The revolutionary script of Silicon Valley

When Steve Jobs unveiled the Macintosh in 1984, he positioned his company’s new computer as a revolutionary product that would ignite personal creativity and imagination. He also described the pre-Mac environment as the battleground on which IBM was all but certain to attain total domination. Speaking of the plight of computer resellers, Jobs said:

[Resellers] are increasingly and desperately turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple.

The Apple co-founder then gave the audience a sneak peek at the company’s now famous Super Bowl TV ad, a dramatic interpretation of the fight between IBM and Apple. The ad positioned the Macintosh as humanity’s only hope for a world in which the year “1984 won’t be like 1984,” a coy reference to George Orwell’s dystopian novel. The subtext was clear: IBM’s vision for the future of computing was the equivalent to Big Brother; Apple’s user-friendly Macintosh represented a technology that would break down bureaucracies, enhance the status of the individual, and create a collaborative society.

This wasn’t the first time a tech luminary cloaked their ambition under the garb of the 1960s counterculture. Mr. Jobs was following the script those revolutionaries established, a script that celebrated individual autonomy, decentralized systems, peace, transparency, personal freedom, and liberty. And Jobs wasn’t consciously emulating that script. Every social movement follows at least a part of one, whether they know it or not.

Every new revolutionary social movement has a secret superpower.

Scripts give new movements powers because they legitimize their demands. They instantly make new quests seem familiar since they typically borrow the techniques, tactics, and rhetoric from past revolutions. For Baker and Edelstein, authors of the 2015 book Scripting Revolution, revolutionary scripts are a lot like the scripts of Langston Hughes or William Shakespeare:

The American and French Revolutions provided the genesis of the revolutionary “script” that was rewritten by Marx, which was revised by Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution, which was revised again by Mao and the Chinese Communist Revolution. Later revolutions in Cuba and Iran improvised further. This script is once again on display in the capitals of the Middle East and North Africa, and it will serve as the model for future revolutionary movements.

The elements they share typically include:

  • A set cast of characters (i.e. white male business leaders)
  • An established scene (i.e. the Bay Area of California)
  • A concurrent narrative (i.e. the utopian belief that technology can make the world a better place)
  • A script that’s always mutating (as it is transcribed onto new technologies)
  • A script for a set of actions (i.e. technology will improve/change the world)

And yes, while book focuses on political social movements, I believe the framework for understanding revolutions they establish can be easily transferred to other domains.

Silicon Valley revolutionaries typically follow a version of the following action script:

  • First, a new product or service is developed.
  • Next, the breakthrough invention is introduced by its creator. A typical presentation includes the identification of a malevolent oppressor, and the new product is positioned as the revolutionary antidote.
  • Then the inventor describes all the ways in which the new product will change the world, often using egalitarian countercultural ideals such as individual autonomy, harmonious co-existence, transparency, decentralized systems, and personal freedom and liberty.
  • Finally, the product is purchased by the consumer, and the individual’s journey toward freedom and enlightenment begins.

The revolutionary script of Silicon Valley was established by Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog (WEC) as Fred Turner’s explains in his excellent book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture. The WEC was part shopping catalog, DIY instruction manual, and home to cultural criticism authored by the leading intellectuals of the time. Through its pages, readers began to appreciate that technology could be an agent for change. The WEC connected like-minded individuals who believed that technology and the pioneering American spirit presented hope for a more personal, interconnected future — the exact opposite of the dystopian world they feared was imminent. In the words of Turner, the WEC celebrated “the power of technology to foster social change,” which was a particularly inspiring message for the rising generation of digital revolutionaries dogged by what seemed like an imminent nuclear holocaust.

photo cred: Akos Kokai

The WEC created the framework later technologists would use to position their inventions as the answer to the idealistic desires of the 1960s and 70s. The WEC legitimized the actions of Silicon Valley in two ways.

First, it gave the narrative of technology-as-a-revolutionary-force a cultural legitimacy that it wouldn’t have otherwise obtained (Turner, p. 115). Second, it established the precedent in the minds of the public that a mere act of consumption could be considered as a political act. Readers of the WEC could:

Order the “tools” on display and so help create a realm of “intimate, personal power” in her or his own life (albeit by entering the commercial sphere first) (Turner, p. 83).

The WEC also conveyed an empowering message geared toward the individual, and promoted the idea that every person could have a positive effect on society. All they had to do was follow the prescribed actions and purchase the right things.

