Do Elon Musk’s latest ideas herald the return of Silicon Valley to politics? In actuality, it never ceased to influence it, and its commitment eludes the division of left and right.
The richest, most extravagant man in the world, Elon Musk, advised Ukraine to renounce Crimea once and for all, thus joining the “Putin’s Useful Idiots” club. A few days later, he also announced that he would suspend financing of the Starlink satellite communication system in Ukraine, which is, after all, crucial for the defenders. Fortunately, he quickly backed off from that decision. And although a few months ago on Saturday Night Live he casually said, “Did you also think I was gonna be a chill, normal dude?” it’s hard to ignore someone who’s so recognizable.
Musk is part of the common phenomenon of seeking opinions from celebrities on everything from dog training to apple pie recipes to global warming. This raises the question: Where does extravagance end and dangerous stupidity begin? William Randolph Hearst, one of the richest Americans before World War II, was convinced that, given the money he had at his disposal, he would make both Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler his foreign correspondents and thus ensure peace for the world.
For die-hard Musk fans, it’s Henry Ford, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs combined into one. Musk himself repeats that he is not an investor and that he wants to create breakthrough technologies, not a mousetrap that will sell well. Skeptics say that what matters to Musk is that the world see his uniqueness, and that Hyperloop for example, a futuristic transportation system, is just a marketing gimmick that Musk has no desire to take seriously.
Even so, Tesla is still unmatched on the electric car market, and SpaceX is winning the competition with the tycoons in the aviation industry at building better rockets, and much cheaper at that. In addition, it gives NASA a chance not to lose contact with the leaders in the conquest of space.
You Can Break It
These new technologies result in a social transformation that will ultimately affect everyone — something akin to 19th-century industrialization but at an express pace. The iPhone only appeared several years ago, as did Facebook or Google, and today many of us do not remember what the world looked like before their birth. Amazon, Tesla, Twitter, Uber and Airbnb contributed to the building of the new civilization.
All this was brought to the world by Silicon Valley, where four of the 10 largest companies in the world were established: Apple, Google (Alphabet), Tesla and Facebook (Meta). Amazon is located elsewhere, but it would never have come into existence if it were not for venture capital, the center of which has been and still is Silicon Valley. Half an hour south of the valley’s center was Netflix, half an hour north are Uber and Twitter. There are also Oracle, Cisco, Adobe, eBay, Yahoo and hundreds of lesser-known companies. Half of the richest Americans have made their fortune here: Musk, Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin.
The establishment of Hewlett Packard (HP) is considered to be the birth of Silicon Valley. In 1939, two Stanford University graduates, William Hewlett and David Packard, with the support of their teacher, founded an electronics and measurement equipment company in a Palo Alto garage. In 1968, Robert Noyce, co-inventor of the chip, and Gordon Moore, formed a company they called Intel. They were joined by Andy Grove, who made Intel the world’s most valuable company in the 1990s as president.
This is where the microprocessor industry was born, and it revolutionized everything. People in Silicon Valley say that the internet was born here as well. And this is partly true because the internet was nothing more than an amalgamation of databases gathered at several of America’s research institutions, and the first connection was in 1969 between Stanford and the University of California, Los Angeles.
The valley’s success was determined by the following: the proximity of two excellent universities, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley (nearly 200 Nobel Prizes in total), the carefully constructed synergy of science and business, the abundance of venture capital already mentioned, openness to new ideas and accepting failure as a path to success, diversity of human capital, and the free movement of talent because of California law which, unlike that of most other states, prohibits employee noncompete clauses.
For many years, Jobs exerted ideological dominance over Silicon Valley. Jobs, who did not shy away from LSD, also built a company that the stock exchange rates more highly than any other in the world. His high-profile biography includes Bono’s words that the people who invented the 21st century are pot-smoking and sandal-wearing West Coast hippies like Jobs. Because they “saw otherwise” while the hierarchical systems of the East Coast of the U.S., Great Britain, Germany and Japan did not, this encouraged the inventing of new worlds. Jobs was the embodiment of this “different thinking.”
In the idyllic stories about the genesis of Silicon Valley, the ethos of this place is described by two slogans: “make the world better” — this is the final goal, and “act quickly, without fear that you will break something” — this is the way to achieve this goal. Silicon Valley also likes to describe itself as a place where the super-talented work for the welfare of the general public.
Regardless of the noble intentions of many of its leaders, however, the utopian vision of the valley has long since begun to lose its countercultural, community-oriented character. The internet pushed it toward earning money. Facebook brought us closer to George Orwell’s vision, effectively blurring the lines between falsehood and truth — thus contributing to Donald Trump’s triumph, Brexit and other misfortunes. And Twitter — with all its charms — has equipped all shadowy characters with a powerful tool to poison people’s minds. The erosion of our privacy would not have happened without the support of miraculous technology.
The giants of Silicon Valley are increasingly seen as a dangerous center of uncontrolled power. Therefore, there are voices to tame this force: impose regulations on Facebook, treat Google as a monopoly or unionize Uber drivers.
In this valley, Musk is the first since Jobs to produce something that can be touched and be delighted by. It restores faith that technology is changing the world not only because grandma can talk to her granddaughter for free on Skype and Kim Kardashian can show millions of followers her round butt. Musk undertook challenges that had not been undertaken before, or that whole countries had previously. Eventually, because of the war in Ukraine, Musk entered international politics. And he quickly got lost.
Peter Thiel, Musk’s friend and cofounder of PayPal, seems to be much better prepared for this game. He is still lesser known but much more politically distinct. Well-read, he was one of the valley’s few thugs to publicly endorse Trump. Trump especially liked his tough language toward China, his tough immigration policy and corporate tax cuts. Thiel was the first open-minded gay man to speak at a 2016 Republican convention. Until recently, he was considered a freak and an outlier — today his views are beginning to penetrate the mainstream of Silicon Valley.
