Cultural progress isn’t like technological progress. Outside of historical catastrophes like the Dark Ages, the latter marches steadily forwards, while the former often regresses.
Over the past ten years, the values and ambitions of Silicon Valley have behaved in the opposite way to Moore’s Law. They’ve steadily regressed from idealism to pessimism, from libertarian to authoritarian, and from the utopian to the petty.
At the start of the decade, Silicon Valley’s largest companies displayed a great deal of hubris — but it was an idealistic hubris. Twitter promised to be the “free speech wing of the free speech party.” Facebook planned to “make the world more open.” Google wanted to “organize the world’s knowledge.”
Beyond the obvious adaptations of their technology, the tech companies delved into even more ambitious territory. In 2012, Google co-founder Larry Page personally hired Ray Kurzweil, the technologist and entrepreneur known for his prediction that the exponential growth of information technology would eventually allow humans to extend their life expectancy indefinitely.
That’s right — Google hired a guy who wants to make people immortal.
Similar lofty goals for the human race could be found everywhere in the early 2010s. In 2013, then-CEO of Google Eric Schmidt predicted that the Internet would “eliminate censorship and the possibility of censorship in a decade.” Twitter and Facebook were hailed by liberal observers as tools for radical social change in the Arab Spring.
Fast-forward to the present: Silicon Valley’s ambitions have descended from the utopian to the petty. The social media platforms that once gave safe havens to persecuted Arab dissidents now snitch on their own users over matters as trivial as Nancy Pelosi parody videos. Far from unlocking the secrets of mortality, Google now seeks to bury obvious, scientifically proven facts about the biology and psychology of gender — going so far as to fire high-performing employees who talk about them.
And what does Google’s woke employees now spend their time on? It seems to be less about conquering the frontiers of science and technology, and more about mining Breitbart News’ comments section for examples of “hate speech.”
As for aspirations to end censorship within a decade, don’t look for it in 2020’s Silicon Valley. As Google’s own researchers admitted, in an explosive document leaked to Breitbart News in 2018, the industry now helps perpetuate it — it’s “shifted towards censorship.” Even tech CEOs are pretty open about it these days. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has walked back his predecessors’ early-2010s talk about “the free speech wing of the free speech party” — he now says it was all just a joke!
For the most part, the big tech companies that transformed the 2010s have ended the decade in a mood of extreme pessimism about their own products. Like Dr. Frankenstein, they worry that they have created monsters. Some tech CEOs now compare Silicon Valley’s products to cigarettes, putting social media in the same category as a toxic carcinogen. Mark Zuckerberg now welcomes the fact that people spend less time using his platform.
The source of this self-doubt is purely political. Just look at how Google executives and employees reacted to the 2016 election. How did this happen? Did we do this? Were our platforms used for this? How can we stop it happening again?
The Facebook CEO sings a different tune today. After a year of relentless pressure from the media and advocacy groups, Facebook had done a complete U-turn. Not only did Zuckerberg admit “responsibility” for letting “fake news” on the platform sway the election, but he also implemented a drastic change to Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, that had the effect of cutting traffic to conservative publishers.
There’s no doubt that the 2016 election was a pivotal moment, one that catalyzed big tech’s “shift towards censorship.” But Silicon Valley’s descent into pettiness, pessimism, and self-censorship actually began before Donald Trump was even a declared candidate. The early signs can be seen in the panics over comments sections that began early in the decade.
Many mainstream publications engaged in the comments panic, but the clearest example was The Guardian, a left-wing British newspaper. The paper had initially celebrated the openness of the Internet with its emphasis on robust debate in the comments section, but it quickly soured on the idea when its writers realized that free speech plus anonymity equals the end of political correctness.
As early as 2011, the newspaper was publishing op-eds declaring “The blog and chatroom have become forums for hatred and bile.” By 2014, it was publishing articles bearing headlines like “Comments sections are poison: handle with care or remove them“, and by 2015, “The case for ending online comments” had become an entirely normal, predictable Guardian opinion.
“Hatred and bile,” of course, was never the real issue — a story in the Daily Telegraph, highlighting the fact that male online commenters were more likely than others to disagree with fashionable feminist assertions, demonstrated the real insecurity fueling the panic. People were using the combination of anonymity and open platforms to challenge long-standing progressive positions, and they were doing so in considerable numbers.
The panic over Silicon Valley’s role in the 2016 election and other populist causes is the same fear writ large. You see, it’s all well and good when social media platforms help topple Arab dictators. But when they’re used to attack feminism, topple the Bushes, topple the Clintons, undermine the European Union — well, that can’t possibly be allowed!
