Spirals of Delusion
How AI Distorts Decision-Making and Makes Dictators More Dangerous
“We are as gods and might as well get used to it.” So began Stewart Brand’s introduction to the first issue of The Whole Earth Catalog, an encyclopedic compendium of resources for back-to-the-land living that became a foundational document of Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian culture. The Catalog departed from typical countercultural fare in seeking to impart technological know-how to commune dwellers. It included the use of handheld calculators and treatises on information theory among its recommended essentials for self-sufficient living. Such skills and knowledge, Brand explained, were hoarded by big corporations, government agencies, schools, and churches. It was time to return power to the people and give them the tools to shape their individual destinies.
In 1968, the year of the Catalog’s debut, the real power in American life lay far from Brand’s storefront publishing house in the sleepy northern California suburb of Menlo Park. The ten firms atop the Fortune 500 were four oil companies, three carmakers, two other major manufacturers, and only one computer company: IBM.
Today, six of the ten most valuable corporations in the world are U.S. computer hardware and software companies. A seventh, Tesla, produces electric cars that are essentially supercomputers on wheels. All of these companies hail from the West Coast. All have grown to enormous size on promises of individual empowerment and social betterment, with slogans such as “think different,” “don’t be evil,” and “make history.” Today’s technology firms are not merely enterprises but social institutions driven by an almost messianic sense of purpose. They have taken Brand’s urging quite literally. The gods, it appears, have gotten used to it.
The social and political upheavals of recent years have gravely tested this sunny narrative, however, leading to intense public scrutiny of the data-extracting business models behind Silicon Valley’s growth and wealth. Algorithmically curated social media platforms have connected most of humanity, but they have also allowed disinformation and political extremism to metastasize. Mobile apps have delivered frictionless convenience by relying on armies of underpaid gig workers. In 2019, the social theorist Shoshanna Zuboff gave the industry’s inescapable data-tracking a piquant and malevolent handle—“surveillance capitalism”—becoming one of many authors crowding the bestseller lists with sharp critiques of Silicon Valley as a place, an industry, and an idea.
But even as public ambivalence grew, the COVID-19 pandemic directed more and more users to the platforms, sending tech-sector market valuations soaring, along with their founders’ fortunes. Large technology companies have become more powerful than any of the firms The Whole Earth Catalog hoped to subvert.
Three new books—one by a historian and philosopher, another by a sociologist, a third by a sitting member of Congress—insist on a Silicon Valley reckoning. In The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, the philosopher Justin Smith looks to the past to explain both the Internet’s true antiquity and its unparalleled capacity to distract, consume, and transform its users. In Work Pray Code, the sociologist Carolyn Chen dissects the immersive and influential work culture of Silicon Valley’s present. And the U.S. Congressman Ro Khanna’s Dignity in a Digital Age looks to the future: to a techno-geography remade, a tech workforce reimagined, and a policy environment reformed.
All three works offer fresh takes on what is now a well-worn subject. Although remote on their own stratospheric plane of existence, the gods of technology may want to listen to what these critics have to say.
Few texts have placed the Internet in a broader context than does Smith’s probing critique. “We are the targets of a global corporate resource-extraction effort on a scale the world has never before seen,” Smith writes darkly in the first pages of The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is. But this trim volume should not be mistaken for merely another surveillance-capitalism lament. His “philosophy of the internet” is less concerned with tearing down or breaking up big technology companies than with “clarifying the nature of the force with which we are contending.”
Overloaded with information, Smith observes, people fail to grasp the significance of the Internet. Users are distracted and disengaged, living a life of continual interruption, their prefrontal cortexes muddled by online society’s perpetual anxiety and alarm. “By allowing the internet to compel us to attend to a stream of different, trivial things,” he writes, “we have become unable to focus on the monolithically important thing it is.” Underneath the platforms, apps, and multitudinous diversions lies the backbone of the digital world—a material force with a physicality, a politics, and a history.
To unpack the crisis of online life, Smith goes back in time, earlier than most histories of computing and beyond human histories altogether. Consider the Internet the latest network of many, he urges. Think of telecommunication as not something merely human-made but natural, ecological, essential.
Thus, 50 pages into a book about the Internet, the reader must consider the sonic vibrations of an elephant’s stomp, the chemical signals emitted by tomato plants, and the pheromones of moths. In all these cases, critical fragments of information move through space from one living thing to another, hold equal sonic or olfactory weight, and form webs of connection without one central node. In this delicate light, the Internet’s nonhierarchical design does not seem that novel after all.
Telecommunication is not something merely human-made but natural, ecological, essential.