The WEC and the Macintosh are examples of technologies that were introduced with a revolutionary flourish and with an emphasis on individual empowerment. Next, I’ll turn to the communication revolution and examine the ways in which the rhetoric of the WEC and the computer revolution became transcribed onto the internet. As we’ll see, the revolutionary script of Silicon Valley is transformed and expanded with each new technological innovation that utilizes its components. As the reach and capabilities of technological innovations expand, so too does the reach and ambition of this revolutionary script.

The evolution of Silicon Valley’s revolutionary script

1. Revolutionizing communication

Although the internet lacks a single and cohesive origin story, it is still an important stop along our tour of the revolutionary script of Silicon Valley. Indeed, many early proponents of the internet fit the script I outlined above: several early boosters of the internet (i.e. Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreessen) used revolutionary rhetoric in their excited introductory communiques about this emerging communications network.

Early versions of network-connected media (including the U.S. military’s ARPANET) date back to the 1960s, but the utilization of the internet was relegated to the realms of academia and the military until the late 1980s–early 90s, when the mainstream web browsers Nexus and Netscape first became available (Turner, p. 213). Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth ‘Lectric Link (The WELL) launched in 1985, and ushered in a whole host of new visions about what kinds of experiences the internet might make possible. Early members thought of the WELL as a “way to recreate the countercultural ideal of a shared consciousness” (Turner, p. 142). Its proponents hoped that the WELL would usher in a new space for friendship, collaboration, and the sharing of ideas.

Cyberspace even had its own founding document, John Perry Barlow’s influential A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, which outlined his vision for the internet as a place that was out of reach of government bureaucrats and the existing social order. Barlow’s vision for cyberspace was a place of genuine human equality, consisting of disembodied “transactions, relationships, and thought itself.” Cyberspace was to be “both everywhere and nowhere, but […] not where bodies live.” Although any hope of realizing the dreams of the 1960s-era counterculturists was long gone by the 1980s, cyberspace represented an exciting new opportunity to reclaim those ideals. If cyberspace could remain an independent place where civil discourse flourished, perhaps a wholly new society could be created and maintained. Cyberspace would be a place in which “anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.” Although those early ideals were ultimately thwarted by trolls, nasty comment sections, and corporate platforms, the principles Barlow established still influence the mission statements of many internet companies today. They also cemented the place of the revolutionary script of Silicon Valley in this new era, ensuring that the new communication capabilities soon to be unleashed by the internet would carry on the spirit of the California ideology espoused by those early computer hobbyists.

When the revolutionary script of Silicon Valley was expanded to include the internet, the reach and ambition of the script itself expanded, too. Next, we’ll trace another revision and expansion of the revolutionary script: from the diffusion of the internet, to the global eradication of poverty.

2. Revolutionizing poverty

photo cred: Thiago Vieira

In 2006, Nicholas Negroponte took to the TED stage to unveil his vision to eradicate global poverty in developing nations with a $100 laptop. Now run by a not-for-profit organization, One Laptop per Child (OLPC) aims to give children a “means for learning, self-expression, and exploration” (source). OLPC positions its laptop as a “basic right,” because “when every child has a connected laptop, they have in their hands the key to full development and participation” (source; emphasis mine). OLPC clearly sees education as the most effective way to escape poverty. But not just any kind of knowledge will suffice. In order to become full participants in the new economy, children need access to technology and the global networks to which it connects.

OLPC represents an extension and fresh interpretation of the revolutionary script of Silicon Valley. Extolling the benefits of education to children in developing nations, Negroponte promised that his laptop would be “the solution to poverty, peace, [and] environment[al] degradation.” The implication was clear: technology (i.e. the $100 laptop) is the most effective antidote to the oppressive forces of poverty and isolation. The $100 laptop was also touted as individually empowering — a key value of counterculturists.

As Mr. Negroponte said:

one of the things […] that computers have provided to learning is that it now includes a kind of learning which is […] more like walking and talking, in the sense that a lot of it is driven by the learner him- or herself.

To Negroponte, technology is a different (and far superior) learning tool when compared to books. And one has to actually experience this new technology to fully appreciate and integrate it into one’s life. This new way of learning can’t be conveyed through books and reading alone.

Although the OLPC project has received criticism from some seeming unlikely critics (i.e. Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates), it represents an important development in the revolutionary script of Silicon Valley. The $100 laptop takes many of the countercultural ideals embraced by the proponents of the WEC, computers, and cyberspace, and applies that same rhetoric to global development. It also signals the beginning of a more ambitious and globally aware version of the script. While early proponents of computers and the internet were globally minded, they didn’t consider how disenfranchised groups might access this space. OLPC addresses that discrepancy and adds a feel-good, philanthropic twist of spreading education and reducing poverty to the revolutionary script. Next, I’ll examine the expansion of the revolutionary script of Silicon Valley into the realm of the American workplace.

