The Vibrant Religious Life of Silicon Valley, and Why It’s Killing the Economy

Samuel Loncar on Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future?

He even looks like a prophet.

Well, how a prophet might look like in the digital age. Jaron Lanier is a technologist and computer scientist. A polymath by conservative standards, he appears publicly in a large T-shirt and baggy pants. Dreadlocks complete a look that is appropriately idiosyncratic. He invented virtual reality (the idea and its first technological fruit); never finished college yet hung out with famous scientists at Caltech and MIT as a child; has numerous patents; and can be safely assumed to know more about math, science, and technology than anyone you know. He is also a philosopher (and a brilliant one at that), an accomplished musician known for his mastery of ancient and esoteric instruments from cultures few anthropologists have heard of, and a man of deep humanistic learning.

Jaron Lanier, Who Owns the Future?, Simon & Schuster, 2014, 448pp., $17

His prophetic role emerged with the publication of his first book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, in which he defended a digital humanism against the anti-humanist credo at the heart of Silicon Valley. Who Owns the Future?, a sequel of sorts, develops an in-depth critique of the current economic and technological system of Web 2.0 and its cultural home, Silicon Valley. Beyond critique, he offers a new proposal for a future in which the middle class will thrive, and even exist, an alternative to the future he thinks our current system is creating: one in which inequality is not a temporary fluke, soon to even-out as goodies trickle down from the high towers of Wall Street and flow from the bounty of Silicon Valley, but rather a structural condition as likely to disappear as billionaires are to divest themselves of their wealth and become impoverished social justice workers, toiling alongside the lower classes whose ranks they helped swell. Yeah, not very likely.

To understand Lanier’s work and its significance, one has to grasp how different Silicon Valley is from the rest of the country. Most importantly, one needs to realize that Silicon Valley has a vibrant religious culture, a more-or-less orthodox theology, and plenty of rites and institutions to keep its priestly caste employed and relevant. Sound implausible, perhaps the wild imaginings of a writer hailing from a religious studies department? Then you probably haven’t heard of The Singularity.

Few things embody the religion of Silicon Valley better than the idea of The Singularity. In 2045, according to futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, the exponential increase in technological innovation will reach a point where humans transcend biology and merge with technology, becoming functionally immortal as spiritual machines, no longer dependent on our embodied condition. In short, technology will provide the answer to the fundamental human anxiety, mortality, and will lead us towards the most basic aspiration of traditional metaphysics and religion, union with divinity. When describing the Singularity University, co-founded by Kurzweil, and its ideas, Lanier says: “these are ideas with tremendous currency in Silicon Valley; these are guiding principles, not just amusements, for many of the most influential technologists … All thoughts about consciousness, souls, and the like are bound up equally in faith, which suggests something remarkable: What we are seeing is a new religion, expressed through an engineering culture.” The title of David Silva’s documentary on The Singularity sums up the religiosity at its core: “Turning into Gods.”

Photo by Tim Rickman via Wikimedia Commons.
Photo by Tim Rickman via Wikimedia Commons.

The “religion of technology” is not itself new. The late historian David Noble, in his book by that title, traced its origins in a particular strain of Christianity which saw technology as means of reversing the effects of the Fall. What is new, and perhaps alarming, is that the most influential sector of the economy is awash in this sea of faith, and that its ethos in Silicon Valley is particularly unfriendly to human life as the middle classes know it. The general optimism about divinization in Silicon Valley motivates a widespread (though by no means universal) disregard for, and even hostility toward, material culture: you know, things like bodies (which Silva calls “skin bags”) and jobs which involve them.

The very fact that Silicon Valley has incubated this new religious culture unbeknownst to most of the outside world suggests how insulated it is. On the one hand, five minutes spent listening to the CEO of Google or some other tech giant will show you how differently people in Silicon Valley think from the rest of the country — listen carefully and you realize most of them simply assume there will be massive unemployment in the coming decades — and how unselfconscious most are of their differences. On the other hand, listen to mainstream East Coast journalists and intellectuals, and you would think a kind of ho-hum secularism, completely uninterested in becoming gods, is still the uncontested norm among modern elites.

