The Tech-Bro White-Knuckled Circlejerk

The Tech-Bro White-Knuckled Circlejerk (TBWKC) is my way of addressing people (let’s be real though, it’s men) who subscribe to a collection of ideologies, concepts, and tragic misconceptions that characterize Silicon Valley’s elite. The following shit-flinging is a breakdown, point by point, of what the fuck is wrong with this dominant mode of thought in Silicon Valley and the culture of industry it propagates.

1. Stoicism, virtue, and excellence

Let’s start with one corner of an ideological tripod that props up the Tech-Bro White-Knuckled Circlejerk: Stoicism. The Stoics were Athenian philosophers in ancient Greece, and their main concern was the pursuit of a virtuous life through control and mastery of emotions. Stoic ideas are superficially similar to some forms of Buddhism, which is important—but the main point that’s useful here is that the Stoics saw virtue in an iron will, not the destruction of one’s ego.

Stoic ethics stressed the rule: “Follow where reason leads.” [to] peace of mind (literally, “without passion”) where peace of mind was understood in the ancient sense — being objective or having “clear judgment” — Stoicism, Wikipedia

I’m not gonna dive into this much more because I’m not a philosophy major, but the core nugget here is that Stoicism today—filtered through 2300 years of Roman dictators and Christian philosophers—is an ethos that teaches men in the TBWKC to tamp down their empathy, stoke a fiery refutation of life’s hardships, and believe in individualism as a path to excellence. In the end, these Stoic practices lead to a righteous, Virtuous existence.

We’ll get back to this idea of Virtue and excellence. For now, let’s remember that Stoicism is a powerful, self-affirming philosophy that alone is not so much of a problem. But it’s not alone in the TBWKC, it’s coupled with:

2. Objectivism and Libertarianism

The second corner of the TBWKC ideological tripod is, because of course it is, Ayn Rand. Rand’s Objectivist philosophy is partly responsible for the American libertarian movement, and both hold powerful sway in Silicon Valley—to the point where it’s an easy joke to point out that Peter Thiel poured money into an ocean paradise exactly like the one from the Objectivist dystopia depicted in Bioshock (which is a video game).

What’s wrong with libertarianism for the TBWKC? As with Stoicism (the two are closely linked, and with Buddhism too), this strain of rugged individualism that 13-year-olds, startup CEOs, and Oregonian ranchers find so attractive is, more often than not, a cloak for selfishness and a dearth of empathy. But assume we give those parties the benefit of the doubt: the ethics of libertarianism still pushes towards isolationism and capitalist expansion. The rallying cry of libertarians is “Leave Me Alone!” and it’s this isolation that can turn a healthy, cooperative society into a culture of “Virtuous Selfishness.”

Most dangerous of all, libertarianism and Objectivism all but require a techbro to view all of humanity as the same: having equal opportunities, challenges, and resources. It erases the idea of privilege and hides the impact of entitlement.

Are you poor, black, a woman, or disabled? Bad luck, but you had an equal shot at the American dream, so nobody is obliged to help you. — basically every libertarian

Clearly, this is a problem if you have an empathetic bone in your body. I’ll touch on Merit some more further down, but for now I want you to dwell on this: a culture that has internalized a ruthless, context-devoid view of equality, and mixed it with isolationism and a desire to tamp down on empathy. That is Stoicism mixed with Randian libertarianism. These are the two core pillars of the TBWKC.

Where shit really goes sideways, and where philosophy leaps out of the ivory tower and starts fucking up human lives is when we introduce the third leg of the tripod:

3. Corporate late-stage capitalism

The Big Bad. The final boss. He-who-must-not-be-blamed. Capitalism. Shit.

But Zak, what’s wrong with capitalism? People sell goods/services so they can make money, which they use to buy goods/services from someone else! It’s called THE ECONOMY, stupid, and without it we’d all be bartering 4 chickens for a loaf of br—

Shut the fuck up, imaginary straw man that I made up. We’re not talking about Adam Smith’s fictional tale of the origin on money here (which yes, by the way, The Wealth Of Nations is full of garbage anthropology, google it). We’re talking about a social system where the lower half (50%) of the entire world has as much wealth as the top 62 people. They’re not the 1%, it’s the 0.000000017714286 percent.

We’re talking about a system that as a matter of course pushes us to engineer massive inequality, dehumanize our labour force, poison our drinking water, snuff out our planet’s wildlife, and scorch our atmosphere with the squeezed remains of dead dinosaurs—all in service of the inexorable, Virtuous creation of wealth.

What does this have to do with Silicon Valley and the TBWKC? I’ll lay it out for you: these men build corporations. They are in the pursuit of growth, of capital, of wealth. They do it in a climate that has been engineered for their success. Their playbook is a tripod of toxic ideologies and tactics that sum up to:

  • “objectivity”—paired with a practiced lack of emotional intelligence
  • the cause and effect relationship between merit, effort, and success—paired with the belief that everyone is offered a level playing field
  • the sanctity of personal freedoms—paired with isolationism

It’s with these attitudes that the techbros go to work. Men in the TBWKC are encouraged by a system that tells them they are better than those who don’t have their privileges—and since empathy doesn’t help grow your startup, and empathy isn’t objective, you choose to ignore it.

