Sunday, June 2, 2013
May 27, 2013 Issue
“Change the World,” in this week’s issue, marks George Packer’s welcome return to first-person narrative. The piece’s opening sentence signals the reversion: “In 1978, the year that I graduated from high school, in Palo Alto, the name Silicon Valley was not in use beyond a small group of tech cognoscenti.” I read that and I inwardly cheered: Welcome back, George! “Change the World” is about a group of “Silicon Valley moguls,” including Mark Zuckerberg, who’ve formed a political advocacy group. In Silicon Valley’s world, this is a groundbreaking development. Like his hero, George Orwell, Packer is an inveterate tracker of political currents (in the Introduction of his 2009 collection Interesting Times, he writes, “My ambition as a journalist is always to combine narrative writing with political thought”). He’s fascinated by Silicon Valley’s libertarianism, particularly its emphasis on less politics. He vividly showed this in his previous Silicon Valley piece, “No Death, No Taxes,” The New Yorker, November 28, 2011, a profile of billionaire techie, Peter Thiel (“Escaping from politics is a libertarian’s right and a billionaire’s privilege”). Packer is allergic to Thiel’s anti-political thinking. Near the end of “No Death, No Taxes,” he writes, “The next great technological revolution might be around the corner, but it won’t automatically improve most people’s lives. That will depend on politics, which is indeed ugly, but also inescapable. The libertarian worship of individual freedom, and contempt for social convention comes easiest to people who have never really had to grow up.” Packer further develops this theme in “Change the World,” where he says, “Technology can be an answer to incompetence and inefficiency. But it has little to say about larger issues of justice and fairness, unless you think that political problems are bugs that can be fixed by engineering rather than fundamental conflicts of interest and value.” However, in “Change the World,” he’s got a fresh actuality to consider – the rise of FWD.us, the Silicon Valley political-advocacy group organized by Zuckerberg and other fat Valley plutocrats to push for immigration reform. You can tell that Packer has mixed feelings about this development. On the one hand, he shows that the motivations of FWD.us’s founders are (to borrow Marc Andreessen’s memorable phrase, quoted by Packer) “relentlessly self-interested.” On the other hand, he sees the Valley’s decision to enter the political arena in order to effect change as an advance on its heretofore escapist libertarian thinking. In the last sentence of his piece, he says, “But if Silicon Valley’s idea of itself as a force for irresistible progress is running up against the unlovely reality of current American politics, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It might mean that the industry is growing up.”
“Change the World” is a brilliant pointillist construction of a variety of glinting materials - talks with Silicon Valley leaders and thinkers (e.g., Marc Andreessen, Joe Green, Reid Hoffman, Gavin Newsom, Joshua Cohen) visits to various locations (e.g., Apple University, a private club called Founders Den, Andreeseen’s office on Sand Hill Road, a café in San Francisco’s Mission District), quotes from various publications (e.g., a London Review of Books article by Rebecca Solnit, Alexandra Lange’s The Dot-Com City: Silicon Valley Urbanism, Gavin Newsom’s Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government). My favorite passage in “Change the World” is Packer’s description of the Woodside School Foundation gala, which, in its over-the-top extravagance, could be the Silicon Valley equivalent of Jay Gatsby’s decadent East Egg parties:
I attended it two years ago, when the theme was RockStar, and one of Google’s first employees sat at my table after performing in a pickup band called Parental Indiscretion. School benefactors, dressed up as Tina Turner or Jimmy Page, and consuming Jump’n Jack Flash hanger steaks, bid thirteen thousand dollars for Pimp My Hog! (“Ride through town in your very own customized 1996 Harley Davidson XLH1200C Sportster”) and twenty thousand for a tour of the Japanese gardens on the estate of Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle and the country’s highest-paid chief executive. The climax arrived when a Mad Men Supper Club dinner for sixteen guests – which promised to transport couples back to a time when local residents lived in two-thousand-square-foot houses – sold for forty-three thousand dollars.
Money is, of course, a major source of power, but it isn’t the only one. Journalism, when it’s written as effectively as Packer writes it, in “Change the World,” is a potent influence, too.