The truth is far more interesting. There exists a massive though rarely discussed division between the technological elites and the conventional elites in politics, journalism, and academia. The biggest division is that the former have a vibrant, motivating, visionary eschatology, which is a core part of the religion of Silicon Valley, whereas the latter have a vision of the future so boring, bland, and vague that it often boils down to more equality, more freedom, somehow, indefinitely. It’s hard to argue with. It’s also hard to care about or take risks for. Eschatology is not the same thing as a simple view of the future. It is a vision of the end times, of a radical, qualitative transformation of history that warrants a sense of historical ending and discontinuity. Every utopian politics culminates in an eschatological vision. Whatever we would be after The Singularity, it would be hard to call it human in the current sense. And without humans, what happens to history?

Silicon Valley’s religion has a clear vision of the future — naturally there are always dissenters, like Lanier — motivated as much by faith as reason; it is a vision of increasing dematerialization, a concomitant emphasis on the technological alteration and eventual transcendence of our embodied condition, and the rise of a friction-less world in which autonomy and choice extend toward infinity (an Ayn Randian utopia). The reason this matters to everyone is that, whatever may be true about this vision, its current implementation makes one thing eminently plausible: absent major changes, one part of society sure to dematerialize is the middle-class. Why? Because the religion of Silicon Valley has an ethics, one which sounds good but works disastrously, on Lanier’s analysis. It is the ethics of the open culture. Information should be free! Write a new program? Put it online for anyone to use and improve. Create new music? Forget sales! Share it with your friends. Make the world a better place. Money will take care of itself … until it doesn’t.

Lanier confessed his own role in creating this culture and its norms of unrestricted and unremunerated information sharing in You Are Not a Gadget, and he still stands by how ideal such a world would be and how much good it would contain. The problem, one he is now trying to solve in Who Owns the Future?, is that the ideal “ignored the nature of computation.” Computers are not equal. “A top computer can bring limitless wealth and influence to that lucky computer’s owner and the onset of insecurity, austerity, and unemployment for everyone else.”

Real power today comes from information superiority, he says, and he calls the massive servers that have huge information advantages and computational superiority Siren Servers. A Siren Server amasses benefits to itself based on its superior information but does not internalize the risks of its own activities. Instead, it externalizes risk to the people it depends on, namely its “products,” i.e., users of services like Google, who freely provide the information on which the Siren Server works its magic, and more broadly the citizens of our political system, who have to bail out companies for their own risky behavior, which they based on data from these Siren Servers.

Lanier makes his basic economic point by noting that, for our society to work, the distribution of goods has to follow a bell-curve and not a winner-take-all (or “long tail”) distribution. The current information economy follows the winner-take-all distribution. This is obvious even to a casual observer who compares the valuations of major technology companies and the size of their work force with, say, traditional manufacturing corporations. Apple and Ford provide an archetypal contrast. Having recently reached 700 billion dollars, Apple is approaching the never-before achieved trillion dollar line in its market capitalization. It employs some 92 thousand people as of 2014. Ford, which has 187 thousand employees, has a market capitalization of 65 billion. The point here is not that Apple is bad; just the opposite. Lanier understands perfectly well that this trend is a good thing from the perspective of economics and innovation. It means technology is making the economy more efficient; thus a company like Apple can, with half the people, have a value more than tenfold that of a traditional manufacturing company. More value at less cost is good business.

The problem resides in how things are getting cheaper: technology replaces human labor, and does so at an accelerating rate. What happens to all the industries that rely on drivers when self-driving cars become mainstream? Or manufacturing when 3D printing becomes cost-effective? Will the music industry and its fate become a template for all middle-class jobs? Lanier thinks so. Unless we change way the web works, the middle-class, he fears, will be disrupted out of existence.

