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Silicon Valley’s Sun Kings

Among newly contrite techies, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak

In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, journalists and academics fretted over whether democracy could survive the internet, and whether Donald Trump had Facebook—and not the rising tide of nationalism that had buttressed him throughout his campaign—to thank for his victory. The elite of Silicon Valley, the CEOs and executive class of the companies who form the internet’s ruling plutocracy, have spent much of the last three years live tweeting their rehabilitation efforts. Apologies have appeared from current and former employees of the internet’s blue-chip corporations, including Facebook and Twitter, as developers, engineers, and execs compete for space to air their regrets. Their statements vacillate between the confessional and the reassuring: just as only they have the authority to properly diagnose the extent of the damage their technologies have caused, only they have the capability, and the right, to fix things. These feel like insurance policies as much as they do apologies. The wheel momentarily slipped from their hands, the admissions seemed to communicate, but everything will soon be back under control.

Makeovers are nothing new in the tech industry, which has had its knuckles rapped periodically for decades now. It’s a tradition that goes back to the antitrust allegations leveled at Microsoft in the late 1990s, if not further. But in the last ten years, Silicon Valley, with its vacuous egotism and perpetual smugness, has become an ever easier target for ridicule, even as the rising political clout of its key players makes it seem immune to censure. The figureheads of tech’s largest corporations have become as public facing as most politicians, if not more so, regularly appearing in congressional show trials or in the pages of national newspapers to evade accusations and proselytize their platforms. What makes this round of crisis control feel different is the way in which many of the guilty parties have employed the therapeutic language of personal accountability.

What happens after you admit you might have ruined the internet, or helped elect a lunatic, or undercut Western democracy?

Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes’s 2019 editorial in the New York Times was ostensibly about the need to break the internet giant’s hold on its users’ data (by breaking up the company), but it reads more like a Dear John letter to Mark Zuckerberg. The regreditorials that preceded and followed Hughes’s op-ed similarly misconstrued the state of Big Tech as the result of a series of personal misadventures. The developer who led the team that developed Twitter’s retweet button suspected he had ruined the internet, for example—unless the creators of YouTube’s algorithm had done it first. Either way, they were all very sorry, delivering their apologia with the solemnity of Oppenheimer after Trinity. Journalists barely had to point any fingers; it was enough to keep track of the race to blow the whistle.

What happens after you admit you might have ruined the internet, or helped elect a lunatic, or undercut Western democracy? I suppose that, like with any confession, you feel relief. Nothing is worse than keeping a secret. Then, to borrow a cliché, you might take some time to work on yourself. Unburdened, perhaps, by their No Good Very Bad Election Year, the elite of Silicon Valley have discovered a new depth of self-reflection that they didn’t realized they possessed—and a new opportunity to grow their consciousness. They have practiced vipassana, mindful movement, holotropic breathing, and dopamine fasts. At the Esalen Institute, the fabled Big Sur retreat and birthplace of the Human Potential Movement, the guest list has come to resemble that of a Y Combinator meet-up, so packed is it with tech luminaries. These are people who helped build some of the most powerful companies on the planet, who not only cornered the market on the internet, but defined its structural shape—people who, by their own admission, may have exerted a domineering force on the political lives of millions of Americans. Now, they’re beginning to heal.

Silicon Valley has always viewed itself as a home for alternative modes of living; San Francisco’s twinned history as the birthplace of industry and a counterculture hub has been extensively, and often fawningly, documented. The tech world shares with the original New Age movement a tendency to disassociate religious and spiritual practices from their historic and cultural contexts—to view them with the same metrical detachment they do the technologies they create. Extreme forms of fasting and physical exertion have been mobilized for many purposes: forms of religious devotion, acts of political protest, or the results of psychological compulsion. But in Silicon Valley, these rites are reduced to matters of pure technique, ways for an entitled executive class to increase their productivity and burnish their iconoclasm. Jack Dorsey is arguably the most famous ambassador of this kind of costly signaling, and his personal habits, from three-day periods of self-starvation to Orientalist spiritual tourism, inspire as much imitation among his peers as it they do ire among his critics. Dorsey and those who emulate him seem immune to even the most obvious of criticisms: that you cannot hack your way out of the empirical condition of having a living body, that a billionaire who eschews taking a company car to work is still a billionaire, and that much of the worldly distraction these figures are so intent on getting clear of is generated by the very technologies they’ve created.

