By Seth Studer
Okay, so feeling perpetually lost and out of the loop is a symptom of grad school. My department, like so many others, has the 2008 New York Times article on “Impostor Syndrome” posted in the grad student lounge. In my case, however, grad school merely exacerbated a preexisting condition. I am always out of the loop. I am always behind. These feelings are especially acute regarding technology. Unlike most of my middle-class peers, I grew up without video games or computers; my first experience with the Internet was relatively late (boo-hoo, I know). And I never caught up. I didn’t realize Cupertino, CA was an important place until I purchased my first iPhone in 2012 and read the clock, which was set to Cupertino time (my wife had to explain Google to me). Worst of all, my ability to navigate the Internet’s black markets is severely limited. My last illegal download probably occurred sometime in 2004; I never really figured out how BitTorrent worked. That same year, I went through a significant break-up with a girl from California. I felt two steps behind the entire world.
Time heals all wounds and grad school consumes all time, so I got over the break-up and never learned BitTorrent. But imagine my horror last week when I learned that some tech guy (is he important? how would I know?!) at Y Combinator’s Startup School conference (is that important??) advocated for Silicon Valley’s secession from the Union. Secession! I scanned two full pages of headlines on GoogleNews, each heralding with alarm Silicon Valley’s intention to secede.
I slouched in my chair, despondent.
Cool computers from California were dumping me.
Balaji Srinivasan might put it differently. I’m not being dumped, I’m “opting-out.” I live in the “Paper Belt.” Borrowing language from Albert O. Hirschman, Srinivasan would say I’m “loyal” (perhaps against my own will), that I’m not utilizing my “voice” and I refuse to “exit.” Srinivasan’s speech at the 2013 Startup School, an annual conference for techie entrepreneurs, was covered in the most dramatic language: it was “brazen.” The Valley was “roused.” Srinivasan had proposed a “city-state” (Valley-state?). Practically every article covering the speech scolded Srinivasan’s (or the Valley’s) hubris. But they also emphasized his militant language: he described Godfather-style violence against industries, spoke of hit lists against American cities, and discouraged all-out war with the United States only because “they have aircraft carriers, we don’t.” Subtext: “not yet!” Is an arms race brewing? Srinivasan suggested that 3-D printers could be used to build drones. He spoke admiringly about Peter Thiel, whose investments in seasteading test the limits of U.S. sovereignty. So Thiel is the John Calhoun to Srinivasan’s Siliconfederacy. And make no mistake, Srinivasan is proposing secession. That word appears in every. single. headline.
Except that in his speech, Srinivasan never once used the words “secession” or “secede.”
Responses to the speech in tech and industry blogs were mild. The first response (apparently written as the speech ended) came from CNET’s Nick Statt, who called Srinivasan’s vision “utopian,” akin to Thiel’s. For Statt, the speech’s content was speculative. A few other tech blogs chimed in. At some point, the word “secession” was dropped, and then larger blogs and media began reporting the speech. By then, the coverage was absolutely fevered. Srinivasan had declared the intent to secede on behalf of his entire industry.
“Secession” is a tricky and troubling word in the United States. Beyond its most obvious association – the American Civil War – secession stirs imaginations and tests loyalties. For many African-Americans, “secession” is code for anti-black violence. In parts of the South and in Texas, patriotism requires fierce commitment to both the nation and the right to secede from it. In its history, South Carolina has threatened secession at least three times. New England considered secession before the War of 1812, as did New York City during the Civil War. And as much as I’d like to treat the Union Army 1861 – 1865 as the fourth branch of government, forever settling the issue, secession remains an improbable but available option to any group of malcontent Americans.
Mostly it’s all talk. But the language of secession is powerful: conservative populists (with no Canada to flee to) use it to excite supporters and agitate opponents. Political commentators are tantalized by it, gleeful that Todd Palin or Rick Perry might have a little secessionist in them. Most Americans are fascinated by secessionist movements beyond our borders: the end of the Cold War was a riot of new atlases. George Clooney couldn’t stay away from South Sudan. I’m always kind of rooting for Quebec to secede from Canada, even though I think the results would be disastrous. Break-ups are messy and fun to watch.
And this is why so many bloggers and journalists appended the word “secession” to what is essentially a TED Talk. Secession gets a reaction. It sends a chill down your spine.
2. “…the point is to change it.”
