“I, too, am Contrarian”: my last Snippets, April 14, 2019

Hi everyone, quick, note from me: this will be my last issue of Snippets. I’m moving on from Social Capital in order to take some paternity leave time at home; more on this below. In the meantime, please enjoy this final post, and thank you for subscribing all these years! You can find me in the future at alexdanco.com or as always on Twitter @alex_danco.


For my last Snippets, I want to take a minute to riff on something that we’ve probably all thought a lot about, in one way or another: being contrarian. Folks, allow me for a minute to poke some fun at this whole idea that being contrarian is “in fashion”, or something, for the past several years. It’s one thing to value independent thought because it’s valuable; it’s entirely another thing to pursue it as a status symbol. Is there truly anything more ridiculous to hear someone pronounce than “I, too, am contrarian?” But here we are, in 2019, and that’s basically the discourse at this point: Tech Twitter taking their turn gingerly stepping to the microphone in order to announce their great, heretical, forbidden idea, then nervously looking from side to side to see whether or not their tweet is doing numbers.

People, the way to find genuinely interesting ideas is not by trying to be contrarian. It’s to not care what other people think about you. That’s it. That’s the only trick. But it’s a hard pill to swallow, because if we’re being honest, independent thoughts aren’t what we’re really after. What’s truly fashionable in Silicon Valley today isn’t having contrarian ideas; it’s to be contrarian as an identity. It’s pretty revealing that the phrase we use is “to be contrarian”, rather than “to think contrarily”. That says it all, really.

“Being contrarian” in tech isn’t a thought process; it’s a performance. And those performances are often pretty funny. Watching the tech community create new Takes every day is a bit reminiscent of the two aldermen in Don Quixote who run around the mountains searching for a lost donkey. They each make braying noises into the wilderness, in the hope of convincing the lost animal to come home, but their imitation is good enough that each person continually fools the other from around a corner or over the ridge. The characters take turns falling for each other’s donkey impression, just like Silicon Valley luminaries take turn listening intently at each other’s Contrarian Takes, becoming progressively unable to distinguish between their imitative attempts versus the real thing.

That’s not to say that Contrarian Takes are devoid of any information, however. The supposedly “provocative” take is a performance, but put enough of them together and they’ll inevitably reveal an actual truth: the real conformist opinion behind them, usually some kind of fear or resentment, that goes unmentioned and unchallenged. The more sophisticated and “enlightened” the participants, the more obvious the real truth that goes unsaid, if you look for it. There’s a devastating moment in The Brothers Karamazov when Smerdyakov, the clever household servant, remarks to Ivan (the middle brother, who is the most envious and the most susceptible to worrying about what others think of him), “It’s always interesting to talk with an intelligent man.” Smerdyakov is not paying Ivan a compliment. What he’s actually doing is openly mocking Ivan for compulsively revealing his deepest fears and insecurities: “The more intelligent people think they are, the more they desperately care about what other people think of them, and the more transparent their real feelings and secrets become. They simply can’t help themselves.” In the novel, Ivan is introduced as the deepest thinker; the most ‘original’ and the most intelligent. Over the course of the book we come to realize that, in Ivan’s case, these are not positive nor desirable traits. He may be the most educated, but his thoughts and desires are the most imprisoned, and the most tormented. Who were the Ivans this week on Tech Twitter? Well, how about the chorus of “I, too, think that a pitch memo is a superior format to a slide deck; in fact, I have always thought this”?

All kinds of funny things happen when people realize that there is no higher status symbol among our Bay Area peer set than being seen by the group as interesting. People here brag about their angel investments; not because it implies they’re rich, but because it implies they saw something no one else did. The irony, of course, is that this social obsession with being seen as an independent thinker drives everyone towards the same narrow band of nervous conformity; and this conformity is actually an important part of what makes Silicon Valley work smoothly. It unlocks capital; it lowers friction; it creates templates for how to speak, feel, fundraise, build and ship, that we copy from one another. Silicon Valley works because, in a lot of important ways, everyone thinks and acts the same way and wants the same things. But we never admit this.

