Communications of the ACM, December 2020, Vol. 63 No. 12, Pages 30-32
By Margaret O’Mara
“Silicon Valley’s mythology of independence to the contrary, politics and government are absolutely central to its story.”
Tech and politics don’t mix. That has been the story Silicon Valley leaders have broadcast to the world since the region first sprang into the forefront of public consciousness as the land of silicon chips, personal computers, and video games. It is an attitude in keeping with the celebration of rugged individualism and disdain for centralized political power that has been part of American political culture since the nation’s founding, ideas that gained additional allure amid the stagflating malaise of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate 1970s. In the Reagan Revolution year of 1980, the sole election-year commentary in the microelectronics-industry newsletter InfoWorld was a cartoon tucked into a bottom corner of the editorial page. “I was going to keep track of all the candidates’ significant statements,” one man sighed to another as they stood in front of a computer terminal, “but there’s no way to process an empty disk.”
Four years later, Steve Jobs declared, without embarrassment, that he had never voted in his life. 1990s-era moguls including Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos ducked questions about their voting preferences for years. In the early 2000s the loudest and most unapologetically political voices coming out of Silicon Valley were libertarians such as PayPal cofounder and Facebook board member Peter Thiel. Politicians of both parties long courted Silicon Valley’s affections, but for many in tech, politics was something to be publicly ignored, if not actively disdained.
Six years ago, as I embarked on the research process for my recently published history of Silicon Valley, The Code, I told a longtime tech-industry veteran that part of my goal was to show how tightly the industry’s rise and evolution intersected with modern American political history. “Can I tell you something?” my interviewee interjected, not unkindly. “If you write about tech and politics, that book is going to end up on the remainder table. Because there’s no story there.”
My proposition is not such a tough sell in the America of 2020. Before the COVID-19 pandemic ground normal life to a halt, tech CEOs ricocheted between White House photo-ops and scorching presidential tweets. Many in the tech rank-and-file donated to progressive Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren while members of tech’s C-suites threw high-dollar fundraisers for Democratic centrists and the Republican incumbent alike. The size and scale of tech’s biggest platforms and products triggered sharp public criticism and fresh lawmaker scrutiny. Tech regulation was the rare issue on which the two parties seemed to agree.
This is not as much of a turnabout as it seems. Silicon Valley’s mythology of independence to the contrary, politics and government are absolutely central to its story. This was the case in other industrialized nations as well, but only in the U.S. have tech entrepreneurs and many of their allies embraced such a thoroughly market-driven understanding of their accomplishments. American technologists’ collective amnesia has served a political purpose of its own, instilling a sense of entrepreneurial agency amid intensive government mobilization and market intervention, and also building a political case for, among other things, self-regulation of online platforms. To understand how and why to grapple with today’s tech policy landscape, we must reckon with this history and the institutional reality that the U.S. government built the tech industry, but it did so in a way that helped the industry’s leaders believe they did so all on their own.
About the Author:
Margaret O’Mara is Howard and Frances Keller Endowed Professor in the Department of History, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA.
- “The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America” by Margaret O’Mara. Published July 7, 2020 by Penguin Random House.