The Internet, once so open and hopeful, is becoming more closed. Sometimes by choice, and sometimes by the demand of the media, politicians, and their own employees, tech companies have censored their own platforms.
Google, the company whose CEO once dreamed of ending censorship around the world, now censors its own search results within hours of a complaint from a left-wing journalist.
Facebook, which once held out the hand of friendship to new publishers and businesses, now punches with an iron fist, wiping out popular publishers with the flip of an algorithm.
None of this was inevitable. The tech companies didn’t have to cave in to the pressure. They are perfectly capable of fighting the political establishment and winning — they knocked it for six in 2011 and 2012, when an Internet-wide protest by major tech companies forced Congress to shelve a planned overhaul of intellectual property laws.
Tech companies didn’t abandon their founding principles because they had to — they did it because they want to. Because they feel their platforms have been “misused.”
To be sure, there is a legitimate debate to be had about the consequences of free speech on the Internet. For example, the centuries-old tension between the right to free speech and the right to privacy has been brought to the fore in the digital era. As Gawker proved in the first half of the decade, it has never been easier to drag someone’s private life into a global spotlight — and tech platforms are largely shielded from legal repercussions for helping facilitate this.
We all participate in the destruction of our privacy. Social media platforms have encouraged young generations to post their craziest opinions, their most embarrassing photos, and their most offensive jokes on the Internet, where it remains forever. You would think that this shared experience would create a culture of forgiveness — that there would be a deeper understanding that we were all young and immature once, and that it’s unfair to destroy someone in 2020 for something they posted in 2010.
On the contrary, the reverse has happened — as partisan divides grow deeper, people are more eager than ever to “cancel” others over the slightest mistake. Everything you’ve ever said and everything you’ve ever done is now ammunition for the Twitter war.
Online harassment, “doxing” (the publishing of someone’s personal information without their consent), even “misinformation” — these also raise legitimate questions about online speech. But last year’s fiasco over the MAGA-hat wearing high school kids from Covington Catholic High School, who were doxed, harassed, and subject to a misinformation campaign while big tech platforms twiddled their thumbs, shows that neither Silicon Valley nor the mainstream media want to have a good-faith conversation about these problems.
To them, words like “online harassment,” “doxing,” and “hate speech” don’t have objective meaning — they’re just tools to deplatform political opponents.
Deplatforming is now one of the most urgent priorities of the left, even more so than at the start of the decade. As political losses mount, the losing side feels increasingly angry, and far more eager to silence their tormentors. And as populism toppled establishment cause after establishment cause over the course of the decade, progressives at tech companies felt — and still feel — a pressing moral compulsion to cut off the means by which that movement communicates. As Google VP Kent Walker put it in that infamous leaked Google video, he wants to make populism nothing more than a “hiccup” in history.
Another important moment from the Google tape is when co-founder Sergey Brin said Trump won because of “extremism” driven by “boredom.”
It’s not just its own technology that Silicon Valley has become afraid of — it’s human beings. In tech as in politics, there’s always been an unbreakable bond between negative views of human nature and authoritarian ideologies. If you believe human beings are fundamentally stupid, weak, and corruptible, you’ll be far less inclined to grant them liberty — after all, they’ll only misuse it.
That’s how Silicon Valley now feels about its users. The heads of tech CEOs are convinced that left to our own devices, we will end up deluded by “misinformation,” tricked by “fake news,” and radicalized by “hate speech.” They often cite the high view counts on videos about so-called “conspiracy theories as an example.
Of course, they don’t consider that viewing something doesn’t mean you accept it, and that accepting it doesn’t mean you’ll accept it forever. Strangely for people who work in a field so closely tied to Moore’s Law, the idea that people might improve or develop over time seems to elude them.
What also eludes them is any notion that their political values and priorities might actually be wrong, and that what they call “conspiracy theories” (essentially everything they disagree with) might be right. Or that the populists who use their platforms aren’t “extremists” who need to be suppressed for the good of society, but real citizens with real concerns, trying to exercise their democratic rights in an age where Silicon Valley controls the only effective town squares.
That, for an industry notoriously lacking in humility, is probably asking too much. Silicon Valley ends its decade in a strange place — it’s pessimistic about the technologies it has created. And yet, despite that pessimism, its leaders still believe they are right about everything.
Allum Bokhari is the senior technology correspondent at Breitbart News.