We ask, ‘Is Silicon Valley a bubble?’ Well, it is, but it’s a bubble that has evolved a superego, as Freud would call it: a mediating, clamping, scolding influence that directs our thoughts and impulses into acceptable forms. This isn’t all bad; it’s an important part of the reason why scams like Theranos are so rare in Silicon Valley, and why we don’t quite see the kind of violent group exuberance that we get in other bubbles, like crypto. The Silicon Valley Superego is born out of a simultaneous and deeply conflicting pair of impulses: the desire to admire, copy and imitate people who have unique ideas, while simultaneously getting quite irritated and genuinely bothered by those same people: we can’t all be contrarian, after all.

Once enough people start pursuing this goal of being recognized as unique and different, you see this hilarious kind of social dance take place: “contrarian snobbism”. We can’t help but raise our noses just a little bit at other people’s Takes, thinking, “pshh, that’s not contrarian, that’s obvious.” We are really no different from any other kind of snobs when interacting with one another — we understand each other at first glance, and then are immediately resentful of each other. Nothing is worse than seeing your own imitation and your own striving mirrored back at you.

Henry Kissinger has a famous quote, referring to his time at Harvard: “The battles were so fierce because the stakes were so small.” This isn’t merely an observation; this is in fact a causative relationship: the smaller, the pettier, the more insignificant the challenge, the more comically and sullenly people will obsess and fight over it. Why is this? Because tiny stakes imply similar participants; often peers or neighbours. When differences are great and stakes are high, our opponents are likely quite distant from us, and we treat them like straightforward rivals. But when differences are minute, our peers start out as role models and then steadily morph into objects of envy who live next door. That’s where the real hilarity comes from, as does the equally real Shakespearian tragedy that follows.

While the VC Twitter Contrarian types usually trend towards safer kinds of performances, there’s another, worse kind we now have to deal with too: the Hacker News Poster Contrarian who, in their desire to be seen as ambassadors for “diversity of thought”, just openly behave like assholes. Creating a kind of “hushed, forbidden discussion” that’s really just belittling (or often racist and/or sexist) isn’t contrarian either; it’s just bad. (I promise: when someone posts this kind of thing, the first thing they do is check to see who’s praising it and who’s condemning it. That’s not contrarian; that’s status-seeking within their group of jerks.) Unfortunately, our obsession with original thought has created a whole generation of chattering tech voices who know no other way to distinguish “radically original thought” from “it shocks people and makes them mad.”

(As an aside; Silicon Valley is supposed to be somewhere where people think freely. You know what a place where people think freely looks like? It looks like somewhere with a cheap art scene; with a lot of musicians; somewhere where young people hang around and cause minor problems. It looks like what San Francisco used to be, for sure. But San Francisco nowadays more closely resembles something like the TV show The Good Place.)

Anyway, look people — I’m all for celebrating independent thought, and I’m all for having my Twitter feed being funny. By all means, don’t stop. But my request for everyone in the Contrarian Tech Scene is simply: please find some new material! There’s so much out there, begging to be discovered and packaged up and Hot Taked and Medium Posted. You want to go look for contrarian ideas? Go read literature, especially 19th century literature. The nature of human behaviour hasn’t changed, except arguably in one respect, which is that people back then were actually better at understanding other people than we are now. All in all, it’s a good thing that people in Silicon Valley and on Tech Twitter tend to be on balance fairly nice people. All I ask is, please get some new ideas; maybe by reading some old books? Not many of your peers are, I’ll tell you that much. Imagine how bold and unique you’d be if you did. You, too, can be a contrarian.

For this last week, this week’s Snippets links will be a collection of some all-timers: some of the posts from the past few years that I’ve reread the most, have enjoyed sharing repeatedly, and in general find myself coming back to an awful lot. Hope you enjoy them:

The Gervais Principle (2009) | Venkatesh Rao The Office as a master class in organizational behaviour that expands on the vaunted Peter Principle: how stable systems tend to stratify into three levels of social organization, each with their own coded languages, behavioural norms and interpersonal goals.

The future of the culture wars is here, and it’s Gamergate (2014) | Kyle Wagner A remarkably clairvoyant piece from five years ago that predicted an awful lot of today’s political, cultural and media zeitgeist.