4.Techno-utopian thinking

All the wealth in the world won’t save our heroic circlejerk when California collapses into the Pacific, right? When the global temperature rises by more than 2 degrees Celsius and nobody can farm the ingredients for Soylent anymore? The TBWKC has two main solutions:

  • realize the 20th-century dream of replacing human labour with machines
  • leave Earth and colonize a new planet

If you haven’t heard, pretty soon robots will be driving all the trucks, cars, boats, and airplanes. Humans will be out of work—lots of them. But that’s OK, because the efficiency created in the market means we’ll use fewer resources. Former workers will be free to create products and start their own companies—be entrepreneurs! In this techno-pastoral future, we live like the Eloi while robots produce the goods we need to survive.

Except that’s fucking ridiculous, and you know that. You know that in 80 years advancements in technology have not reduced the average work week nor increased our leisure time. We work more, we produce more, and we consume more. This won’t change when cabbies and truck drivers are out of work. It will just create a whole lot of starving people. Let’s not even start talking about the impact of globalization on this situation.

What if we _do_ reach this magical future? We still have to consider that humanity is smoking itself out of it’s own home. So, rockets. We will leave this planet and terraform (i.e. more global warming) Mars. Sure.

It won’t happen. Not for a while yet. And it certainly won’t happen for us, it’ll be the 0.000000017714286% that get to jet out there—or we’ll send all our prisoners to do the dirty work first, like when we colonized Australia.

These techno-utopian visions are not trifles—they are part of what allows the hypocrisy of the TBWKC crowd to remain internally consistent. Their work is Virtuous (I promise I’ll get to Virtue, it’s at the very end) and even if it destroys the planet they are smart and rich enough—they have enough of that entrepreneurial spirit—to burn dead dinosaurs all the way to another world.

5. Meritocracy and social justice

I’ve talked a lot about empathy and privilege already, so this will be quick. With Stoic philosophy and libertarian entitlement comes the belief in a Meritocracy—it’s own form of utopia, one devoid of politics, differences between competitors, and inequality. It’s beautiful, but it doesn’t exist and it won’t until we’re all living in Star Trek. Believing that the successful rise solely on merit in the Valley necessarily means that the TBWKC set do not believe social justice has any place there. There’s no real problem, and any problems that do crop up can be solved by teaching the homeless to code.

Tying it all together, and a bit more on Virtue

I’ve described the TBWKC as a group of privileged dudes with their heads in a bubble, applying lessons from ancient Roman dictators to “make the ‘world’ a better place.” The problem is the behaviour, but also the idea that this behaviour is virtuous. When we conflate the morality of running a business with the morality of running a society—when we think that good businessmen can run good societies… we get into trouble.

Virtue was a big deal to the ancient Greeks. Stoicism being such a big part of the ethos for the TBWKC, they’re undoubtedly familiar with the concept of arete:

In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential.

I’m not going to touch on the pervasive Protestant work ethic angle aside from saying that it’s part of this ethos too: work itself is moral, productivity is spiritual wealth, etcetera. TBWKC dudes are virtuous businessmen. Peter Thiel is Achilles and Mark Zuckerberg is Odysseus. They are heroes of capitalism. But that doesn’t mean their virtues transfer to running an excellent society.

I’m very interested in arete. The idea that you can find self-actualization through defining your own parameters for success is empowering. But in the context of TBWKC: if it’s a moral imperative for someone to reach their full potential, being an effective businessman equals being a virtuous, moral actor.

Where that breaks down is the idea that “if it worked for me and I am virtuous, everyone must also do this thing to be virtuous.” The system that worked for TBWKC must work for others, and if we reshape our society around perfect business, everyone can be successful. But for Homer, virtue was not transferrable—it was highly unique and specific: Achilles had arete as a warrior but he did not have arete as a politician, like Odysseus.

Someone who is a virtuous CEO is not a universally moral actor. Virtue in the constraints of market capitalism is not virtue in a diverse, deeply flawed society. This is what’s wrong with the Tech-Bro White-Knuckled Circlejerk. It’s an attitude of entitlement, moral superiority, spiritual isolationism, blind objectivity, and tragic misconceptions about what is needed to fix the problems with Western civilization that we all see.

We can do better.

I am writing this from Toronto, Canada. I’ve never been to the Valley. I don’t work at a company that was founded in the Valley. I work for a startup that is now a huge corporation making billions of dollars. I’m on Twitter a lot. I’m a white dude in tech. I’m so close to becoming what I hate. This is what I see.

Come at me, motherfuckers: @zakkain