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The Last Frontier
Fukuyama, Silicon Valley, and techno-escapism
The political awakening of my teenage years was heavily influenced by Francis Fukuyama’s writings. His most famous work, The End of History and the Last Man, is fundamental to understanding America’s post-Cold War zeitgeist. According to Fukuyama, history ends when liberal democracy becomes the final form of human government, where our desires for recognition—or in Plato’s term, thymos—are satisfied.
Many of Fukuyama’s readers have fallen into the trap of missing the second half of the title. The Last Man is Nietzsche’s Übermensch—the Zarathustra who is left with no desire of taking risks or sacrificing even fragments of his eternal comfort, security, and peace. To Fukuyama, this would be history’s comeback: in a stasis where there’s no more justice to yearn for, people will struggle for injustice.1
The Last Man lives in the environs of Palo Alto, not far from Stanford where Fukuyama now teaches. There’s eternal comfort: inside corporate campuses of tech firms, software engineers and managers often make more than investment bankers in New York but also work fewer hours. (Their colleagues in Beijing or Shenzhen—who have worked hectic “996” schedules—look at them in envy and often shock.) In the media you hear about Silicon Valley’s disruption, entrepreneurship, and frontier technology, but in everyday eavesdropping you’ll more likely find people talking about real estate prices, public school districts, Google cafeterias, and getting their children into Stanford or Philips Exeter. With few exceptions, most startup founders and venture capitalists aren’t mavericks, either; today’s Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have become people who follow industry playbooks and work in jobs. Contrary to popular perceptions, starting a business isn’t a risk-taking endeavor when the worst-case scenarios are either returning to a high-paying position at a big tech corporation or selling the firm to one.
University Avenue, Palo Alto’s downtown shopping street, is an egalitarian experiment. The pervasive housing crisis in San Francisco and Oakland neighborhoods isn’t as visible in the South Bay suburbia. Imagine a billionaire venture capitalist, an Apple software engineer, and a graduate student walk into the same restaurant. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to tell them apart by their looks, unless one of them has recently moved from the East Coast or Europe. (All three of them wear the same $25 t-shirt.) That restaurant offers every dietary option you could imagine. And the quality of food there is the same as every other restaurant in town—not bad, but not particularly good either. Mediocre and overpriced, but unapologetically egalitarian.
The egalitarianism envisioned by Silicon Valley is—as Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron noted in 1995—the creation of a “Jeffersonian democracy.” Thomas Jefferson believed that the rights of land-owning farmers and small businesspeople to economic self-sufficiency without government interference; every American, in his view, should be granted 50 acres of land. Barbrook and Cameron argued that Jefferson
was actually a Virginian plantation-owner living off the labour of his slaves. Although the South’s “peculiar institution” troubled his conscience, he still believed that the natural rights of man included the right to own human beings as private property. In “Jeffersonian democracy,” freedom for white folks was based upon slavery for black people.
In Silicon Valley’s Jeffersonian democracy, “members of the ‘virtual class’ and other professionals can play at being cyberpunks within hyper-reality without having to meet any of their impoverished neighbours.” The tranquility and security observed in Palo Alto were made possible by this manufactured invisibility: zoning laws and liberal NIMBYism drove the Bay Area’s underclass out of affordable housing—and subsequently out of fancy neighborhoods of the South Bay.
But it wasn’t just the impoverished neighbors that Bay Area technologists don’t have to meet. The prosperity of the virtual class relies on the global supply chain that manufactures and delivers cheap USB-C cables and Echo Dots. Matthew Hockenberry noted that supply chains are, by design,
a model premised on unknowing—which each stop on the chain intended to abstract every successive link. Given their scale, and the removal of the public from spaces of logistical operation—as port, warehouse and factory infrastructures have become relegated to the peripheries of urban space—perceptions of their workings have become (at best) fragmented. At worst, they are now fictitious.
Just as most meat-eaters are reluctant to see what happens in slaughterhouses, users and designers of affordable mass-produced electronics are unwilling to investigate the dire labor conditions on Foxconn assembly lines in Zhengzhou or the warehouse workers at every stop of the UPS delivery tracker. California’s Jeffersonian democracy, in other words, wouldn’t have been possible without a transnational underclass that global capitalism renders invisible.
