Welcome To Techland

On technology, imagined communities, and the future.

Something strange happened in the world of technology that crossed national borders. Across great geographic barriers and wide distances, a common culture created itself out of nothing. This culture links entrepreneurs working in coffee shops on five continents, connects teenage coding prodigies in struggling neighborhoods in Chile and Uzbekistan, and — by association — hundreds of millions of ordinary people around the world whose work or play involves technology in some forms.

Welcome to Techland. Techland is a strange transnational realm united by a network of startups, coworking spaces, multinational corporations, tech accelerators, universities, strangers posting memes to Reddit or WhatsApp, and millions of unwitting collaborators. Although noone willed it into existence or sketched it out on a cocktail napkin at a party, Techland arguably influences the world’s economy just as much as any religion or belief system.

Techland also exists in stock photo form. (Photo credit: Startup Stock Photos)

I can’t tell you what the borders of Techland are. I can’t tell you who the king or prime minister of Techland is (Mark Zuckerberg? Steve Jobs as the beloved deceased tyrant-king turned demigod?), or even how to get a Techland passport. But I know that if you drop me into a cocktail party in any of a hundred random cities, I can spark a conversation with a stranger about a Tim Ferriss book. Or share profound nothings about the “sharing economy.” Even if the person I’m talking to has never been to Burning Man or SXSW, odds are good they’ll know exactly what I’m referencing. But the vast majority of people who live in my American city, for better or worse, have no idea what Burning Man is.

Strange Transnationalisms

I was in Singapore to speak at a conference last year. As happens frequently when you’re a tech writer, local publicists were eager to have me visit local companies, accelerators, and incubators. As happens even more frequently when you’re visiting a foreign country to speak at a conference, subtle pressures are placed on your schedule to make sure you visit said companies, accelerators, and incubators.

And, let it be said, the tiny city-state of Singapore is full of some of the most hardworking and genius engineers, developers, and entrepreneurs I’ve encountered. But I found something funny: At the spaces I visited, the decor, sign on the walls, and even conversation topics among workers were largely the same as what I’m used to in Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco.

Between all the hashtags, common business ideas (The Uber of X! The SaaS for Y!) and similar idolation of Venture Capital’s particular God, tech culture is largely similar in these spaces — no matter which country you’re in. And a common worldview that governs everything from office layouts to choice of hobbies to the products you create stays remarkably consistent.

Singapore: A long way from SoMa, but the offices look pretty similar (Photo credit: Flickr user Aotaro)

To be sure, there are local variants: The initiates of Techland in Tel Aviv and Jakarta discuss Crossfit in Hebrew and Bahasa Indonesia rather than in English. And the discreetly expensive casual gear of the successful Edinburgh tech entrepreneur is more suited for the Scottish winter than their surfer-y cousins n Los Angeles. But across the whole, Techland exhibits a remarkably strong hold on those who belong to it.

Imagined Communities

According to the academics, there’s a term for the inhabitants of places like Techland: They’re all members of what we call Imagined Communities.

The scholar who coined the term “Imagined Communities,” Benedict Anderson, was a child of British colonialism who grew up in far-away East Asia. Anderson was curious about one particular thing — what makes people believe in the concept of a country.

Most Wyoming cattlemen have never met ConEd maintenance workers in New York, but both consider themselves Americans who believe in many of the same ideals, code of behavior, and goals. The vast majority of Italian citizens have never met each other and the borders of what we now call “Italy” changed significantly over the years; nonetheless, there’s a sense of belonging to what we call the Italian nation.

But what works for patriotism, nationalism, and national identity applies to everything from religion to sports fandom to hobbies. Despite speaking a massive range of languages, having different ways of dressing, and wildly varying approaches to religious observance, Muslims worldwide define themselves as part of a collective group that feels kinship. Ecological activists in Boston might well feel more kinship with their counterparts in Berlin than with some of their neighbors down the street. And so on and so on for groups as wide-ranging as street racers and heavy metal fans.

These days, however, business choices and enthusiastic adoption of new technology have created new imagined communities of their own.

Instant Information Gratification…

Stepping back a second, the whole idea of “Imagined Communities” was popularized during the early 1980s. This was a strange age when people watched the same prime-time television shows instead of doing something crazy like watching whatever they want whenever they want. If you wanted to talk to a stranger on the other side of the country, you wrote a letter or picked up the phone… and then paid a decent amount of money for the pleasure of calling the other side of the country.

