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Tech’s dark overlords

Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

February 4, 2019   4 mins

What do Iron Man, Batman and the Hulk have in common? They’re all scientists, or at least their alter egos are: Tony Stark is an engineer, Bruce Wayne is a technologist, and Bruce Banner is a physicist with 7 PhDs. In fact, in almost every Marvel and DC film science is synonymous with heroism. If you want to save the world, the message seems to be, don’t study the arts or humanities.

The idea that STEM is supreme has infected everything. Whether in politics, business or culture, we have placed science, technology, engineering and math knowledge above all else.

This attitude can manifest itself in subtle ways, like when people or organisations attempt to tackle social problems in fields in which they have no expertise, yet their proclaimed solutions are accepted because they have the imprimatur of STEM knowledge. It rears its head too in the New Atheism movement, with its religious reverence for science and chauvinistic disdain for all religious practice. And more directly it can be seen in the way both Left and Right conspire to shift educational funds from arts to STEM disciplines.

This ‘STEM Supremacy’ is built on the popular perception of technology (and more broadly science) as synonymous with the ideals of progress and enlightenment, and the chauvinism that underpins it is rarely identified. Yet it is precisely the belief that those with technical knowledge are in possession of unique importance and wisdom that has led techies, both CEOs and programmers, to abandon democratic ideals. Silicon Valley, which, for all its supposed liberalism, is predicated on technocratic elitism, which in some instances crosses the boundary to outright totalitarianism.

Google engineer Justine Tunney is exemplary in this regard. An early Occupy Wall Street activist whose politics made a U-turn, Tunney has called for an “open-source authoritarianism” and argued that a monarchy run by technologists would be superior to a democracy that tells the people what to think.

“The bottom 1/3 of the population should be live-in servants for the top 1/3rd,” she proclaimed in a now-deleted tweet; other public statements included a seemingly earnest expression of support for slavery. Tunney’s views are consistent in that they paint a picture of her ideal world in which ‘nerds’ and other gifted technologists should be segregated and allowed to rule over the unwashed masses. Call it the Great Nerd theory of history.

Tunney’s politics speak to the ascendance of a larger movement known as ‘Dark Enlightenment,’ to which Tunney has been tied. Also known as ‘neoreactionaries,’ they advocate for monarchial rule, a return to a patriarchal culture in which women are subjugated, and acceptance of racialised theories of intelligence. The patron saint of the movement is a software engineer who writes under the name Mencius Moldbug.

Moldbug runs a popular blog — he claims he has over half a million views — and writes long, circular screeds calling for autocracy and an end to democracy. Moldbug, whose real name is Curtis Yarvin, has, over the years, expressed sympathy for South African apartheid, white nationalism, and pseudoscientific theories of racial intelligence. Yarvin is also a programmer and the founder of the startup Tlon, which is backed by Peter Thiel, billionaire PayPal cofounder and investor. No-small player in the world of Silicon Valley.

Thiel himself has some unsavoury views about democracy, writing in 2009 that he “no longer believe[d] that democracy and freedom are compatible” and decrying both social welfare and women’s suffrage.

Like most chauvinistic beliefs, STEM Supremacy finds affinity with authoritarian politics – and indeed many anti-democratic figures and movements connect, peripherally at least, to these characters. In the burgeoning cryptocurrency movement, for instance, Thiel and his friends have found a way to fulfil their anti-democratic vision.

Wildly unpredictable, unregulated and easily manipulated, cryptocurrencies are the purest form of libertarian sophistry. Likewise, the semi-anonymous creators have been fairly transparent about their disdain for democracy, which they baked into the code that undergirds all cryptocurrency and blockchain projects. Professor David Golumbia, perhaps the foremost chronicler of the politics of Bitcoin, told me in an interview last year: “The history [of blockchain] is absolutely clear about who built this, why they built it, what it was for — ripping the state apart. Given that, is cryptocurrency really going to fix any of our social problems?”

There’s also the Seasteading movement — backed by a number of libertarian tech entrepreneurs (including Thiel and Yarvin) and headed by economist Milton Friedman’s grandson Patri Friedman, a former Google engineer — whose goal is to create a chain of libertarian islands free from government intervention.

And on the topic of libertarian Google engineers, remember James Damore, who was famously dismissed from the company after circulating a manifesto in which he used discredited science to argue that there were biological reasons for the gender gap, and that it could never be fixed? Damore says many at the company agreed with him.

STEM Supremacy may be harder to pick out and identify than other forms of chauvinism – say, patriarchy – but it has similarly noxious effects on our culture and language. It gives elite techies license to control our society and bypass democracy. To the STEM Supremacists, knowledge of science and engineering principles grants you some higher access to world-building and knowledge creation. And in certain, extreme cases exemplified by Mencius Moldbug, advocate for technocratic rule and despotism.

This is not at all a call to Ludditism, or a rejection of technology or science. Far from it. Just as a feminist ethos does not call for the end of men, but the end of patriarchy, the fight against STEM Supremacy asks that we give science and engineering fields equal weight, rather than valuing them over others.

Like patriarchy, this technological chauvinism has become so deeply embedded in our thoughts and culture that it takes a conscious effort to see and identify it. In any case, one should be extremely skeptical of any tech CEO’s claims that they are the people we should trust to maintain the levers of our democracies. On the contrary, we shouldn’t let them anywhere near the controls.

Keith A. Spencer is a writer and editor at Salon. He was previously the editor-in-chief of The Bold Italic, and is author of the book ‘A People’s History of Silicon Valley: How the Tech Industry Exploits Workers, Erodes Privacy and Undermines Democracy’.


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