The late essayist Joan Didion once wrote about the invention of an idealized California, “an ethical system in which ‘loyalty’ was the basic virtue, the moral law essential to the creation of ‘community,’ which was in turn man’s only salvation and by extension the redeeming essence of the California settlement.”2
The white American settlers moved to the Pacific frontier hoping to start a new life in a region with vast agrarian lands. Among them, some were outcasts from their previous communities, while others merely looked for economic opportunities in the Gold Mountains. An impoverished factory worker in Pennsylvania might see no future in sight; he could’ve fought for better working conditions, but the idea of starting afresh on an endless ranch on the other end of the continent was far more intriguing than bettering his hopeless plight.
An escapist history—that if something isn’t working, find a fresh start—became a consistent feature of Californian life and technological development. The counterculture movement is often associated with the Berkeley hippies who, witnessing the expansion of the postwar military-industrial complex, revolted against their creeping enslavement by technology-enabled Taylorism. While the New Left protested to prevent America from what they saw was a techno-fascist decay, the New Communalists among their contemporaries opted for an exit strategy, moving into communes where they, self-exiled from the cybernetic Leviathan, embraced small-scale technology as an apparatus for organizing mini-societies built around shared consciousness. Psychedelic drugs like LSD (distributed by the CIA to Stanford students like Ken Kesey) offered a sense of community—and perhaps more importantly, unprecedented possibilities—denied by hierarchical bureaucracies.3
With the emergence of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, The WELL, and later WIRED magazine, the countercultural cyberneticists would eventually become the ideological architects of today’s Silicon Valley. In 1996, John Perry Barlow published the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, in which he wrote that the institutions that governed the offline world had no right to interfere with the digital world. In this cyber-anarchist conception, privately-owned technology creates a refuge from the corrupt expansion of government powers.
Techno-escapism—that technology will bring us a promising future where our sociopolitical realities have failed—has driven some of Silicon Valley’s most idealistic experiments. Disruption, arguably Silicon Valley’s favorite buzzword, reflects this psyche: instead of addressing, reconciliating, and solving our existing problems, technological advancement provides a leapfrogging solution. Patri Friedman set up the Seasteading Institute in 2008 with funding from Peter Thiel to build floating cities in international waters. In 2013, Balaji S. Srinivasan called for Silicon Valley’s “ultimate” exit: “build an opt-in society, ultimately outside the U.S., run by technology.”
This is also why space travel sounds so appealing. Californians literally watch their planet burn. If you see little hope of living a life—let alone climbing up the social ladder—on Earth, why not hit that reset button and go to Mars? Space colonization promises us a new frontier that seemingly offers our civilization a blank canvas. And if none of this works out, we might as well all just move into Zuckerberg’s Metaverse.
And it is not difficult to understand why so many young Americans are appealed to Web3 and crypto culture. Julie Fredrickson, writing from ETH Denver:
Everyone is soaking in student debt and working shitty interchangeable jobs for corporations owned by private equity. No one can afford a house. No one is stable enough for a marriage and children. Our fucking parents won’t retire and won’t listen to reason when we say their neighborhood needs more housing density.
But if you are in crypto the future looks pretty rosy. You are discussing real estate for your second home and the tax advantages of different jurisdictions. Swapping stories about your friend who accidentally didn’t set up estate planning and his company had a big exit and now he’s got to pay full rate to some expensive Democratic run city and state. If you are at the nice cocktail parties you are building the future and the venture capital is flowing and it’s possible that this is the next big wave of innovation. It’s time to fuck around and find out.4
Young Americans are exploited by jobs that don’t give them the prospects of a good life and are disenchanted by a stagnant political system that seemingly fails to provide a pathway towards meaningful change. Evangelists of technology-driven decentralization, on the other hand, promised that outside this grim reality there is a digital utopia to be built—a blank slate where one regains control of their life from corrupt, decaying institutions. There is nothing inherently wrong with decentralization, of course. But it is not inevitably followed by democratization. And even if it is, what kind of democracy? A Jeffersonian one was sold to us by the cyberlibertarian manifestos from less than a quarter century ago; the same promises have brought us here.
When early white settlers made their way to California, they sought prosperity, liberty, and most importantly, communities built on loyalty. The irony, as Didion saw, was that these migrants were “men who have left homes and families, who have fled from before the word of the Lord, and have sought safety from their old vexatious duties in a golden paradise.”5 What they were looking for were what they had given up.
Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man.
Joan Didion, Where I Was From.
On the New Communalists, psychedelics, and Silicon Valley, see Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.
Didion, Where I Was From.