Tech elites’ obsession with these rituals has never been about their effectiveness (questionable) but about creating a physical conception of the body and its systems that squares with their own self-image. The mythology of Silicon Valley—its culture of incredible wealth and exploitation, its obsession with disrupting existing systems of commerce while reinforcing the fundamental division between labor and profits—is founded on the belief that people who achieve success possess an inherent difference in ability and vision. That they are not subject to the same rules as everyone else, whether those rules are the regulatory laws that govern workers’ rights or the fundamental laws of biology that say a human being needs to eat to survive.

Suffering, said Ram Dass, the former Harvard psychonaut turned Hindu devotee and amateur guru, is part of our training program for becoming wise. He said this not in Be Here Now, the 1971 collection of aphorisms that inspired so many seeker-sensitives of the New Age boom, but in a 2002 book called One-Liners: A Mini Manual for a Spiritual Life, which traded countercultural ferocity for blandly affirmative aphorisms. The CEOs of Silicon Valley have always loved to tell us how much they have suffered to become wise, and the newly apologetic note being struck in the Valley meshes well with its various ascetics. Their “bio hacks” have become hair shirts, and their myriad lifestyle eccentricities, buttressed by piles of money and junk science, are now presented like self-flagellation rather than the efforts of a privileged class to prove their inherent difference. Previously, if  the attempts of CEOs like Dorsey to short-circuit their own biology felt like repudiations of any commonality with people outside of their privileged fraternity, now they look like a different kind of performance: the operatics of the newly converted, evidence of a Franciscan inner light. “It’s about putting Silicon Valley back in their bodies,” said one Esalen employee of the droves of technologists now descending upon the retreat. “Everybody’s got a soul. It’s about finding it.”

Like contemporary Sun Kings, they cannot see a meaningful distinction between their own bodies and the systems they command.

What would it look like for Silicon Valley’s elite to find its soul? The Valley has always been an evangelical environment, a kind of Burned-over District for new modes of technocratic capitalism. And despite the fact that many of its most prominent evangelists have been exposed as charlatans, it’s difficult to say whether their own sense of self-belief has really ever been shaken. Elizabeth Holmes, easily the most famous snake oil salesmen in the Valley’s history, can be accused of peddling a lie, but it’s much harder to accuse her of not truly believing in her own innate CEO-ness. In fact, her frank and desperate desire to inhabit that role is perhaps the only convincing thing about her. So as we enter the era of a newly chastened Big Tech, it’s difficult to find evidence that the Valley’s spiritual crisis has produced any meaningful change. The industry leaders are still covertly resisting burgeoning attempts at unionization. The same oligarchs are still jousting over the title of world’s richest man. Donald Trump is still the president, and the hard-right support that helped take him to White House has not been swept from the internet’s causeways.  

The industry leaders who say they want things to change have hedged their bets by focusing on their own peers, effectively trying to influence the influencers. Organizations like the Center for Humane Technology and the “Inner-Net” workshops at Esalen target leaders at the highest level of Silicon Valley’s power structure, playing spiritual Rasputin to leverage their influence from the top down. The problem is that this takes the tech industry further away from the possibility of organized, radical change. In its turn back to the New Age language of individual transformation—its pivot towards a belief in its own soul—Silicon Valley has effectively doubled down on the myth of the lone genius. CEOs are hurting, and they need to get back to their bodies. In the 1970s, the countercultural dream of communal liberation soured into a solipsistic dream of solitary enlightenment, and it’s rarely bothered to turn its gaze back. The inner eye can only focus inwards.

Silicon Valley is drawn to these same techniques because they allow it to avoid a stark reality: that the only way for the CEOs of companies like Facebook, Twitter, or Amazon to even begin to undo the damage they’ve done has little to do with individual transformation, and everything to do with systemic change. To truly make amends would be to begin to undo the exploitation, voracious capitalist expansion, and shameless wealth hoarding that are perhaps the only “undisrupted” norms in the industry. But the elite of tech world would rather literally starve themselves than relinquish their power. Like contemporary Sun Kings, they cannot see a meaningful distinction between their own bodies and the systems they command. To give up their material wealth and sociopolitical influence would be a form of amputation, making them no different from the millions of Americans who catalog their own wellness journeys on social media. Last December, reflecting on the end of a ten-day silent meditation retreat he took in Myanmar, a country then in the midst of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by a military dictatorship, Jack Dorsey told his Twitter followers he was trying to answer an ancient question: “How do I stop suffering?” That it’s unclear whether he was talking about the suffering of the world or his own makes no difference—to Dorsey, they’re the same thing.