How the champions of Silicon Valley think

The future imagined a decade ago in California has become our present. But the techno-solutionist mindset it carries is showing its limits

by Andrea Signorelli

Illustrations by André Ducci

Business 28 May 2024

In our common imagination, no one embodies the spirit of the Silicon Valley and the digital revolution more than Steve Jobs. Indeed, Apple’s founder is the most prominent expression of the so-called “Californian Ideology”: that bizarre blend of hippie counterculture, anarcho-capitalism, and New Age spirit that has permeated the digital landscape of San Francisco and its environs since the ’60s.

A Zen Buddhist scholar, a devotee of classical literature, a practitioner of yoga and meditation, and an experimenter with psychedelics, Jobs was also, of course, the founder of Apple, the world’s most valuable company by market capitalization (approximately $3 trillion). Given his cultural legacy and business acumen, Steve Jobs would reign supreme in any hypothetical Silicon Valley pantheon. But his case is unique.

Indeed, if we examine the other prominent figures who, over the past two or three decades, have shaped our digital and technological world — and thus the world we live in — we find no one quite like him (with the partial exception of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey). From Jeff Bezos to Mark Zuckerberg, from Elon Musk to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, all the way to OpenAI founder Sam Altman, the stars of the internet, web, social, and artificial intelligence revolutions have little in common with their illustrious predecessor.

They resemble nerds more than hippies, perhaps like a more charismatic version of Bill Gates. Light years apart from Jobs’ psychedelic explorations, at best employing psychotropic substances for productive purposes (through microdosing) rather than for recreational or soul-searching purposes. Above all, Zuckerberg, Bezos, Page, Brin, Altman, and the vast majority of Silicon Valley’s key players hail from backgrounds in computer engineering and programming (Elon Musk being the exception, with his background in physics and economics).

This purely technical background, while responsible for groundbreaking innovations with enormous social and cultural impact, has also been argued to have blinded Silicon Valley’s champions to the potential drawbacks of their creations, even by those who have held important roles in those companies, such as computer scientist and activist Tracy Chou. These downsides have become increasingly apparent since the watershed year of 2016 (with the election of Trump, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and Brexit), leading to a growing awareness of how social media fuels misinformation and societal polarization.

Nevertheless, we continued to place our trust in Silicon Valley to solve the critical issues it created. For example, we embraced Zuckerberg’s strategy of employing a novel algorithm or leveraging artificial intelligence to detect and debunk misinformation and conspiracy theories circulating on social media. Yet we overlooked the critical aspect described by Scott Hartley, a former Google and Facebook employee and author of The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World — that “technology is increasingly the easy part of big business. Figuring out how to harness technology to solve broad-scale human problems is the hardest part.”

Zuckerberg’s approach was not an isolated instance: instead of heeding the warnings of experts in the ethics of artificial intelligence who had been sounding the alarm about the technology’s social hazards for years — we chose to believe those who advocated simply making these systems even bigger and more powerful. Instead of acknowledging how technology is making us more and more like machines (fostering relentless productivity and imposing exclusively quantitative performance metrics), we celebrated, and hailed as a lifeline, Elon Musk’s ambitious endeavor to merge humans with technological devices and the network through his Neuralink startup.

However, this engineering and techno-solutionist approach to critical social, political, and economic challenges, also sparked by new technologies, has not worked. “Perhaps things at Facebook would be different if Mark Zuckerberg had a liberal arts degree or took more humanities courses in college,” observed Modern Language Association director Paula Krebs in 2018.

Entrepreneur Eric Berridge echoed this sentiment in one of his TED Talks, in which he argued that the humanities — with their focus on developing broad perspectives and critical thinking — could be a factor in curbing errors and avoiding simplistic approaches in the design and implementation of technologies with high social impact, especially since, as Hartley further writes, “the humanities are devoted to the study of human nature and to understanding the nature of our broader communities and societies.”


Illustrations by André Ducci

The lack of an interdisciplinary approach and sticking to a purely technical model has probably reached its most extreme consequences with Zuckerberg’s colossal (and thus far unsuccessful) Metaverse project, which proposes the transition to an all-digital world as the solution to the planet’s problems (beginning with the climate crisis and the pandemic) without addressing society’s real needs, the importance of physical interaction, and the ethical and moral issues raised.