Srinivasan’s speech is not a call to secession, and the crowd is hardly raucous. Srinivasan is advocating “exit” over “voice” (terms borrowed from Hirschman), and he describes the plasticity of those strategies. Exit can take various forms. Secession is one, although Srinivasan seems ambivalent about nation-building. He emphasizes emigration. But no GoogleNews headline declared “Silicon Valley Emigrates!” (Sidebar: this critique is a substantive, not alarmist, take on the emigration issue. It introduces two other terms Srinivasan doesn’t use: expat and exurb.) Still, even his immigration/emigration language is problematic. He makes emigration sound easy. Given his biography, he surely understands it is not. He describes a society in which people “opt in” or “opt out” of whatever superior social format the startups create. If you like it, come. If you don’t, go. Hirschman’s notion of “loyalty” – especially involuntary loyalty – is left unexamined. “Voice” (change from within) is dismissed.
Once he adds “exit” to the already full lexicon of terms to describe post-analogue life, Srinivasan’s speech is merely confident speculation. Smart. Predicting the future of new technologies in public is foolish; if you must, it’s better to be broad and speculative (like Srinivasan) than narrow and specific (Paul Krugman). Srinivasan’s voice has that cocky patter common among tech industry males, a patter that grows more assured in close proximity to Cupertino. But his tone is cautious. He is generous with the parameters of “opting in,” allowing for degrees: someone as digitally illiterate as me can “opt in,” partially. On the one hand, I have no idea how to pirate Sherlock. On the other, I would literally incinerate a $100 banknote on the first day of every month rather than pay for cable television. Consequently, I pay slightly less than $100 each month to Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix for content. According to Srinivasan, that means something.
The best moment in the speech comes at the beginning, when Srinivasan unfavorably compares the U.S. government to Microsoft. The comparison is more apt than he lets on: as a software company, Microsoft’s market share remains enormous. In developing nations, their share of the smartphone market is a threat to Apple. Whatever sexy, streamlined product Silicon Valley rolls out, Microsoft will accommodate it or produce a crappier version (at profit). Much like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, Microsoft finds a way. Heck, I’m using MSWord on my refurbished MacBook right now. Quantity, ubiquity, monopoly, saturation: the virtues that made Bill Gates rich are the same virtues that made America a global superpower.
Srinivasan’s conception of American power is skewed. His “hit list” (LA, NYC, Boston, DC) overstates reality: China has altered Hollywood’s business model far more than Cupertino has. The U.S. dollar and the U.S. government aren’t realistic targets. Yes, newspapers are dead (thanks for that, btw!). Yes, higher ed is on shaky ground (but demand is still high, and universities aren’t newspapers). His hit list also focuses disproportionately on media, culture, and government, hardly the only sources of U.S. power. Where’s the exit from agribusiness? Big energy? The pharmaceutical industry? Can I 3-D print my own car? Sure, I can screw Columbia Pictures into charging Netflix less than they’d charge Regal Cinemas for White House Down. Viva la sécession! So how can I screw Monsanto? I don’t want to join a hyper-organic CSA, I want to do to Monsanto what Netflix did to Blockbuster! Where’s the start-up for that?
I’m sure it’s coming.
Thiel’s seasteading has always reminded me of George Pullman’s well-intended experiment with a totally corporate community. The politics differ, but both projects begin with the way things ought to be, rather than the way things are. Srinivasan isn’t as radical as Thiel, but both rely too much on “obsolescence” as an operative concept. Obsolescence in software and obsolescence in government are two different things. I doubt whether obsolescence is even applicable to societies or cultures. And whatever your political grievances against the United States, “voice” is surely preferable to “exit.”
Whenever my thoughts or temper turn radical, I remind myself of Benjamin Disraeli’s haunting declaration: England cannot begin again. I’ll happily accept new tools and new programs, but they must accommodate rather than abandon what is. Most problems and conflicts in the world are embedded in social and cultural institutions that only change incrementally. Srinivasan describes small nations like Estonia that innovate, and argues for more; he doesn’t mention the many small nations whose institutions are totally dysfunctional. Meanwhile, nations like China and the United States are not obsolete by any measure. Their preexisting governments, policies, and laws can accommodate gradual, stable change. Technological innovation must be part of that. Industrialism ended the Atlantic slave trade and made abolition possible – over time. But changing a whole culture is like building a medieval cathedral: you pass the work down from generation to generation, enduring the pace. I mean, it’s been 150 years and the South still goes on about secession.