The Know It Alls

In: Daniel In The News

5 Dec 2017

On Friday 1 December the Financial Times published my review of Noam Cohen’s The Know It Alls. I have pasted it below including some sentences that were cut (in bold).

The Know-It-Alls does not quite accuse the most famous entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley of devouring human flesh but its claims are not that far off.

Noam Cohen, a former New York Times journalist, starts his book with an account of an episode of The Twilight Zone television series entitled “To Serve Man”. The programme features apparently benign aliens, the Kanamits, who claim to have come in peace and to share their superior technology with humanity. After satisfying the world of their good intent they manage to persuade earthlings to board a spaceship for their home planet. Only then does it become apparent that their mission “to serve man” refers to the aliens’ desire to put humans on their dinner plates.

This analogy sets the tone for Cohen’s study of the “powerful, uber-confident men” who helped shape the world-wide web in the 1990s and became fabulously wealthy as a result. They include Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.

The author makes several sweeping attacks on these and other tech billionaires. “These Silicon Valley leaders propose a society in which personal freedoms are near absolute and government regulations wither away, where bold entrepreneurs amass billions of dollars from their innovations and the rest of us struggle in a hypercompetitive market without unions, government regulations, or social welfare programs to protect us.”

He is particularly hostile to those with a strong attachment to free expression. “Freedom of speech apparently trumped all other values as Google, Facebook and Twitter encouraged the public to stew in their own hateful juices and profited handsomely in the process.”

But let us leave aside, for now, the debate about the desirability of a political outlook that places liberty as its key value. There are certainly important debates to be had about where lines should be drawn in relation to freedom but they are too big to resolve here.

The fundamental problem with The Know-It-Alls is that it does not even work as a description of its subject matter. It comes nowhere close to substantiating the overstated charges that it makes. For every accusation it makes it would be possible to add qualifications or several counterexamples.

For instance, Cohen claims that “Silicon Valley values” were responsible for Donald Trump’s success in the 2016 US presidential election. Yet, by Cohen’s own account, Silicon Valley generally supported Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for president.

Moreover, Trump can be accused of many things but it stretches credulity to portray him as a libertarian.The president is so sensitive to criticism that he notoriously tweeted furiously in response to an unflattering Saturday Night Live sketch. That is hardly the behaviour of a staunch free speech advocate.

Cohen’s claim seems to be that Trump’s victory was the unintended consequence of the victory of Silicon Valley’s individualist values. But if that is his case he needs to work a lot harder to substantiate it.

Peter Thiel is perhaps the closest to Cohen’s portrayal of a Silicon Valley libertarian. The co-founder of PayPal is the only figure portrayed by Cohen who publicly endorsed Trump’s election campaign, but even that was with reservations. He has also supported and funded libertarian campaigns.

Yet even Thiel’s support for freedom has been qualified. The tech billionaire gave financial backing to a campaign that in 2016 bankrupted the online publication Gawker after it published a sex tape involving Hulk Hogan, a wrestler, without the subject’s consent. Back in 2007, the publication had outed Thiel as a gay man.

In addition, most Silicon Valley billionaires are a long way from Thiel’s record of backing libertarian courses if they have done so at all. For instance, Cohen describes how Sergey Brin and Larry Page have shifted their stance from the early days of Google. At first, they emphasised it should be a non-commercial enterprise but today the search engine earns huge amounts of adverting revenue. It could be argued plausibly that the Google duo’s more mature selves betrayed their youthful idealism but that hardly makes them ardent libertarians. In fact the firing of James Damore, a Google employee who wrote a 10-page anti-diversify manifesto, suggests the firm’s spirit is a long way from free speech fundamentalism.

If anything, the Silicon Valley’s ethos is better described as technocratic. That is, it is supportive of a privileged role for an elite technical class in running society. It is guided by a pragmatic belief in efficiency and expertise rather than a principled support for freedom.

Indeed, Cohen refers to this technocratic outlook in passing but in his visceral hostility to libertarianism he fails to grasp its importance.

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