The epicenter of the information revolution is, and has always been, Silicon Valley. There are other tech outposts—Seattle, Austin, even New York—but none have defined, and been defined by, the modern information society so completely as Silicon Valley has.
When it first broke out after World War II, the revolution was characterized by idealism and progress. The products and ideas that came out of it—email, online commerce, biotech—improved lives and changed the nature of government and economics. But sometime in the past few decades, the revolution’s original values gave way to something different. The new Silicon Valley is big, corporate, and it’s hungry for your data.
Alistair Duff, a professor of information society and policy at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland, says we’ve arrived at a crisis. Duff says the freedom that characterized the early days of the information revolution has started to be supplanted by “the domination of information technology over human beings, and the subordination of people to a technological imperative.”
I spoke to Duff about the changing ideals of information society, the role of government in regulating it, and his recent visit to Silicon Valley. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation appears below.
Kaveh Waddell: In your research, you say that we’ve gone through an “information revolution,” and you develop a normative theory through which to understand our new information society. Why do we need this framework?
Alistair Duff: We are lacking a framework for attacking the problems of the 21st century. The Industrial Revolution created a lot of creative and systematic thinking about how society should be run. I think after the information revolution, we need to do exactly the same thing.
I think we need the big picture, not just individuals working on privacy, or intellectual property, or the distribution of scientific information, or this and that—you need to approach it in a holistic, integrated way. Not many people are doing that, and I’ve tried to make a start in my Normative Theory of the Information Society.
Waddell: How soon after the Industrial Revolution did philosophers start sitting down to try and come up with a normative theory of those societal shifts?
Duff: The term “industrial revolution” wasn’t coined until [Arnold] Toynbee, the historian, coined it, in 1886. That was after its heyday. But before the era was christened in that way, there had been a massive amount of creative responses to what I would call the normative crises of the Industrial Revolution.
That’s what the whole socialist movement was about: A way to humanize the factory system, tame industrialization, and make sure it was steered in the direction of human welfare.
Now, have we had anything like that in our own era? We haven’t. So there’s an open field.
Waddell: In exploring your theory, you went to Silicon Valley to see what the information revolution looks like there. Did you see anything while you were visiting that helped you understand the information society or where it came from?
Duff: I saw a lot that was good. I wouldn’t want to condemn Silicon Valley carte blanche: There’s a lot of innovation going on; there’s a lot of new jobs being created. There’s a lot of the good side of capitalism going on. It’s a very pleasant environment.
But I think there is a dark side there, so it did confirm some of my theorizing about the information age. There is massive inequality, which is unacceptable. Inequality should not be so great that it crystallizes into class distinctions—master-servant relations—and I think you have that in Silicon Valley, to some extent.
And I think there are issues over abuse of data. In fact, some of the information corporations that I interviewed admitted that. There are issues over intellectual property—profound concerns over some of Google’s innovations. I think they are playing fast and loose in the name of copyright, all in the name of progress.
We need gadflies who will ask searching questions and not just buy into Google’s narrative of progress, and those of other companies in the valley.
Waddell: You interviewed some important people who took part in the information revolution when it was first happening. They kept bringing up the importance of idealism in their work. Is that a core value of the information society?
Duff: Yes, because information technology has a built-in capacity to bring progress, to emancipate, to make life better, to increase leisure time, to enhance communication, and to reintegrate a fractured humanity.
That’s the great potential of information technology. It is an enabling technology, and it can be used—and should be used, and often is used—to further valuable ideals, such as human communication, brotherhood and sisterhood, and liberty (something you Americans are very good at).
But it can also be abused, and we see that increasingly. To some extent, these ideals are still alive in Silicon Valley, but there’s also an abuse of information technology, and the threat of what I call “technocracy.” It’s a term we don’t often use now, and I mean by technocracy not the rule of experts, but the rule of information technology, the domination of information technology over human beings, and the subordination of people to a technological imperative. That is a real threat, and I think it is almost out of control.
Waddell: A lot of companies are working toward social good, but the social good they’re providing is sometimes offset by violations of privacy, or the profound work-life imbalance that you’ve written about. How do these social ills fit into this utopia that Silicon Valley is trying to create?
Duff: Well, they don’t. They militate against it. Privacy is under threat.