Smith then returns to the human realm, moving back and forth across continents and centuries as he chronicles human efforts to reckon with space, time, and knowledge itself. For millennia, human beings have tried to impose their own order on the ineffable, not only through religion and other systems of knowledge but also through machines. Roger Bacon, a thirteenth-century English natural philosopher, allegedly devised what Smith describes as a “medieval Siri,” a bronze automaton known as Brazen Head that was supposed to be capable of answering yes-or-no questions. The seventeenth-century German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, a figure about whom Smith has written extensively, pursued an early modern variety of artificial intelligence that could calculate without judgment, eliminate philosophical confusion, and bring clear resolution to human disputes. If Leibniz were living in the twenty-first century, he would probably be a Google engineer.
These early modern thinkers and tinkerers were trying to wrest rationality out of a thicket of mysticism. They dreamed of a machine-aided society unmuddied by religious belief. The ensuing age brought about the Industrial Revolution and a new, secular faith in organizations, bureaucracies, and balance sheets, a faith that venerated systems of classification capable of precisely surveying conquered land, cataloging flora and fauna, and, in its most damaging incarnations, arranging humankind into hierarchies of intelligence predicated on ethnicity, religion, and skin color.
Smith skips most of the twentieth century and thus does not tease out the connections between that earlier search for order and the Cold War political economy that built the foundations for Silicon Valley’s eventual ascent. But the through lines are there: in Stanford University’s reputation as a center of eugenics “science” in the early twentieth century; in a defense economy that enlisted the brightest engineering minds in developing high-tech and highly deadly weapons of war; in the Catalog’s techno-optimistic faith that “access to tools” could transform the very structures of power; and in the creation of the Internet itself.
Like many other foundational technologies of the digital age, the Internet began as a Department of Defense project. It was funded in 1969 with a $1 million appropriation that was a rounding error in the military’s space-age budget. Its distributed design was the brainchild of computer scientists whose politics aligned more closely with those of Brand than of the Pentagon brass but whose aims were practical rather than political. They needed a way for the computers in their far-flung laboratories to communicate, and they didn’t want one single institution—or the Pentagon—to be in charge. The resulting nonhierarchical, interoperable system remained primarily academic and government-run for two decades, a network as far removed from commerce and profit as those of stomping elephants or flittering moths.
The Internet is a good example of how the indirect nature of much Cold War defense spending—grants to universities, contracts to electronics and aerospace companies—both allowed technologists creative freedom and ultimately obscured the true extent of public-sector involvement in generating their success. Much of what the countercultural readers of The Whole Earth Catalog knew about computers came via something funded by the U.S. government: a college computer lab, a physics course, a research assistantship, a job at a defense-electronics firm. The military-industrial complex was everywhere they looked, its Vietnam War–era failures fueling their desire to escape its tight embrace. When they successfully did so, a new creation story emerged: of young idealists in garages, tinkering their way to entrepreneurial glory, with nary a government bureaucrat in sight.
The long tail of that narrative reframing comes into focus in Chen’s Work Pray Code, a meticulous, absorbing ethnography of Silicon Valley workplaces. Temporally and geographically, Smith ranges far beyond Silicon Valley in search of answers to the problems created by full immersion in modern technology. Chen, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley, looks deep inside it. There, amid snack stations and Ping-Pong tables, she finds religion.
The gospel of the Catalog endures in the Valley’s gargantuan office complexes but now provides a techno-utopian gloss for an especially relentless variant of modern corporate capitalism. Workers tell Chen of their desire “to make a difference in the world” by logging 70-hour weeks. Firms invite New Age spiritualists to deliver keynote addresses at corporate meetings and sponsor workplace seminars on personal and spiritual improvement. (Participants in one such course, at Google, called the exercise “going to church.”)
Sprawling tech campuses are as immersive and as attentive to the lives of employees as 1960s communes were for their residents. Workers at enterprises such as Apple and Google can access abundant organic produce and yoga on demand. One-time countercultural seekers have pivoted to lucrative careers as “meditation entrepreneurs,” coaching corporate employees through their inescapable periods of burnout.
The COVID-19 pandemic abruptly silenced this busy beehive, beginning two years of mostly remote operations that cast doubt on the future of office work. But as Chen notes in her later chapters, the perks of working for these companies seamlessly migrated home as well: free meditation apps and online therapy, cash stipends for self-care, subsidies for office furniture. Although the form of Silicon Valley’s post-pandemic workplace remains uncertain—will workers return to their desks, maintain hybrid schedules, or go completely remote?—these institutional habits are now too ingrained to abandon. Perks are not extras, but essentials.
Even in prosperous times, success does not come easy in Silicon Valley. Most startups fail, many new products flop, and true technological innovation is elusive. One bad performance review or disappointing quarter can cost a worker a job. To keep faith in technology, as in any religion, Chen notes, one must “believe in things yet unseen.”
