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The Needs of a Nationalist-Populist Ideology

Michael Anton concedes his Liberty Forum essay is not intended as a systematic analysis of the American technology sector and its impact on the country. On that point, we agree. Best I can tell, his impressionistic and sometimes hysterically overwrought account is hardly an analysis at all: It fails to adequately grapple with the current economic impact of the sector or transparently explain why the author is concerned with its broad societal impact. Anton’s essay does, however, make for a fine historical travelogue. After spilling several hundred words on the geography of his native California, he then uses several hundred more detailing the orchard-covered Arcadia that was what we now call Silicon Valley, before all those arrogant techies moved in and turned it into the technological and entrepreneurial hub that other nations keep trying to duplicate.

Steve Jobs, perhaps the greatest tech entrepreneur of all, also loved the orchard lands of Silicon Valley, the place where he grew up and then built what became the world’s first trillion-dollar company. His biological father was a Syrian migrant to America and a Muslim, his birth mother a Wisconsin farm girl and a Roman Catholic of Swiss-German descent. In early 1955, the unmarried Joanne Schieble traveled to San Francisco, gave birth to her son, and then gave him up for adoption to Paul and Clara Jobs, a working-class couple. Dad was a repo man with a love of mechanics, mom a bookkeeper.

At age five, Steven Paul Jobs and his family—which now also included an adopted sister—moved to the Valley community of Mountain View. And then in middle school, the family moved again, three miles south to Los Gatos. The neighborhood was formerly an apricot orchard. “When we moved here, there were apricot orchards on all these corners,” Jobs recalled to biographer Walter Isaacson. “You used to see them everywhere.  . . . They’re part of the legacy of this Valley.”

And the orchards form part of Jobs’ legacy as well. In 2010, he bought the nearly 200 acres of former apricot orchards in Cupertino on which Apple would eventually build its new ring-shaped showcase headquarters, which opened in 2017 (pictured above). Planning the building and campus was Jobs’s final major task as the head of Apple. Just as with the company’s meticulously designed and crafted products, Jobs threw himself into the process of a creating an enduring signature of his life’s work. He demanded, for instance, that the wood paneling come from trees cut in mid-winter so they had the least amount possible of sap and sugar content. Jobs also hired a Stanford University arborist to landscape the campus with 6,000 trees, including acres of apricot trees, according to Wired magazine.

The day after Jobs died in October 2011, wife Laurene and sister Mona went to the cemetery to select the exact plot where he would be buried. Laurene was unimpressed by the flat, nondescript piece of land, but then she spotted, as Isaacson writes, “a bucolic ridge crowned by one of the area’s last remaining apricot orchards, the type of grove that Jobs had loved from his childhood.” Although the cemetery director informed Laurene that the grove wasn’t available, she strongly insisted, and Jobs was eventually buried near the orchard.

A Technological Athens

While Jobs could clearly be obsessive about some aspects of his life, he seems to have maintained a balanced and healthy sense of nostalgia regarding the Silicon Valley that was no more. The loss of the prewar way of rural life and so many orchards was a reasonable sacrifice for what came after: the birth of a sort of technological Athens that not only made him and many others fabulously wealthy but also helped establish America as a global superpower whose continued dominance rests in great part on the economic growth and technological supremacy generated by what replaced those bucolic groves. In this case, the two-sided deal that is creative destruction seems to have been a big winner for America.

Of course, Anton’s lamentation is not just about the Valley and its disappearing flora amid the influx of the people he describes (with an unfortunately disparaging intent) as “math nerds” — both native and immigrant—that spoiled the “nearly unpopulated paradise.” I mean, it probably is not just about that. Anton has written elsewhere that the United States—one of the least population-dense countries in the world—is already far too crowded. As he wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed: “Why do we need more people? For the extra traffic congestion? More crowded classrooms? Longer emergency room and Transportation Security Administration lines? Higher greenhouse-gas emissions?”

Although one might have expected Anton to then propose a series of anti-natalist policies to discourage childbirth among all racial and ethnic groups, he seems content with stopping further immigration, at least of the wrong sort. Yet Silicon Valley is one of the shining examples of how immigration continues to benefit America. For instance: In addition to Apple, tech titans Amazon, Google, and Facebook—the quartet are worth a combined $3 trillion—were all founded by first- or second-generation immigrants. Indeed, most of the top 25 American technology companies were founded by first- or second- generation Americans. And it’s not just the big guys. Immigrants have started more than half of America’s fast-growth tech startups, or “unicorns.”

But maybe all that immigrant-fueled economic dynamism is a bad thing from the nationalist-populist perspective. Steven Bannon, another nationalist populist intellectual like Anton, has in the past suggested it is problematic “when two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia.” After all, Anton’s greater concern is likely more about nationalism (and populism) than naturalism. He presents the evolution of the Valley as both metaphor and warning for what is happening in American society more broadly. “Looming tech-ification” is Anton’s term for the dire scenario. Big Tech—globalist, elitist, leftist, racially diverse, educated—is taking over. All America is turning into a California where the digitally-empowered gods who design—but do not domestically manufacture—distraction devices ethnically cleanse the natives with “a more pliant replacement population” to serve as worshippers, “bowing and scraping” to their billionaire betters.

