into some other dimension. This produced a fascinating evolution of the greater fool into a more comprehensive fear of missing out. Crypto, blockchain, and NFTs all got a chance to be the subject of frenzy at the institutional and retail levels – not because people held ideological convictions about them, quite the contrary: investors followed one another like an ant mill. This changed the shape of the crypto space by emphasizing stuff that was fundable rather than functional, feasible, or useful.

Grindset Lifestyle Entrepreneurism. Hustle culture bros on TikTok leaning on what is clearly a rented Lamborghini and telling you about how they get up at 3AM and read five books a day, then segueing to their crypto trading course or pitching you on investing in some variety of crypto you’ve never heard of. A performance of the ideal subject of beige neolib ideology, for which crypto is the ideal product: pure branding and confidence and hustle, free of the burden of actually making or producing anything.

YOLOism. The decadent stage of investment nihilism: buying into, speculating on, and memeing about cryptos for the sake of drama and clout. The wild swing, the ruinous bet, the diamond hand bravado of “Lambos or food stamps.” Think ugly, low-effort NFTs and cringe meme cryptos like Dogecoin, asinine jokes that lurch into actual money. This is a retail investor’s financial capitalist ideology when there is no plausible future on which to base an adult portfolio strategy – you only live once. This overlaps with the meme stocks scene, parts of which have now entered a completely conspiratorial unreality.

Observers Observed: The Ethnographer in Silicon Valley

by Tamara Kneese on November 9, 2023

It is undeniably powerful to hear workers’ stories in their own words. Movements can emerge from the unlikeliest sources. The oral histories of ordinary workers are often seen as distinct from the memoirs of outsiders in tech, many of them women, who have written about their experiences. The latter range from Ellen Ullman’s 1990s memoir from the perspective of a woman software engineer to Anna Wiener’s viral essay and then monograph-length account, Uncanny Valley.

Elsewhere, I have written about the politics of collecting stories from the margins of Silicon Valley. I argue that the femme tech memoir, as an iteration of the personal essay genre, can be read alongside workers’ inquiry as a way of finding solidarity across job descriptions and positionalities. Workers’ inquiry combines research with organizing, allowing workers themselves to produce knowledge about their own circumstances and use it in their labor organizing. This seems especially vital in an industry where even short-term history is hard to access and most workers stay with specific companies or in particular roles for short stints. [click to continue…]

Silicon Valley is the Detroit of the Future

by Louis Hyman on November 8, 2023

In the U.S., there is a city where industrial visionaries, state leaders, and financial titans all clamor to go. They want to see the future being made today. Revolutionary new ways of working are being combined with technology to create a better standard of living for the employees, cheaper products for the consumers, and unimaginable returns for the investors. Driving around, you can see the boom everywhere you look. Factories. Warehouses. Mansions. This town is going to be the center of a new world. This town is Detroit in 1920. [click to continue…]

Silicon Valley Liberal-tarians

by Neil Malhotra on November 7, 2023

To analyze the ideology of Silicon Valley, one can take two approaches. One is to start “from the bottom” and qualitatively examine the writing and influence of key intellectual figures in the community. This method will yield a host of arcane and idiosyncratic ideologies and worldviews, which may or may not be reflected in political competition and policymaking, either directly or indirectly. The second approach is to consider the current structure of political cleavages and see where Silicon Valley elites – people who play a key role in the Silicon Valley business community – fit onto this existing mapping. [click to continue…]

Silicon Valley Fairy Dust

by Sherry Turkle on November 6, 2023

Silicon Valley companies began life with the Fairy dust of 1960s dreams sprinkled on them. The revolution that 1960s activists dreamed of had failed, but the personal computer movement carried that dream onto the early personal computer industry. Hobbyist fairs, a communitarian language, and the very place of their birth encouraged this fantasy. Nevertheless, it soon became clear that, like all companies, what these companies wanted most of all, was to make money. Not to foster democracy, not to foster community and new thinking, but to make money.
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Silicon Valley is the Church of Moore’s Law

by Dave Karpf on November 2, 2023

I have come to the conclusion that the most essential element of the Silicon Valley ideology is its collective faith in technological acceleration. More than the mix of libertarianism and tech determinism that Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron described as the “Californian Ideology” in 1995, more than the breakdown of donations between Democratic and Republican candidates, the driving ideological conviction among the denizens of Silicon Valley is that the rate of technological innovation is accelerating.

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