The metaverse represents the pinnacle of a certain perspective and, therefore, perhaps also the beginning of its downfall. So, is there an approach other than the techno-solutionist and ultra-capitalist one that can better manage society’s digitization? The alternative visions that are currently most popular — such as accelerationism and universal basic income or primivitism — are characterized by a radicalism that probably renders them unfeasible.

Nevertheless, we can identify alternatives even in a few isolated examples from the recent past. From this perspective, one of the most important cases remains Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia founded by Jimmy Wales (a finance graduate with eclectic interests), which has always remained a non-profit, devoid of any form of advertising and supported solely by donations.

A phenomenon that has never changed, which constitutes the most successful instance of “collective intelligence” on the web and which, unlike its social media competitors, contributes to the dissemination of knowledge. Additionally, there are alternative social networks, such as Mastodon (also supported by donations and free of advertising), which do not profile users and encourage active and informed user participation.

A similar point can be made about Signal, the ultra-private messaging platform founded by Moxie Marlinspike. Here, perhaps Marlinspike himself is the antithesis of everything Silicon Valley has recently represented: a politically active left-wing anarchist who is considered one of the world’s most outstanding coders (he created the TextSecure protocol, which safeguards communications from eavesdropping and is now also used by WhatsApp, Skype, and others), Marlinspike has never wavered from his principles and has indeed achieved an extraordinary feat: promoting privacy protection in an environment that has always been built on so-called surveillance capitalism.

And then there is Midjourney: one of the most prominent generative artificial intelligence systems and a leader in “text-to-image” systems (i.e., systems that generate images from a natural language command). Unlike any other company in the industry, Midjourney’s founder, David Holz, has turned down all investment offers from leading US venture capitalists, demonstrating how an alternative model to the financialization of startups (with all that this entails in terms of economic model and corporate culture) is possible.

Inevitably, the above characters also have scientific backgrounds but with distinctive traits: Wales comes from a family that greatly values the humanities (and, in fact, even founded an encyclopedia), Marlinspike is a radical left-wing activist, and Holz has degrees in physics and mathematics. In short, not your classic tech bro.

But do we have to stay within the confines of Silicon Valley? What if there were alternatives to the prevailing model closer to home? Sure, Europe is a tiny technological entity compared to the United States and China, yet it has played an essential role in protecting its citizens from the abuses of the giants, using regulations to limit privacy violations (GDPR), disinformation (Digital Services Act), and population surveillance (AI Act).

In short, compared to US history, the European Union has shown how policy does not have to be subservient to the giants.

Then, there is the crucial area of climate tech, the development of technologies designed to mitigate the climate crisis. This area is particularly thriving in Europe: while European investment in artificial intelligence accounts for only 9% of the global total, climate tech’s percentage rises to 26%. Rather than focusing all its attention on the hype of the moment (first web3 or NFTs, then the metaverse, and now generative AI), Europe seems to be betting on a less financialized and more long-term vision of technological development.

But do we have to stay within the confines of Silicon Valley? What if there were alternatives to the prevailing model closer to home?

In many ways, climate tech marks the glorification of technosolutionism (even to the point of suggesting that technology can defeat the climate crisis!). However, we also know how some of these innovations might actually have a future role while also noting their clear distinction from the distinctly American visions of a metaverse future or Elon Musk’s proposals to save the planet with luxury electric cars or by relocating humanity to Mars.

Undoubtedly, (relatively) small players like Wikipedia or Mastodon cannot challenge the prevailing economic model. Europe focuses on regulation that must necessarily act after the fact and in a field — climate tech — that can, at best, play a supporting role in countering the climate crisis. And utopias that attempt to overcome “capitalist realism” are likely to remain just that, utopias.

Yet the survival and proliferation of alternative theoretical frameworks is already a sign of progress. Especially since all of this is happening against the backdrop of Silicon Valley’s ultra-capitalist and techno-solutionist model showing signs of strain. Almost certainly, this model will continue to lurch from speculative bubble to speculative bubble, making ever more grandiose promises until, perhaps, the frayed rope snaps. But this is precisely why it is crucial to start identifying and promoting alternative models and a different worldview.