Invisible asymptotes (2018) | Eugene Wei On the importance of knowing yourself, your own strengths, and your own limitations as businesses reach for — and successfully reach — the invisible asymptotes that ultimately constrain their forward progress.

Liquidity (2015) | Howard Marks What does liquidity really mean? A lesson that’s useful for lots of people today, especially in crypto, who often desire “liquidity” in their tokens without really having a good sense of what that entails.

RT, Sputnik and Russia’s new theory of war (2017) | Jim Rutenberg, NYT Magazine To truly defeat your enemy, get him to attack himself.

The crisis was in the system (2018) | Matt Levine, Bloomberg Modern-day crises, whether the 2008 financial crisis or newer problems like culture wars on Facebook, have something eerie in common: the systems they live in have become so complex that even their creators and operators do not truly understand the entirety of how they work anymore.

The secret to ant efficiency is idleness (2018) | James Gorman, NYT Working at 100% effort, 24 hours a day, as it turns out, is not the ideal way to get best results. As ants (and so many other parts of nature) have figured out, it’s all about preserving slack in the system and managing redundancy the right way.

How Complex Systems Fail (1998) | Richard Cook Principles for safe operation of complex systems: technology doesn’t create safety; people do.

Money, blockchains and social scalability (2017) | Nick Szabo Systems will always need to deal with inefficiencies and problems; successful systems are those who are able to engineer those inefficiencies into a form that’s idiot-proof.

The city was full of marks: how Anna Delvey tricked New York’s party people (2018) | Jessica Pressler, The Cut. Scams have always fascinated me: they reveal the real, true nature of things in a way that honest behaviour rarely does. If you want to understand how any system or community really functions, study the scammers, what they exploit, and how they ultimately get caught.

Stevey’s Google Platforms Rant (2011) | Steve Yegge The greatest post on platforms of all time. Steve Yegge, having departed Amazon for the cushier confines of Google, explains to his coworkers why the one thing that Amazon understands better than Google is going to turn out to be the most important thing in the coming decade — which indeed it was.

How burrowing owls led to vomiting anarchists (or SF’s housing crisis, explained) (2018) | Kim-Mai Cutler, Techcrunch How has San Francisco turned into such a perfect storm of unaffordable housing? It’s not just because the tech industry is here — a lot of it has to do with state and local politics, decisions made decades ago, expensive building codes and cost of labor, and much more. But most of all, it has to do with people.

Microsoft, Facebook, trust and privacy (2019) | Benedict Evans. Parallels between Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing moment, following their crisis around macro viruses and abuse of Office as an open platform, and what Facebook’s been going through recently. Criticism has always been “you’re too closed”, until one day it turns on a dime into “you don’t have enough control over what people are doing with your platform.”

I’m a computer scientist. Here is why you can never, ever, truly trust a computer (especially when it comes to voting) (2018) | Ryan North. Ryan North (yes, the same Ryan North who does Dinosaur Comics) walks the non-technical among us through what a compiler is, and the unsettling implication behind them: you can never trust code to do exactly what you think it does, even if you wrote it.

In this week’s news, a personal one: as I said up top, this will be my last issue of Snippets. After nearly four years, I’m moving on from Social Capital to go on parental leave, which will be a fun and exciting new life transition. I’m not moving to anywhere in particular (aside from spending more time at home in Toronto), so if you’d like to chat about anything in particular, please let me know — you can find me on Twitter @alex_danco, or email me at adanco@gmail.com. In the meantime, I’m back posting on my personal blog, alexdanco.com where you can find writing and periodic thoughts. For those of you who read Snippets regularly, I’ll reach out soon with a new way to stay in touch.

It’s been a wonderful and wild time since I came on board at Social Capital in the fall of 2015. I’m incredibly lucky to have gotten to work with such smart, interesting, driven and unique people in my time here, and I can’t thank Chamath, Jay and the whole team enough for what we got to work on together. Stay tuned for some new, interesting projects coming out from the team at Social Capital very soon; in the meantime, thanks for reading, subscribing and being a part of the Snippets community for the past many years.

All the best, thanks again for all your readership, and have a great week,

Alex and the team from Social Capital