I was 9 years old when President Clinton was impeached. I distinctly remember the news anchor’s discomfort when he tried to explain that he was interrupting regular programming to begin coverage of the Senate’s consideration of perjury charges. When I asked my dad what the president had done and why everyone was mad at him, he told me that Clinton had “kissed another woman,” and married people weren’t supposed to do that. To me, it didn’t seem like a big enough deal to warrant canceling Saturday morning cartoons.
A few years later, I watched the Supreme Court pick our president after we learned just how poorly a ballot could be designed. By age 13, it had become clear that the government was leading the country into an unnecessary war, and no one even seemed to be trying to stop it—especially not the media. In high school, during my first trip out of the country without my parents, European citizens lectured me on the hubris of my nation’s actions.
These were some of the formative political experiences for my generation, all harbingers of worsening dysfunction to come. Millennials’ low levels of social trust may be the direct result of watching the major political institutions in America break down as we came of age. It’s no surprise that we have turned elsewhere for inspiration. Every generation needs heroes, but ours are not military generals like Eisenhower or MacArthur, White House titans like FDR or Kennedy, or even government-funded scientists like Oppenheimer. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg: many of our icons are software entrepreneurs who made their fortunes in the private sector.
This follows a certain logic: in a volatile era defined by economic bubbles and bursts and an anemic job market, the tech industry is consistently growing, delivering new goods and services at a remarkable rate. The big tech firms are always hiring young graduates, and even the scrappiest startup can get a shot at an IPO if its latest app goes viral. Millennials believe in the power of our tech innovators and the utilitarian, efficient and aesthetically appealing systems and products they create. Our government and elected leaders continue to fail and disappoint, while our phones get faster and thinner and serve ever more functions. As Washington falls deeper into a pit of corruption, Silicon Valley presents itself as a meritocratic utopia. A recent Deloitte survey puts this issue in stark relief: in many areas of public life, such as education and healthcare, millennials believe that businesses have a more positive impact than the government.
Although I can understand why millennials are so drawn to Silicon Valley, watching my generation absorb the high-tech mindset is deeply troubling. Behind the happy talk of empowerment through connectivity lies a more sinister reality. The techno-libertarianism that pervades the Bay Area may be driving innovation in certain areas and enabling the acquisition of private wealth, but it comes at a high cost to the public, transferring power away from government and toward these new companies and the individuals who run them. Pushing back against this corrosive ideology, and redirecting young Americans’ entrepreneurial drive to help reform our broken political institutions, will be one of our generation’s defining struggles.
While there are different strands within this amorphous ideology, most techno-libertarians tend to be socially liberal. However, they generally possess a strong belief in the power of markets, a distaste for government and large institutions and, paradoxically, apathy about the importance of privacy. They believe that innovation is both an end in itself and a means to solving nearly every problem. New communications technologies, many argue, can empower people to bypass sclerotic or antagonistic institutions and create new economies, jobs and services. According to this worldview, government bureaucracies and regulators are not only unnecessary; they are roadblocks to progress.
The most effective proselytizers for techno-libertarianism are the companies and employees who stand to benefit from it. The tech sector, at this point an immensely powerful lobby, tends to identify with Democrats, especially with Barack Obama. All that love has started to blind liberals to some of the more unsavory practices of the tech-sector darlings. President Obama’s visit to an Amazon fulfillment center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, last summer should have been a wake-up call to progressives. Besides its long history of anti-competitive practices and tax dodging, Amazon is notoriously rough on its warehouse workers, who are often paid minimum wage in extremely difficult conditions without the benefit of basic labor protections. It’s an interesting economic vision for a president focused on income inequality to embrace.
In the largely Democratic Bay Area, high-tech companies are able to shelter their profits offshore without consequence. In fact, they also receive tax exemptions as an incentive to keep their headquarters in the vicinity. Highly paid workers are chartered to glittering space-age campuses on private buses equipped with Wi-Fi, while the public transportation system suffers. “Sometimes the tech workers on their buses seem like bees who belong to a great hive,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in the The London Review of Books, “but the hive isn’t civil society or a city; it’s a corporation.”