3. Revolutionizing the workplace

photo cred: Alessio Jacona

Of all the ways to signal one’s affiliation with a group or movement, uniforms and costumes are one of the most consistent and visible methods, and are featured prominently in the work of Baker and Edelstein (p. 58). Although it may seem implausible, the revolutionary script of Silicon Valley includes its own version of a uniform as well. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously wears the same thing every day: a gray tshirt and blue jeans (source). His reason for keeping his wardrobe simple is part utilitarian mantra, part promotional plug for his company. Mark has said that he “really want[s] to clear [his] life to make it so that [he has] to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve [the Facebook] community” (source). So famous is Zuckerberg’s uniform that it was even the focus of a viral April Fool’s joke. Zuckerberg’s choice of clothing might also be considered an homage to Steve Jobs, whose wardrobe contained a lifetime supply of black turtlenecks (Isaacson).

But whatever reasons Zuckerberg might offer for wearing the same outfit every day, he’s also acting out a key component of the revolutionary script of Silicon Valley which dates back to at least 1957. In that year, Robert Noyce (CEO of Fairchild Semiconductor) decreed that the company’s dress code would “not include coats and ties” (Turner, p. 150). It was a way of signaling that his company was different from its drab corporate counterparts. Lax dress codes also support the countercultural ideal of hierarchy-free organizations. In traditional business settings, it might be expected that a CEO wear more formal clothing than his or her direct reports. But if the CEO is wearing a tshirt, that subtle signal of superiority is all but eliminated. In its ideal state, laid-back dress codes (and open workspaces, another requirement for the modern technology startup) are the physical embodiment of two key countercultural ideals: collaboration and transparency (source).

The extension of the revolutionary script into the realm of workplace dress codes is yet another indication that technology companies ultimately wish to remake every aspect of the world according to their ideals. Of course, their ambitions reach much further than the humble tshirt.

4. Revolutionizing labor

photo cred: Jason Lawrence

When UberCab launched in early 2010, its mission was deceivingly simple: to let “customers summon a ride with the press of a smartphone button” (source). Now known as simply “Uber,” the ride-sharing company’s ambitions are ever-growing. What started as a new way to hail a cab has evolved into a delivery service and carpool facilitator (source 1 and 2). Although Uber’s business leaders prefer to use the paradigm of “disruption” to describe the company’s effect on the existing taxi business, the company is also following its own version of the revolutionary script of Silicon Valley. When asked if Uber is “fundamentally disruptive to existing taxi and limo companies,” co-founder Travis Kalanick replied: “Yes. Technology changes the ballgame” (source).

Although Kalanick didn’t explicitly name the type of ballgame to which he was referring, it’s clear that Uber is making dramatic changes to the relationship between employees and their employers. While Uber’s impact on the taxi and limousine industries is significant, the company’s enthusiasm to hire the best lobbyists (source), take on local governments (source), and its ultimate desire to replace its entire workforce with autonomous vehicles (source) will have lasting effects on the U.S. economy — especially since the companies that follow in its footsteps will benefit from the legal and cultural precedents it establishes.

Of course, the rise of project-based, short-term employment didn’t start with Uber. The shift away from long-term employment in favor of project-based contracting was put in place by “complex, networked forms of sociability” which took root in the 1990s (Turner, p. 239). But Uber and the other companies that provide short-term employment (including meal-delivery services like Grubhub and Caviar, and the multi-purpose freelance labor platform TaskRabbit) are extending this mode of work down the income distribution and into new areas, using elements of the revolutionary script to frame this ad-hoc mode of employment in decidedly optimistic terms. In a press release explaining the company’s stance on the settlement of a recent class-action lawsuit, Mr. Kalanick said that “drivers really [value] the freedom Uber offer[s]” and that “almost 90 percent [of Uber drivers] say they choose Uber because they want to be their own boss. Drivers value their independence — the freedom to push a button rather than punch a clock” (source).

That a company valued at $62 billion (source) can make such assertions without losing credibility is a testament to the power of the revolutionary script of Silicon Valley. By framing his company’s approach to labor relations as supporting countercultural ideals of individual autonomy, Kalanick insulates himself from criticism regarding Uber’s labor policies while simultaneously positioning his company as a progressive force, enabling its employees a whole new way of balancing life and work.