But Lanier is a prophet, not an enemy, of Silicon Valley. He loves technology and doesn’t see a future in which its dominance wanes; our economy is, and will increasingly become, an information economy. The challenge is how to have a middle class in an information-driven economy, and the answer Lanier offers is to reject the ethics of the open culture and start paying people for the value they produce: information, whether in Google-searches, Facebooks posts, or translations that get mined by algorithms to create free translations that are nonetheless based on human work, work which is unacknowledged and made more penurious with every advance in translating software. This could be done, Lanier thinks, through a micro-payment system, which would automatically track any use of people’s information and give them a micro-payment in return for that use. The argument seems intuitively plausible. Its details are less important, however, even on Lanier’s view, than the general need to rethink the way we treat people’s information. It is crucial that we stop creating an informal information economy, in which the value regular people create is left off the books, as it were, while then converted into profits by those behind the Siren Servers. The solution, whatever its details, demands that the value of people’s information is economically acknowledged and remunerated. Lanier’s book is serious and thoughtful, full of insights both technological and humanistic, but it is also optimistic in a way that underscores his open confession that he is part of the culture he critiques.

The problem with the open-culture ethic — and the religion of Silicon Valley in general — is not just that it ignores the nature of computation. The problem is that it ignores the nature of humans. The fact that some people, like the young Lanier, genuinely believe free information, especially personal information, is a good thing does not change the fact that such an ideology is a major asset to multibillion-dollar corporations whose services rely on people volunteering their information, which is then packaged, analyzed, and sold. For this same reason, it’s hard to see how the architecture of the Web would ever be changed in a way that makes it more expensive for the people profiting off of its current configuration. To be sure, Lanier argues compellingly that it is ultimately in the long-term interest of these very corporations, and not just their consumers/products, to reform the current system, as they rely on the very middle class that they are eroding. But the business world is not known for taking the long view of things. More worrisome still, the same short-term thinking that dominates business operates as vibrantly, and arguably more destructively, in politics.

Although Lanier’s analysis primarily focuses on the economy, the actual solution (as with any large-scale problem) could only arise through people’s rediscovery of themselves as citizens of a polity whose governance requires their thoughtful and sustained engagement. But we have outsourced governance to the often combined interests of global capitalism and the political elite — combined not only because their positions are often occupied by the same people, revolving door-style, as C. Wright Mills noted in The Power Elite, but also because the money of the former drives much of the policy of the latter. The virtues of these entities, however great, do not mitigate the fact that neither seem to have much interest in what we can call the supporting center: ecologically, the earth itself; politically, an educated, active citizenry; economically, a strong and growing middle class.

The religion of Silicon Valley is not a religion of the masses; it is a religion of the elites, which could never be democratized absent a complete revolution in our political and economic life (hardly a desirable option). If inequality is growing, why would anyone be naïve enough to think that the desired immortality, for example, would be available to everyone, equally? The ever-repeated claim that “Of course it will be available to everyone, because innovation drives the price down until it’s available for mass consumption” is question-begging. The reason that happens is because there is a middle-class; what’s at stake in the current dilemma is precisely the continued vitality of the middle class and the indisputable fact of its current erosion.

Prophets tend to be welcomed everywhere save their home countries. One can be grateful for Lanier’s prophetic role in Silicon Valley and his willingness to be a heretic, while observing that Lanier remains an insider, not an outcast. This is one of the great strengths of Who Owns the Future?. It is not a journalistic peek into Silicon Valley and the world it’s creating, but an insider’s and founder’s take on a religion gone awry. Sober responses to the problem of the disappearing middle class will be aided by Lanier’s work, but they must also realize clearly the nature of our situation: a new religion — not of the masses but of technological elites — is one of the driving forces in the economic and technological architecture of our world, and religion works not with mere reason (itself a fantasy, for reason always brings company), but with myth, stories about who we are and where we are going (to the stars, heaven, a utopian future). The only response to a bad myth is a better story, a truer myth. Do we have one?

Samuel Loncar is a philosopher and scholar of religion and editor of The Marginalia Review of Books, currently teaching at Yale Divinity. His work focuses on integrating separated spaces, including philosophy and poetry, science and religion, and the academic-public divide. His speaking and workshop engagements include the United Nations, Oliver Wyman, and Trinity Wall Street’s retreat center.  His website is Tweets @SamuelLoncar.