What are Silicon Valley’s politics?

It isn’t so easy to know. In 2016, Democrats and Big Tech were tight allies. Nearly all the money donated by tech employees to presidential candidates that year went to Hillary Clinton, who road-tested her economic message in speeches to crowds in Silicon Valley.

Four years later, nearly all the 2020 Democratic candidates assail these same companies as wealth-addled monopolists. Even Silicon Valley’s favorites seem not to be so friendly. Pete Buttigieg, who has raised money from the chief executives of several tech companies, stood up for Uber and Lyft drivers at a recent rally. “I’m here because where I come from, gig is another word for job, which means if you are working a gig you are a worker and you ought to be protected as a worker.” Andrew Yang, a tech entrepreneur himself, has called for reinvigorated antitrust law and criticized social media’s effects on mental health.

Republicans believe tech is pushing a liberal agenda. The Trump White House and Capitol Hill lawmakers have declared that social media platforms are censoring conservative voices. “If this isn’t bias, what is?” a group of Republican senators seethed in a recent letter about the labeling of abortion-related content on Facebook.

Through all this attention — congressional hearings, state antitrust investigations and fines levied by the Federal Trade Commission — Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies feebly protest that they’re not taking sides at all. All they are trying to do is “strike a balance” and “increase the health of public conversation.”

But Silicon Valley does have a politics. It is neither liberal nor conservative. Nor is it libertarian, despite the dog-eared copies of Ayn Rand’s novels that you might find strewn about the cubicles of a start-up in Palo Alto.

It is techno-optimism: the belief that technology and technologists are building the future and that the rest of the world, including government, needs to catch up. And this creed burns brightly, undimmed by the anti-tech backlash. “It’s now up to all of us together to harness this tremendous energy to benefit all humanity,” the venture capitalist Frank Chen said in a November 2018 speech about artificial intelligence. “We are going to build a road to space,” Jeff Bezos declared as he unveiled plans for a lunar lander last spring. And as Elon Musk recently asked his Tesla shareholders, “Would I be doing this if I weren’t optimistic?”

But this is about more than just Silicon Valley. Techno-optimism has deep roots in American political culture, and its belief in American ingenuity and technological progress. Reckoning with that history is crucial to the discussion about how to rein in Big Tech’s seemingly limitless power.

The language of techno-optimism first appears in the rhetoric of American politics after World War II. “Science, the Endless Frontier” was the title of the soaringly techno-optimistic 1945 report by Vannevar Bush, the chief science adviser to Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, which set in motion the American government’s unprecedented postwar spending on research and development. That wave of money transformed the Santa Clara Valley and turned Stanford University into an engineering powerhouse. Dwight Eisenhower filled the White House with advisers whom he called “my scientists.” John Kennedy, announcing America’s moon shot in 1962, declared that “man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred.”

In a 1963 speech, a founder of Hewlett-Packard, David Packard, looked back on his life during the Depression and marveled at the world that he lived in, giving much of the credit to technological innovation unhindered by bureaucratic interference: “Radio, television, Teletype, the vast array of publications of all types bring to a majority of the people everywhere in the world information in considerable detail, about what is going on everywhere else. Horizons are opened up, new aspirations are generated.”

The mood shifted in the 1970s. Military spending ebbed, and government expertise fell out of favor. Richard Nixon disbanded his science advisory council and encouraged private-sector entrepreneurship to fill the gap.

And in the 1980s, a new generation of technologists came into their own. The men and women who built companies like Apple and Atari still believed in technology. Place a computer on every desk and enable networked communication, they believed, and you could remedy society’s failures and injustices. But they often had radically different politics from the Republicans who led the Valley’s first high-tech wave. Vietnam and Watergate had shattered their faith government. Government was no longer tech’s most important patron and customer. Instead, it had become a symbol of things gone wrong, of stagflation and red tape.

The disdain was clear. “I’ve never voted for a presidential candidate,” Steve Jobs declared in 1984. “I’ve never voted in my whole life.” Charlie Sporck, head of National Semiconductor, was more blunt: “I was anti-government and viewed all politicians as a bunch of bastards.” When moguls like Mr. Jobs and Mr. Sporck went to Washington, they petitioned for tax cuts and deregulation, not the scientific investments of the previous era. Their comments reflected a broader antipathy toward government that is far more important to understanding Silicon Valley than libertarian economic thinking.

America’s leaders amplified and reinforced this message. “These entrepreneurs and their small enterprises are responsible for almost all the economic growth in the United States,” Ronald Reagan declared in 1988. “They are the prime movers of the technological revolution.”

Techno-optimism evolved alongside the two major parties. The small-government conservatives of tech felt ignored by George H.W. Bush and left behind as the national Republican Party embraced social conservatism. A new generation of Democratic lawmakers adopted high-tech priorities. Bill Clinton worked with Silicon Valley to shape internet policy and promoted closing “the digital divide” as a solution to economic inequity. Barack Obama sounded a similar note. “What a magnificent cathedral that all of you have helped to build,” he declared in a 2015 speech at a Stanford cybersecurity summit.

So when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg talks about “bringing the world closer together,” he is building on a decades-old belief system, supported by lawmakers of both parties, which holds that networked computers are tools of liberation (even if it’s not entirely clear who is being liberated from what) and that more connection, more transparency and more powerful technology will somehow “make the world a better place” (even if it’s not entirely clear what is better or for whom). When the most powerful tech companies seem to disregard politicians’ calls for reform, despite the threat of fines and antitrust action, they are following the lead of their heroes, who believed that the best thing that government could do for tech was to get out of the way.

And despite the bipartisan backlash in Congress against Big Tech, policymakers have not strayed far from their fundamental belief in techno-optimism. Politicians and policymakers look to the tech industry to power the economy — and perhaps even to “save” dying coal and manufacturing towns with coding boot camps and Amazon fulfillment centers. When Congress demands that social media companies find technical fixes for the proliferation of hate speech or election meddling, there is a subtext: The answer isn’t less technology; it’s different and better technology.

There’s still a lot to praise about techno-optimism in America, but Silicon Valley’s blind spots are painfully clear. Aversion to politics has left tech leaders ill equipped to deal with the political obstacles that stand in the way of their techno-optimistic dreams — such as persuading cities to fund the infrastructure to support driverless cars, or building consensus on climate change, without which clean fuel technology may be meaningless.

America doesn’t need another “Science, the Endless Frontier.” But it does need a renewed resolve to take on some of the globe’s greatest challenges, and a recognition that both government and industry will have to adjust their priorities to do so.

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