Some of the uglier aspects of the techno-libertarian ideology were on display last summer during a public transportation strike in San Francisco. “People in the tech industry feel like life is a meritocracy,” Sarah Lacy, founder of the web publication Pando Daily, told a reporter from American Public Media’s Marketplace. “You work really hard, you build something and you create something, which is sort of directly opposite to unions.” Richard White, CEO of software provider UserVoice, told the same reporter that his response to the workers’ grievances would be “Get ’em back to work, pay them whatever they want, and then figure out how to automate their jobs so this doesn’t happen again.” The strike ended after four days, with an agreement to a cooling-off period. The workers went on strike again in October, with the ultimate result being a significant pay increase coupled with a rise in the amount they have to pay for medical and pension benefits. No word yet on when they will be automated away.
Bitcoin is the purest manifestation of the techno-libertarian ideal, not to mention a perfect example of the hazards it poses. Global, unregulated and wildly volatile, the digital currency was greeted with effusive praise by Silicon Valley before its initial promise gave way to untamed speculation, technical error and allegedly massive levels of untraceable theft. Bitcoin’s value still hasn’t recovered from the Mt. Gox implosion last February. Regulators in the United States, China and elsewhere are cracking down on the crypto-currency and establishing stricter regulations.
The Bitcoin community itself is splintering, much like the original hacker community did once money got involved. On one side stands the Andreessen Horowitz–backed Coinbase, a startup looking to tame Bitcoin and monetize it. (Andreessen Horowitz invested very early in Facebook and Twitter, among other companies.) They’re definitely onto something. The underlying technology that makes Bitcoin work has the ability to eliminate many of the inefficiencies and middlemen that plague traditional currency. Coinbase wants to become the new middleman—charging fees, yes, but less than companies like Visa.
On the other side stand the true libertarians now backed with massive levels of funding from their early investments in the currency—they want to keep Bitcoin entirely unregulated and anonymous. “The new Bitcoin millionaires are a weird breed: government-hating libertarians rich enough to hack the systems that make Washington, DC, function,” says Robert McMillan in a recent article for Wired. Whether Bitcoin will survive is hard to say, but there are plenty of wealthy backers and VCs who at this moment seem to be doubling down.
Not all techno-libertarians are so blinkered. Some are genuinely motivated by a drive to help people through fostering civic innovation and creating platforms that connect donors with progressive causes. Social entrepreneurs who use crowd-sourcing tactics to help lift Americans out of poverty are mirroring the strategies of companies like Facebook, though typically without a drive for profit maximization. But their facility with virtual networks often betrays a naïveté about how the real world works. Private donations for safety-net programs are paltry compared to public investment, and the end result is a decrease in financial support for programs that were once the purview of the state. Whether they realize it or not, techno-libertarians are pushing the illusion that deeply ingrained social problems can be solved online when what’s really needed is broad public buy-in and governmental support.
This same naïveté extends into the international theater, where the State Department thinks that keeping Twitter open is a legitimate policy response in the face of Iranian protests and many consider Facebook to have been essential to the fall of oppressive Arab regimes. But the Internet is hardly a pro-democracy utopia. As writer Evgeny Morozov has astutely pointed out, oppressive and dangerous groups (like religious extremists) are leveraging social media to advance their message, and governments are using the Internet to monitor citizens who are looking to revolt. The Internet is just another battlefield.
Since global institutions are weak relative to many state institutions, social entrepreneurs are able to exploit the global commons more easily. Last year, Google proposed Project Loon—a “moon shot” scheme to improve global connectivity by launching a network of Internet-providing balloons over the world’s most remote areas. Bill Gates, who is hardly off the hook in terms of encouraging the techno-libertarian ideology, scoffed at the idea. “When you’re dying of malaria,” he told BusinessWeek, “I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you. When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.” Of course, Google isn’t doing this out of the kindness of its heart (which one can only imagine is a giant, sentient server farm). It wants to be the company that makes first contact with new users. Maybe when the mother searches for how to save her child from malaria, she’ll click on an ad.
The company’s hubris extends to international diplomacy. A recent ad from Google India demonstrates how the company may help bring peace between Pakistan and India, two people at a time. The ad, which was embraced by many in both Pakistan and India, highlights the potential of Google Search, Google Maps and the Google Android operating system to reunite long-lost friends who were separated as a result of the partition. The only hitch, many observers noted, is that getting a visa between Pakistan and India is very difficult. Those pesky governments! Don’t they understand that, in a connected world, peace and democracy are inevitable?