Oops, the internet ruined everything. (Photo credit: Wikimedia user Unitedmissionary)

In the 1980s, the internet was a wee tiny baby that didn’t infiltrate every corner of daily life. Somewhere around 2000 or so, the digital world jumped from a weird shadow hobbyist realm to a central part of life in most developed countries. A few years later, the digital world gained the same status in countries that are not-so-rich. Then everyone ended up with these incredibly powerful computers we call “smartphones” in our pockets and, for many of us, spending our leisure time on Facebook, Reddit, Vkontakte, or any of dozens of different large-scale social media services around the world.

The internet and social media took Benedict Anderson’s ball, ran with it, and never gave it back.

…And Techland Is Here

Thanks to social media and the internet, Techland has colonized the world. There’s a reason why startup offices look largely similar no matter where you go in the world. There’s a reason why wealthy North American and Western European tech companies are engaged in a symbiotic relationship with contract Eastern European and South Asian programmers and support staff who are typically paid far less in wages. There’s a reason why twenty-something entrepreneurs in Sao Paulo nod knowingly when you bring up Sand Hill Road in conversation, and there’s a reason why every country labels a neighborhood or a city as Silicon Something-or-other.

Yes, Mike Judge captured a cultural moment. (Photo credit: HBO / Wikipedia)

But here’s the confession: I’m a citizen of Techland too. I’ve talked about Bulletproof Coffee with people I just met when establishing common ground. I’m familiar with the terms “Y Combinator” and “Stack Overflow” and laugh at the in-jokes in Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley while wondering how many are flying over my head. And while I haven’t met the other inhabitants of Techland beyond the very small slice I encounter in my personal and professional life, knowing that I share — to some degree — this common directory of interests and obsessions with them worldwide.

…Even If You Don’t Live In Techland

Here’s the tricky thing: Talking about technology, technology businesses, and imagined communities isn’t just a thought exercise. It has real repercussions for the world at large.

As I write this, the term “tech company” has become wonderfully amorphous, and covers everything from retailers who sell their products online to companies that fabricate semiconductors to logistics companies that let you hail a car with your smartphone. All any of these companies have in common is that they use technology to achieve their business aims, and that’s a remarkably low bar.

All these widgets to sell, but Amazon’s still a tech business. (Photo credit: Wikimedia user Alvaro Ibanez)

But here’s the kicker… The worldviews behind Techland sustain the ecosystem where some of the 21st century’s biggest change generators are coming from. In our lifetimes, we’re likely to see the rise of everything from self-driving cars (which will, incidentally, devastate the long-haul trucking industry out of work and transform the way we socialize) to the decline of shopping malls to blockchains putting many corporations out of business. Techland will be at the center of those changes, and I just listed a handful of changes in a few rich countries.

Or, taking a more macro view, the simple fact that Facebook and Amazon already wield more geopolitical power than many nation-states.

The problem, however, is that many of these Techland passport holders don’t even realize they live in Techland. Despite the wide power wielded by the products these Techland residents make, they don’t understand that — in many ways — they’re living in a bubble.

Techland’s residents make products and build companies largely for other residents of Techland. The residents of Techland are largely upper-middle class or rich (or on track to become residents of one of these two categories), and don’t realize that other people, in fact, don’t live in Techland. They create products to make the lives of other busy tech-literate people easier, or to sell things that people reaping the fruit of Techland’s income generation enjoy.

I’m not going to argue that this is a good thing or a bad thing — it simply is. And I’m aware that the bubble exists and that I belong to it to some degree. I listen to podcasts and Spotify, not my local Top 40 station. I have a job that pays enough money that I can afford expensive pressed juices and Soulcycle classes. My phone is filled with apps that let me trade money for convenience. This is largely a result of belonging to Techland’s imagined community.

Beyond Techland’s Borders

There’s a takeaway to all this. It’s more than stating “Hey! Techies live in a privileged transnational community where they create products of immense global socioeconomic significance!”

Yup, individual coders still make products that influence multinational corporations and governments (Photo credit: Startup Stock Photos)

With that said, here’s what interests me:

  1. The size and number of residents of Techland will keep expanding as global wealth expands, particularly in less-wealthy countries (And that’s a discussion for another day).
  2. Techland’s residents need to create more products that cross the border from Techland’s particular needs to a wide swath of the global public. Think Microsoft Windows, inexpensive Android smartphones, or Netflix’s rapid growth into a global entertainment player.

Even if Techland isn’t issuing stampable passports yet, it exists. And I’m kind of fascinated by who will show up in border control in the years to come.

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