Book Review: What Tech Calls Thinking

Filled with an abundance of local lore, Adrian Daub lays bare the multitudes of hypocrisy and self-deception that run rampant through the thought processes of Silicon Valley gurus and moguls. As a professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford, Mr. Daub appears to have his finger on the pulse of what goes on in the neighborhood.

The mildly sarcastic tone of the book’s title is validated through a selective examination of Silicon Valley thought influencers. As described, much of what passes for rigorous intellectual thought serves primarily as justification for the less than exemplary practices of the industry. The book devotes four of its seven chapters to individuals who have had an oversized influence on the tech industry. Two of the luminaries, Marshall McLuhan and Ayn Rand, are well known and often mentioned in books of this ilk. The other two, Rene Girard and Cass Phillipps, are decidedly less well known.

Marshall McLuhan is seen to set the stage for tech’s seeming hands-off approach to content. Facebook and Twitter pose as innocents who do not determine content but merely provide a platform for its users. But even more significant than this shameless abandonment of responsibility is McLuhan’s underlying attitude that an understanding of media can be simplified if one only knows the secrets that he himself, as a kind of prophet, reveals. McLuhan’s glib tone of overreaching superiority was readily adopted by many other tech intellectuals.

Turning to tech’s obsession with genius (witness the iconic Apple Genius Bar), the author details how Ayn Rand’s passion for heroic individualism has become ubiquitous within the tech industry. In an interesting hybrid of tech and entertainment, the author points out how Pixar exemplifies the ideas and philosophy of Rand’s novels, with their films’ celebration of the particular genius and technological smarts of the elite class.

Rene Girard, a professor of religion and comparative literature at Stanford, conceived a somewhat less than fully baked concept that he referred to as “mimetic theory.” The offbeat ideas that he promoted came to achieve a kind of cult status on the campus. The essence of his argument was that all human desire is a mirror of another person’s desire for the same thing. The importance of his circular and reflexive theories for the tech community was in his overall sense that people are easily manipulated. This appealed to techies, who tend to think of their customers as sheep whose actions can be gently persuaded via software algorithms. Although Girard died in 2015, the gospel of his ideas has since been taken up by Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, through his Thiel Foundation.

In a chapter titled “Failure,” the author relates the remarkable story of Cass Phillipps, a businesswoman who in 2008 started a highly touted event in Silicon Valley called FailCon. The idea was to allow would-be tech entrepreneurs to gather and share their stories of how they failed in their first attempt to make money but later learned from their mistakes to form successful companies. The mantra was to “fail better” and it was all very inspirational to attendees and reiterated by many tech guru’s such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. But as successful as the events initially were, the business only lasted until 2014. As it turned out, attendees didn’t really want to hear about failures. Failing was only acceptable if the entrepreneur later became successful in some other way.

What Tech Calls Thinking is a short but breezy whisp of a book that will delight the reader who seeks to understand the intellectual mindset of the Silicon Valley tech industry. The egregious hypocrisies and myths in the tech industry are laid out for all to see and ponder. As is pointed out, the idea of dropping out and forming a tech startup became cool after people such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard. However, Gates and Zuckerberg never hesitated to hire the best minds from Harvard (and elsewhere) who had actually graduated.

What Tech Calls Thinking: An Inquiry into the Intellectual Bedrock of Silicon Valley
by Adrian Daub
FSG Originals, October 2020
152 pages, $15.00

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