Religiosity has long infused American capitalism. Earnest Silicon Valley mission statements are latter-day updates of the oil magnate John Rockefeller’s pious declaration in 1905 that “the power to make money is a gift from God.” Altruistic pronouncements by technology billionaires—“I believe that the wealthy have a responsibility to invest in addressing inequity,” Bill Gates wrote in 2009, shortly after pledging his Microsoft riches to establish the world’s largest philanthropic foundation—deliberately echo Andrew Carnegie’s 1889 essay “The Gospel of Wealth,” which declared that the rich had a moral obligation to give away their fortunes in their lifetimes. Silicon Valley’s saintly elevation of the founder-entrepreneur follows a century of management theory that celebrated such figures for their work ethic and higher purpose. “The impulse which drives him forward,” wrote one panegyrist about a tycoon of industry in 1914, “is the joyful power to create.”
But all this faith ultimately serves the bottom line. Extravagantly appointed tech cathedrals, such as the sprawling Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, are the latest incarnation of Gilded Age company towns, designed to forestall labor organizing and impose moral order on a workforce. Such welfare capitalism has morphed into what Chen resonantly terms “corporate maternalism,” which “monetizes the nonproductive parts of life that the busy tech worker has no time for—eating, exercising, rest, hobbies, spirituality, and friendships—and makes them part of work.” Exhortations to practice mindfulness and get more sleep seem like empathy but are really geared to making workers more efficient. Focused, well-rested employees are more productive and less likely to jump ship.
The quirks and perks of Silicon Valley work culture have been extensively chronicled by tech journalists, deftly satirized by Hollywood showrunners, and exuberantly evangelized in business bestsellers. Through Chen’s sharply focused sociological lens, they inform a bigger story: about the human search for meaning and security in a world where a handful of companies and people wield so much power over what matters and who wins.
The rise of technology companies is the ironic culmination of the United States’ long revolt against bigness. Institutions that once knit communities together in shared, though not necessarily harmonious or equitable, understanding—churches, civic groups, unions, and the government itself—have been diminished or discredited. Once stable jobs and industries have succumbed to the churn of economic globalization and cost cutting. But people still need to find meaning and purpose in their lives. An earnest, privileged, beatific enclave on the far western edge of North America has rushed in to fill the gap.
Tales of the techlash tend to operate at one of several levels of analysis. Many focus, as Smith does, on how the digital affects the individual, grappling with what technology is doing to brains, habits, and attention spans. Others, such as Chen’s, examine the world of the digital-age corporation and the business ecosystems those corporations create.
A third group scales up to the level of countries and societies. They don’t only ask why the technology sector has become so indispensable and so problematic: they search for policy remedies.
Khanna is a former Obama administration official who currently represents Silicon Valley in the U.S. Congress. In some respects, his Dignity in a Digital Age is a policy book of familiar type. It is dense with human stories and legislative ideas, written by a lawmaker of wonky enthusiasm and political ambition, cannily published at the start of an election year. But few books of its kind offer folksy tales of encounters with constituents interwoven with sober discussion of political theorists and philosophers such as Jürgen Habermas and Martha Nussbaum or invoke Frederick Douglass and John Rawls while making a case for better platform regulation.
The crisis that Americans face, Khanna argues, cannot be solved by simply taming a few technology companies. Instead, it requires reordering society’s priorities. The goal should be to ensure human dignity, a concept Khanna draws from Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize–winning economist who also supplied the book’s foreword. “A key pillar of building a multiracial, multireligious democracy is providing every person in every place with the prospect of a dignified life,” writes Khanna, “including the potential to contribute in and shape the digital age.” Thoughtful public policy can bring about this kind of change, he argues with convincing technocratic optimism. All that is needed is political will. Americans may live in the world Silicon Valley has made, Khanna avers, but they can and must make that world better.
Americans may live in the world Silicon Valley has made, but they can make that world better.
The author has navigated this middle ground nimbly since he arrived in Congress in 2017, a progressive-left Democrat representing the capital of Big Tech in a time of intensifying fury against the industry. He is an ally and admirer of the tech trustbuster Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, and his critique of the industry’s failings is unsparing, particularly when calling out the sexism and racial exclusion in technology firms, whose top ranks remain overwhelmingly white and male. Yet Khanna also proclaims the Valley “a magical place for start-ups and founders,” where appetite for risk, forgiveness of failure, and enthusiasm for big challenges “are in direct contrast to how Washington, D.C., works.”
Despite such Reaganesque flourishes, Silicon Valley’s congressman channels the spirit of another U.S. president, Franklin Roosevelt, in making his case for bringing the state back in. Khanna’s main prescriptions echo the original New Deal in structure and soul: public investment to bring jobs and growth to a left-behind hinterland; legislation to advance workers’ rights and raise pay and benefits; regulation of big companies to protect consumers and advance democracy. “Instead of passively allowing tech royalty and their legions to lead the digital revolution and serve narrow financial ends before all others,” Khanna writes, “we need to put it in service of our broader democratic aspirations.”
