May 2021 Virtual General Meeting: What Tech Calls Thinking
By Christina Davis
Is dropping out of college to make it big in tech truly the move of a genius? Are you working for Yelp without even knowing it? Who actually has the privilege of being able to fail better and faster?
These are just a few of the concepts that were explored during a conversation with Adrian Daub about his latest book What Tech Calls Thinking: An Inquiry into the Intellectual Bedrock of Silicon Valley, which took place during the May 2021 NCTA General Meeting. Daub, a professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University, was inspired by former students to write about the unequal treatment, discrimination, and hollow rhetoric they had experienced when going to work in the tech industry after college.
What Tech Calls Thinking delves into many of the intellectual underpinnings of Silicon Valley’s philosophy. Three were focused on during NCTA’s General Meeting: dropping out, platform versus content, and failing better. Our moderator, Thilo Ullman-Zahn, NCTA member and Spanish Interpreter and Translator, helped guide the discussion.
The Dropout Myth
While there are some concepts that have gained international acceptance, such as disruption, fetishizing dropping out is specific to Northern California. Daub sees tech’s take on what it means to quit college as an example of how Silicon Valley “productively misunderstands” what it is that’s being disrupted and reframes the narrative. Tech’s portrayal of college as overly technical, and the belief that eschewing a college education is indicative of being a risk-taking, deep-thinking genius, ignores what is actually happening on college campuses: the creation of well-rounded, educated citizens who have received both general and specialized instruction. It’s easy to disrupt something, and cast it as useless, when one doesn’t understand what’s being disrupted. Ironically, dropouts from prestigious schools get to associate themselves with elite institutions while rejecting them. If you kept up with the scandal surrounding Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos fame, you might remember the obsession the media had with her status as a Stanford dropout. And yet the way tech reframes and fetishizes dropping out completely ignores reality—it is anything but the bold, risk-taking move it is made out to be. Daub believes it is “ultimately a privilege of fairly well-off, well-educated, usually young men with a lot of time to course correct if things don’t work out.”
Platform vs. Content
What’s more important, the Yelp app and website, or the reviews? The programmers of the Uber app, or the drivers? Tech will tell you it’s the platform (and therefore its creators) that truly matters, while content (and the laborers that create it) is secondary. What is the purpose of framing the narrative in such a way? Money. This is how tech enriches itself, by diminishing the value of content and thus justifying how it compensates content creators. Yelp reviewers are at one end of the spectrum, providing the free labor that Yelp’s usefulness depends on; at the other end are Uber drivers, taking on much higher risks (job instability, accidents) for lower pay, while programmers are relatively well paid and shielded from risk. It’s no accident that Uber and Lyft have spent millions pushing the narrative that their drivers are not actually employees.
What Tech Calls Thinking points out that when Samuel Beckett wrote about failure in “Worstward Ho,” he was not writing about failure as a road to success, but as a stinging road to frustration. His exhortation to “fail better” was never intended to hold the meaning tech has assigned to it: When you fail (on your journey to eventual success!), simply move on quickly to something new, whether that means an idea or an entirely new company. In this reframing of what it means to fail, tech again falls short in its refusal to acknowledge that failing better and failing faster isn’t a strategy available to everyone. When a company folds, it’s a select few that get to start over relatively unscathed, and being a member of this in-group is largely dictated by age, race, and class. It’s also when “platform is more important than content” is invoked to move those at the “core” of the business into cushy new jobs while those who have provided the content are left to pick up the pieces.
The meeting closed with a question-and-answer session that covered a wide range of topics: what it’s like to be translated (Daub said it’s odd to read someone else’s words as his own), Ayn Rand’s contribution to tech (she provides the framework with which tech casts itself as the victim), and Daub’s thoughts on Wagner’s Ring (it’s complicated!).
Christina Davis is a Spanish to English translator. She received her M.A. in Spanish Literature from San Francisco State University and holds a Certificate in Translation from the University of California, San Diego. She is currently a TED translator and especially enjoys working on talks related to animal behavior and cognition, as well as zoonotic diseases.