Why does this ethos resonate so broadly with millennials? For one, the simplicity of the techno-libertarian argument is seductive. But more important, I think, is the allure of meritocracy to a generation that has played by the rules but has not gotten what was promised. Many young Americans have worked hard and gone to school and taken out loans to do it, yet their careers are going nowhere, if they even found a job in the first place. There simply aren’t that many jobs available, and successful applicants likely benefited from a personal connection, usually a combination of luck and privilege.
Coding, on the other hand, is extremely meritocratic. A certain type of mind can learn basic programming relatively quickly, and thanks to open-source platforms, amazing products can be created with little initial capital or experience. Even the products encourage the belief in meritocracy: social networks and web platforms offer the same resources to everyone for free, granting each user a level playing field from which to gain influence. We have all become our own content creators and managers, and while our audiences are typically very small, the positive affirmation is intoxicating.
The problem is, that sense of meritocracy is an illusion that tech companies maintain to keep users coming back. Despite the meteoric success of some startups, the dominance of established actors remains unquestioned, and their influence is strengthening in a relatively weak regulatory environment. As they buy up competitors, these large corporations have an increasing amount of control over our lives, not to mention a shocking level of access to our personal information.
Despite all this, I can’t help but be sympathetic to many of the techno-libertarian arguments. Mark Zuckerberg is too rich to be relatable at this point, but I was hardly alone in relating to Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of him in The Social Network. I rooted for Zuckerberg when he pushed against the aristocratic Winklevii and left the stifling, elitist confines of Harvard Yard for the West Coast. I mock Peter Thiel, the PayPal cofounder and influential Silicon Valley investor who’s funding a scholarship that pays web-savvy kids to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams as an alternative to college, but I’m offended by the way our institutions of higher learning are maximizing revenues on the backs of students and taxpayers and shirking their primary mission of actually educating students. I believe that our personal data are valuable and should not be given over for free, but I still use Gmail. Of course I use Gmail—it’s amazing.
It’s embedded within me that hard work, intelligence and creativity are the traits that will lead to my success. The stories of tech entrepreneurs spectacularly failing on their first startup only to come back and create a billion-dollar product serve as inspiration for me to take risks and comfort me that my missteps are moments of creative destruction that will make me a stronger person.
Unfortunately, not everyone gets a second chance after they fail—or, for that matter, a first chance to succeed. One reason we need strong safety net programs is because our society is not in the least bit meritocratic. Only the government has the power and scope to guarantee all citizens’ right to pursue fulfilling lives. I have very little faith in our current crop of leaders to face the challenges of an economy and political system rapidly consolidating power and wealth around fewer and fewer people, but I’m not willing to abandon the ideal that government can help solve some of society’s ills. A techno-libertarian would argue that government is hopelessly archaic and ineffectual, and that we should emphasize efficiency over social cohesion, meritocracy over social insurance. These notions are increasingly appealing to a generation that has never seen the government be particularly inspiring or effective. But giving in to that temptation forces the government into an ever-smaller role, causing us to look toward social entrepreneurship and philanthropy, the scale of which will never be big enough to fill the void.
Millennials should resist the temptation to turn away from our broken government in search of some post-government Mecca of apps and open-source networks. And there is hope: a recent Pew survey reports that millennials are the cohort most supportive of an activist government, by a large margin. And according to the Deloitte survey, while millennials think business is doing a better job right now, they also believe that the government ought to be doing much more. This is the struggle: a fundamentally optimistic group is pushing up against dysfunction, and the soul of a generation is at stake.
My inclination is to “disrupt” the current political system, to engage in some of that “creative destruction” I’ve been taught to believe in. But “disruption” isn’t quite the right word. Like meritocracy, disruption is a myth that people believe while private power continues to consolidate. The government has ceded much of its responsibility to check the consolidation of private wealth and power, but we don’t need a revolution for government to reclaim that task. We just need to elect leaders who take it seriously. Our safety net may be eroding, but that can be fixed by electing leaders with different fiscal priorities and values.
One area that certainly does need some creative destruction is the political process itself. My generation’s fondness for disruption could suit our need to shake up the system with fixes that make it more inclusive, ideally giving alternative parties a chance to succeed so that new, fresh and young voices can participate. In many ways “disruption” is a capitalistic euphemism for much more dangerous words like “rebellion” and “dissent,” and that’s what we need.
So let’s blow some shit up (figuratively, of course). But let’s aim this disruptive energy at the government, not the market. We cannot afford to turn away from government. As terrible as our political system is right now, our best chance for a just and cohesive society lies there.