Khanna’s emphasis on public-sector solutions is a contrast to the passionately held gospel of many of his high-tech constituents. Because technology companies grew large and successful in an era when government deliberately minimized its own role, today’s tech leaders generally see public policy as an impediment to innovation and disdain the grubby business of policymaking and partisanship.
In a widely hailed 2020 essay, Netscape co-founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen lamented that the grievous institutional failures of the United States’ COVID-19 response exposed the country’s “widespread in-
ability to build.” Andreessen refrained from saying precisely who or what should lead a turnaround but declared in characteristic tech-mogul fashion that “we need to separate the imperative to build these things from ideology and politics.”
A recent follow-up blog post by Andreessen’s colleague Katherine Boyle was more pointed: the solution lies with entrepreneurs. “The only way to reverse the course of stagnation and kickstart nationwide renewal post-COVID is through technologists building companies that support the national interest,” Boyle wrote. She added, “It’s now easier to solve critical national problems through startups.”
Few places in the United States are deeper shades of blue than the Bay Area and its big-tech sibling, Seattle. But the contrast between the way many in tech hubs see the world and Khanna’s “progressive capitalist” agenda is a reminder of how much the modern technology industry is a product of the United States’ 40-year turn toward the market.
Silicon Valley had its roots in the Keynesian military-industrial complex, but it became a corporate colossus in a supply-side age of tax cuts and deregulation. The policy shift propelled technological and economic growth, making billionaires out of talented computer geeks such as Andreessen. But this growth came at the cost of denuded government revenues and degraded public services.
In California, the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, a strict property-tax cap, so sharply curtailed local revenue that the state’s public schools now have one of the lowest rates of per capita student funding in the nation. In Silicon Valley and other tech hubs, fragmented public transit and overburdened infrastructure make for choking traffic and grinding commutes. Cushioned from the full impact of governmental austerity by school fundraising, corporate shuttles, and the workplace perks Chen describes, it is perhaps unsurprising that technologists do not always recognize the urgent need for public reinvestment.
The intense concentration of corporate power and cultural capital in the technology sector has sparked a fierce backlash, its reverberations evident in these three books. Yet the sound and fury has done little to slow the Silicon Valley wealth machine. The digital economy has supersized and expanded, disrupted old categories and classifications, and liberated people to join the glorious online mess. Americans lament the turbulent times and argue over how much social media is responsible for them. They curse their endless scrolling and shattered attention spans. Yet they are utterly, hopelessly dependent on the information and connective social tissue that the Internet provides.
The COVID-19 pandemic made this dilemma clear. For Khanna, the pandemic underscored digital capitalism’s stark inequities but also showed how remote work could more fairly distribute wealth and talent. Chen conducted her 100-plus interviews between 2013 and 2017 and thus discusses the pandemic only at her book’s end, but she pointedly notes that going remote only widened Silicon Valley’s vast inequities and underscored the economic chasm bifurcating modern American life. White-collar technologists remained safely at home in their company-bought ergonomic chairs, while thousands of gig workers, custodians, and shuttle drivers lined up at food banks and dodged eviction.
Smith has the sharpest pandemic commentary, as his book exists only because COVID-19 lockdowns closed off archives he planned to use during a sabbatical year. Instead, he was at home, with e-books and pixelated digital facsimiles his only sources and Zoom meetings his only means of collegial conversation.
Smith realized that the ad hoc arrangements the pandemic produced were less a workplace reboot than an acceleration of existing trends toward work lives of perpetual digital immersion. “While we may attempt to write this off as a temporary compensation,” he ruefully concludes, “the truth is that the pandemic has really only pushed us over a ledge on which we already teetered.”
The reckoning machines have succeeded beyond their creators’ wildest dreams. The rationalists have triumphed. A society-smashing pandemic enriched the technology sector so enormously that its moguls gave away billions and still saw their net worth rise. Even as the market turned bearish in early 2022, the combined market capitalization of the five largest technology companies made up over one-fifth of the value of the S&P 500. These giants have amassed enough profit and market share to weather an economic downturn and possibly emerge even stronger.
Silicon Valley’s empire of binary code encircles the planet, leaving individuals and firms searching (and paying) for relief through the mysticism of ancient faiths: mindfulness apps, yoga retreats, walking meditation labyrinths with corporate logos at their center. These diversions are but brief interludes away from lives of staring at screens, tapping keyboards and smartphones, communing with the digital tools with which the modern mind is now melded. “I find there is perfect coordination, almost like ballet, in my own human-computer interface,” Smith muses about his online writerly self, “of not just hand and eye, but of hand, eye, and world.” It is a synchronicity so complete as to be nearly divine.
How AI Distorts Decision-Making and Makes Dictators More Dangerous