The PayPal payment platform — according to Thiel — was supposed to turn out to be a challenge for the global monetary system. It didn’t, but the effort made him a fortune when eBay bought PayPal. He was the first external investor in Facebook — his $500,000 invested in this business turned into $5 billion at some point.
Thiel dreams of the valley returning to its Cold War roots — working for a military-industrial complex. In 2003, he founded Palantir Technologies, the data analytics company used today by the Pentagon and immigration and police authorities. After the recent drops in the stock market, Palantir is worth “only” $16 billion. Anduril Industries, Inc., another Thiel-backed start-up, is building unmanned aerial vehicles and submarines for the military. Thiel also funds longevity research, and in 2011 he attained New Zealand citizenship by donating $1 million to an earthquake rehabilitation fund.
When he resigned from Palantir’s leadership, and later from his membership on Meta’s (Facebook) supervisory board, he made it clear that he had made the decision for political reasons. He said he wanted to concentrate on the battle to remove two Democratic senators in Arizona and Ohio and replace them with his friends, Republicans.
On the other, i.e., Democratic, side of the barricade, there are many Croesuses from the valley, including, above all, the creator of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman. Dubbed the “Silicon Valley philosopher,” a graduate of Stanford and Oxford universities, 25 years ago he founded his first company, SocialNet.com. As Thiel said later, SocialNet.com was more than five years ahead of the most popular social networking sites created in the next decade.
Hoffman was a board member of the emerging PayPal. After its sale, he founded LinkedIn — when the company went public, Hoffman’s stake was worth over $2 billion. And when Microsoft bought LinkedIn, Hoffman became a member of Microsoft’s board of directors. And it was Hoffman who arranged a meeting between Zuckerberg and Thiel, which led to Thiel’s investment in the then-fledgling Facebook, which turned out to be extremely lucrative over time.
Hoffman uses the earned money and authority to “exert influence.” He writes about the problems of the modern world and lectures at Stanford, Oxford and Harvard University. In 2012, he was ranked third in Forbes’ annual ranking of the best investors on the Midas List, which called Hoffman the “uber-investor of Silicon Valley,” adding that he has had a hand in building nearly all the lucrative start-ups in the social media sector. The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change awarded him the Salute to Greatness award in recognition of his social responsibility in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Hoffman is also a cofounder of a group of civic lobbyists that aims to create a new sociopolitical program for the Democratic Party. He also tries to convince corporate bosses to punish politicians who support Trump’s stories of stolen elections.
So different, Thiel and Hoffman have at least one goal in common: to keep us from the power of computers. With the former’s money, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute was founded, which works to make artificial intelligence human-friendly and tries to create a super-smart computer that would be “good.” Musk is also funding similar initiatives. The leaders of Silicon Valley refer to the issues of technology ethics because, as they claim, if technological changes are so fast that philosophers cannot keep up with them, they have a double duty to be both ethicists and programmers.
Religion of Optimism
For decades, Silicon Valley was a Democratic stronghold. In the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama got 84% of the vote, and, by the way, he got almost 97% of the financial support of Google employees, 91% from employees at Apple and 89% from eBay. In 2016, 99% of all funding from high-tech workers went to Hillary Clinton. In the last presidential election, Joe Biden won 75% of Silicon Valley’s vote and Trump, 23%.
With ever-deeper political polarization, the activities of people like Thiel raise the question of whether political activism on the right is sprouting in front of our eyes in the land of technology. And are the leaders of this sector simply opportunists, devoid of ideological convictions and chasing only money and power, and opposing any political initiative that would hurt their profits?
This does not seem to be the case. Silicon Valley’s position is better understood in the context of its core “religion,” which is radical optimism about the future. “Could 20 bad years happen to us? Without a doubt. But if we work for progress, the future will be better than the present,”** explained Hoffman, an ardent supporter of the Democratic Party.
Most of the creators of new technologies are in favor of bridging the gap between the poor and rich. However, Hoffman sees the road to this goal differently from the core of the Democratic Party. While the Democratic left emphasizes egalitarianism and the need for redistribution, Silicon Valley places economic growth before equality policies. It reminds us that technology is closing the gap between rich and poor, and that cell phones, once the domain of the rich, are now owned by the majority. Valley leaders argue that the more efficient society is — and technology improves agriculture, medicine, transportation — the more can be given to the poor.
The valley’s immigration ethos is still a contradiction of Trumpism. After all, it sees cultural and ethnic diversity as an important component of creativity. The vast majority of Silicon Valley would like to reduce the influence of trade unions in the Democratic Party. And the government itself — according to the valley — should not be a cure for the pain of the free market, but an investor in human talents and the primary force in accelerating innovation. And it has many examples to support this thesis. It was the federal government, specifically the military, that built the ARPANET, the prototype of the internet, which was then expanded by universities backed by public funds.
Silicon Valley is both behind the government — albeit restrainedly — and for capitalism. Against regulation on the one hand and for Obamacare on the other. It is not against tax increases or redistribution. Instead, the valley believes in the emancipatory power of the market, and particularly in creative destruction. Innovation is a race and competition is good, resound the valley’s mantras.
And while political speculators like Musk can be found in the valley, the majority’s philosophy is closer to the Democratic Party than to the Republican Party. For now. Because the more Democrats turn left, the more they focus on defending union members and their positions at all costs, the more often they will come into conflict with Silicon Valley.
*Editor’s Note: The original foreign language version of this article is available with a paid subscription.
**Editor’s Note: This quote, accurately translated, could not be independently verified.