Not that the tech community was always so dangerous to the red America that exists between the blue coasts. As Anton sees things, the postwar computer revolution was a more linear progression of the Industrial Revolution, making it faster and cheaper and more efficient to do what was previously accomplished by human mind and hand. Just as important, the Valley was filled with makers, not just conceptualizers and designers. The first Apple Macs were built in Fremont, California.

Now, however, the meaningful part of the information technology revolution is over, according to Anton. Let me quote at length:

The economically and socially useful work that Silicon Valley could accomplish, it has by now mostly accomplished. To belabor the point, it no longer seeks to meet real needs but to create and satisfy new wants. It has gotten very good at creating markets, and the demand for them, from thin air. It would be uncharitable to say that the techies don’t care about the effects of these new markets and demands. They very much care. They’ve simply managed to convince themselves that everything they do is not merely good but almost purely, transcendently so.

So there we have it. Anton, the wealthy former Wall Streeter, does not have a problem with only the “transnational, post-patriotic” capitalists he thinks are unmoored from the country. He seems to have a fundamental problem with capitalism itself, and how it is practiced in 21st century America. But what his critique actually accomplishes is an identification of the needs of his nationalist-populist ideology, and how attacking American technology companies as un-American serves to further the spread and penetration of that ideology.

For populism to thrive it needs to reinforce the idea that one’s tribe is the only tribe that really counts, only its people really matter, and outside the walls are encamped The Enemy or many Enemies. Of course, Big Tech makes for an odd enemy. For one thing, the companies remain immensely popular. One study suggests users of their free services would need to be paid many thousands of dollars to give them up. Yet Anton dismisses what tech does as time-sucking frivolity, also a grumpy charge made at one time or another against books, radio, film, and television. Even worse, in Anton’s view, is that these companies attempt to meet what economists call “non-consumption.” They look for new markets to create new demand. As Jobs famously said, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Fear of the Future

This is a key part of the innovative process, what competition scholar Nicolas Petit describes as “the ambition to discover the next transformative technology, and become the ultimate 21st-century disruptors in the footprints of the Henry Ford, Nikola Tesla, and Leonardo da Vinci.” The iPhone is one example. Perhaps the next will be autonomous vehicles, with the potential to bring trillions of dollars of savings and prevent millions of unnecessary deaths—an economically and socially worthwhile invention if there ever was one. Advances in artificial intelligence promise to improve diagnoses and medical procedures, again saving money and lives simultaneously. With betters tools and more minds coming online thanks to the Internet and globalization, who knows what advances are ahead? Anton surely does not, and seems uninterested in imagining the possibilities for how technology could help create a better world for all people, no matter their tribe. Fear the future, fellow tribe members.

Then again, perhaps Anton would prefer a nation forever trapped in amber—economically, culturally, demographically. Not that there is really much doubt such stagnation is exactly Anton’s preference if the alternative is the Californication of the entire country. That scenario would require a call to action where non-elite Americans would “have to do what yesterday’s Californians were unable or unwilling to do: fight for what’s ours.”

But what is so bad about a fast-growing California? Unless of course the fast growth and the change it brings are what you are trying to avoid, such as with the no-growth environmentalist Left. But most people kind of like economic growth and the jobs and higher incomes it generates. Now California does have a big cost-of-living problem, thanks in large part to housing unaffordability. But that’s a result of a bad governmental response to growth through restrictive housing regulation. Yet it was California’s major tech companies that recently supported state legislation to make it easier for developers to skirt those anti-growth rules and build denser housing, apartments, and condos near transit stations. Slate magazine called it “a radical attempt to subvert local control in the interest of creating more homes,” one that “would have opened up neighborhoods in San Diego, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area to row houses and small apartment buildings.”

This would seem to be at least one bit of evidence against Anton’s psychological analysis of the tech community. He describes their view of the housing situation thusly and, apparently, wrongly: “The techies seem to think that non-tech native Californians are in their way, and have no right to remain where they’ve long lived. If locals can no longer afford to because the techies price them out, that just proves (to the techies) that they’re losers who don’t belong there anyway.” Not so much, it turns out.

The legislation failed, by the way—more proof of the limits of the power of the tech lords even in their Golden State kingdom. Nor is the kingdom as stable as Anton suggests. The Economist recently published a cover story on “Peak Valley” and how its “primacy as a technology hub is on the wane.” But no need to let facts add nuance or generate some humble reflection or pause in an ideological manifesto. This wouldn’t, anyway, seem to be the style of an author best known for a pre-Election 2016 essay crassly comparing the presidential race to United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11.

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