Conclusion

As I’ve shown above, the revolutionary script of Silicon Valley is a powerful and flexible concept that companies can use to insist that their particular flavor of innovation will make the world a better place. But does the script obfuscate the true societal effects of new technologies?

To answer these questions, we can turn again to the comparative research conducted by the contributors to Scripting Revolution. David Armitage says that the revolutionary script that began with the French Revolution in 1789 was “frequently replayed on stages around the world. The authors of later revolutions adapted it to their purposes and added new properties for each performance.” Most importantly, those revolutionaries used the script to “justify [their] actions, as each attempt to to overthrow tradition contributed to the creation of a new tradition” (p. 58; emphasis mine). Thus, the script becomes more than the sum of its parts. It becomes a force that justifies and enables certain types of behavior. One can tap into that power just by paying homage to the individual elements of those preceding scripts.

As Uber demonstrates, the revolutionary script of Silicon Valley is a powerful concept that can shape the way emerging technologies are viewed by the public and integrated into society. Established by the Whole Earth Catalog and Stewart Brand’s network of loosely affiliated cultural pioneers, entrepreneurs, and computer whizzes, the script includes a surprisingly consistent array of actions, characters, scenes, and narratives. Many recent Silicon Valley innovations have created wealth for a new class of entrepreneur while diminishing the economic outlook of its workers, all while espousing the counterculture rhetoric of freedom, enhanced mobility, and flat organizational structures. Just as the communes of the 1960s largely left women and minorities out of positions of power while promoting global equality and freedom (Turner, p. 98), the revolutionary script of Silicon Valley is at risk of masking the true implications of its products with its lofty rhetoric.

More empirical research needs to be conducted before we can definitively say that the revolutionary script of Silicon Valley effectively shapes public opinion and successfully draws attention away from technology’s more deleterious effects. But I think we can convincingly assert that there is indeed a revolutionary script that positions many dissimilar products and services under a similar utopian rubric. It also seems apparent from my research that the script is becoming more powerful, and is gaining more credibility, as it expands and is applied to new domains. Perhaps it’s the script alone that’s powerful enough to provide cover for technology’s potentially negative effects. Or perhaps it’s a combination of the revolutionary script, short-term thinking, and the blinding magic and convenience of the technologies themselves.

Turning again to Scripting Revolution, we learn from Wasserstrom and Wu that the Chinese revolutionary and philosopher Liang Qichao actively searched for an ideal revolutionary script to emulate, vacillating between past American and French revolutions (p. 242). He eventually became an advocate for a French-style revolution and “called for his fellow countrymen to carry out the Chinese equivalent to it” (p. 242). This is a remarkably deliberate and conscious attempt to use elements of one revolution to ignite another. It suggests that revolutionary scripts are just one item on a checklist that one needs to complete before a revolution will take root. In the case of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, I think the script has become so ingrained and institutionalized (via advertising and brand positioning) that it may not even be a decision that new firms make with any great amount of deliberation.

Another question for future researchers of the revolutionary script of Silicon Valley: Are the actors aware that they’re playing a part in a script? Dominica Chang examined what she calls the “discourse of revolutionary mimicry” in Scripting Revolution (p. 181), and provided evidence for what she characterized as the “predominantly negative critique that revolutionaries mindlessly imitated events and actors from a scripted and therefore inauthentic and untrustworthy past” (p. 181). Are contemporary Silicon Valley firms consciously replaying and transforming the original countercultural script Stewart Brand helped articulate, or are they simply mimicking the marketing of their competitors? (Which would still be a way of propagating the script.) If they are mindlessly mimicking their predecessors, does that diminish their credibility? I don’t think the majority of the public is aware of the extent to which the countercultural narratives of tech firms is confined to a script. For the time being, Silicon Valley firms can benefit from the power of the script without being accused of thoughtless mimicry.

The revolutionary script of Silicon Valley started out in the humble pages of the Whole Earth Catalog, where it conveyed an idealistic narrative of personal empowerment. The ambition of that script has evolved, expanded, and enabled revolutions in the realms of communication, poverty, the workplace, and labor. I predict that the script will continue to enable Silicon Valley firms to expand the reach of its influence. There is no end to the industry’s ambition, as demonstrated by its contemporary obsessions with virtual reality, the so-called Internet of Things, micro-loans, self-driving cars — even ventures aimed at colonizing Mars. Although many of these ambitious endeavors may end up genuinely making the world a better place, we should be cognizant of the power of the revolutionary script, and evaluate the claims of those who employ it against the full range of its effects, both positive and negative.