What’s Up With Tech’s Love of Daoism?
Tech Innovators like Jack Dorsey, Jack Ma, and Vitalek Buterin love a text that states “woe to him who willfully innovates?”
One of the more “memey” aspects of Silicon Valley’s culture is the appreciation that many technocrats have with “Spirituality.” HBO’s “Silicon Valley” poked fun at this phenomena with the show’s antagonist Gavin Belson, a representative of all the negative tropes of the Valley’s billionaires, having a “spiritual advisor,” named Denpok. Denpok’s schtick was that he spent the majority of the show peddling comically meaningless hippie sophistry all while living a lavish lifestyle through it.
What is important to remember is that satire is usually based on reality. Silicon Valley has long had a reputation for its CEO’s having a fascination with Eastern faiths and philosophies. The most prominent example of this trope is Steve Jobs who famously spent time in India vagabonding in efforts to find a guru and “himself”. Other examples of embracing Eastern philosophy include characters like Twitter/Medium’s Evan Williams; former Harvard computer programmer turned Buddhist preacher, Jack Kornfeld; and pretty much everyone over at the Headspace app, I’d presume, haha.
While there is some irony around embracing Buddhism, a religion that is against worldliness and possessions, in the place that fuels modern capitalism-what is more fascinating is the love of Daoism by tech evangelists. Twitter/Square’s Jack Dorsey has called the “Dao De Jing his most prized possession”. This sentiment is echoed by China’s richest man, Alibaba founder Jack Ma, who famously keeps a copy of an unannotated version of the religious manifesto with him at all times. Perhaps the Silicon Valley character who applies the Dao De Jing the most into his tech is Vitalek Buterin.
Vitalek Buterin is the creator of Ethereum, and perhaps the most prominent voice in Crypto at the moment. Buterin cites the Eastern faith as his primary religion and actively quotes the verses from Lao Tzu, the mythical writer of the Dao De Jing, on his Twitter in response to everything ranging from memes to his actual beliefs on how states should be governed. In fact, the Ethereum founder’s biggest failure was a project named “DAO”-short for Decentralized Autonomous Organization- the early crowdfunding strategy Buterin employed that famously was hacked (was one of the biggest crisis in crypto history to date).
So the question then begs, why is it any more perplexing that they follow Daoism than any other faith? How is it any different than traditional trustafarian interest in Eastern spirituality?
Well, let’s start by looking at what Daoism is. Fair warning here, I am by no means an expert on ancient faiths. In fact, I was probably at best an average student in both Professors Kreeft (maybe a little less than average) and Mozina’s classes on Faiths/Daoism that I took at Boston College. However, you don’t need to be a classical texts scholar to see that there is some disjunction between the Dao De Jing’s philosophy and its popularity with billionaire tech dudes.
Daoism is one of the most important Chinese belief systems, Confucianism (Buddhism is a religion) is perhaps the only analog belief system that has had a comparable impact on China. The Dao De Jing, Dorsey’s “favorite book,” is known as one of the most cryptic texts ever written. Famed for its skepticism on everything from language to society. Much like Buddhism, Daoism also does not speak highly of earthly success, though most faiths have some skepticism towards wealth. The author of the Dao De Jing, Lao Tzu isn’t even thought by many to have been a real man. His name literally translates to “old man.” If you find the time, I highly recommend listening/reading the Dao De Jing yourself. I have read many different philosophical books, and none have touched me the way that this mystical one has.
Tying it back to tech: the Dao De Jing provides an interesting conundrum for these tech visionaries who love it. Specifically, the 16th verse reads:
“I do my utmost to attain emptiness;
I hold firmly to stillness.
The myriad creatures all rise together
And I watch their return.
The teaming creatures
All return to their separate roots.
Returning to one’s roots is known as stillness.
This is what is meant by returning to one’s destiny.
Returning to one’s destiny is known as the constant.
Knowledge of the constant is known as discernment.
Woe to him who willfully innovates
While ignorant of the constant,
But should one act from knowledge of the constant
One’s action will lead to impartiality,
Impartiality to kingliness,
Kingliness to heaven,
Heaven to the way,
The way to perpetuity,
And to the end of one’s days one will meet with no danger.”
“Woe to him who innovates while ignorant of the constant.” Woe to he who innovates-doesn’t this seem kind of contradictory for business-especially tech that’s all about innovation?
There are a few speculations I have for this phenomenon. First, they agree with the statement, and view innovation as bad-but they and are okay with it (seems unlikely). Second, they disagree with this specific statement, but find beauty in the rest of the Dao De Jing. With 81 verses, each as beautiful as they are impossible to actually comprehend, there’s a chance that they focused on the parts they liked more. Last, they are indifferent just pay no attention to this specific verse.
While I don’t know any of these tech pioneers personally, my guess is that the third option seems to be the most likely explanation. Like almost all of us with religion-we choose to filter out the parts we don’t personally agree with and focus on what we like.
However, when you do read the entirety of the Dao De Jing, what will come across is a great apprehension towards ALL man-made creations. To ignore that would be akin to ignoring the idea of the reverence to the almighty in Islam/Christianity. The first verse states “the Dao that can be spoken of is not the real Dao,” implying that language itself is inherently limiting/flawed and incapable of conveying true meaning. Just imagine what Lao Tzu would say about Twitter and its character limit!
The Dao De Jing poses doubt on the value of man’s inventions. In effect, it views society’s idea of progress akin to the Bible’s Tower of Babel-a sign of humanity’s hubris. A great line that reinforces this idea To say that it is odd for these tech tycoons, whose very ethos is creating more technology and a more complex world, to have found a connection to this philosophy is a great understatement.
This leads me to my thesis. What is key to remember with characters like Jack Dorsey or Vitalek Buterin is that at relatively young ages, when most of us are still trying to “figure ourselves out” or learn how to manage our own personal finances, they are tasked with running multibillion-dollar operations with thousands of employees.
Imagine how bizarre that must be to be in your mid-20s, and be running a brand new idea in a market no one knows about that for some reason is generating billions of dollars in revenue, and has millions of stakeholders. This is the kind of insane stuff that will make you actually feel disassociated from reality-heck, Elon Musk thinks it is all just a simulation. This is to me where the interest in Eastern spirituality stems from a disassociation with the modern Western norms due to how rigid they seemingly are: be born->go to school-> get a good job->have kids->retire. Well, what happens when your school project ends up blowing up and changing the world? Perhaps that’s when you end up believing in faiths that tell you to disconnect from it all. That said, maybe it isn’t that deep, and they just like the philosophy-who knows for sure? The Dao that can be spoken of is not the real Dao.