I’d like to take exception with [Apple CEO] Tim Cook. I’m with the state on that, absolutely. I think Tim Cook is out of his mind. It’s a clear case where the state’s rights prevail over the right of individual privacy, and I say that as an advocate of privacy. We’ve got to get common sense on privacy, not fanaticism.
But generally, privacy is under threat. Generally, privacy is retreating in little ways and big. For example, recent research showed that truckers were now leaving their trade because they are monitored so closely by controllers. And it’s traditionally part of the dream of truckers everywhere to have a bit more liberty, a bit more autonomy, a bit of freedom. And that’s being taken away by information technology. And so in many places, privacy is in retreat. That is bad, and it’s one issue where ideals have been compromised.
Waddell: I want to go back to the Tim Cook story for a second. I have to say I’m a little surprised by your reaction. But Silicon Valley, as you probably noticed, has something of a libertarian streak. Do you think your reaction speaks to a cultural divide? In Europe, people understand the value of government in a different way.
Duff: In the Valley, I met anti-statism. I met it in executives from corporations, I met it in the ex-hippie community, the bohemian quarters. There is a very strong anti-statism in America generally, and in particular, California, and in particular-particular, Silicon Valley. And I think it’s a mistaken philosophy.
I have read [Robert] Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and Murray Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty, and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom—I’ve read it all, and it’s a flawed philosophy. The ultimate value is not liberty: It is justice. Liberty has to fit within the context of social justice. And where it violates justice, I’m afraid justice trumps liberty.
Libertarianism says that freedom is the paramount value. But I don’t think that’s the case. I’m a follower of John Rawls, the great Harvard political philosopher, and in his Theory of Justice, he makes clear that justice is the paramount virtue in political life.
It should incorporate a great deal of freedom, including some inalienable freedoms, but you cannot trump justice with liberty in the way Tim Cook is doing.
Waddell: Do you think there should be a global norm or theory of how we arrange these values, or is there some amount of wiggle room for Americans and Europeans approaching things differently, or people in the Middle East or China approaching their values in the information society differently?
Duff: I think the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was an attempt at a universal norm, and it includes privacy. I think there are certain things that should transcend nations. If privacy is a human right, then it should transcend national boundaries. But one wouldn’t want to impose one political system on the whole world.
So, certainly, as a European, I wouldn’t want to turn America into Finland. I believe in social democracy, but America isn’t going to turn into that anytime soon.
Waddell: Unless we elect Bernie Sanders.
Duff: Yeah! Well, these earthquakes can happen.
There was a privacy declaration by the European privacy ombudsman called the Madrid Privacy Declaration. That sort of thing is useful. I think Europe has been the gold standard on data protection, so we’ve got something to teach the world.
But it’s difficult. In my last paper, which is still under review, I’m arguing for a concept I call the fellowship of the net. I think that is something that we need to develop, because I think these great social-networking sites can get us only so far. We also need to buy into some ancient ideals of human community and what used to be called brotherhood, but you could maybe now call fellowship or connectivity. These should be universal ideals which could help reintegrate a world that is frighteningly fractured.
So yes, we need to work at a global level. But if you mean impose one political system on the whole world, I wouldn’t support that.
Waddell: I think a lot of modern social networks require people, in order to buy in and be able to be part of the conversation, to give up some amount of their privacy. Is that a worthwhile tradeoff?
Duff: To some extent. Yeah, it’s doing good, and you have to commend them: it goes back to Well, then it was Friendster, then it was MySpace, then it was Facebook, and people are migrating to Twitter. They are commercial organizations; they have to make money in order to provide these services, and so they have to use your data.
But I think it goes too far, personally. I would actually like to see an information commons, some public-sector or public-domain social-networking site develop. I thought of starting one myself, and I even registered a domain called Sisi International, which stands for “simply siblings”—the idea that we’re all actually part of the human family. But, of course, to develop that website would be a full-time occupation.
I don’t think private commercial networks can re-integrate humanity.
Waddell: The people you spoke to in Silicon Valley were, in your words, the “pioneers of the revolution.” How do you think those conversations might have gone differently had you spoken to the current generation of tech workers?
Duff: I think the ideals are not as strong today as they used to be. If you read the history of Silicon Valley, there was an amazing idealism in the sixties, part of the whole hippie ideals of peace and community and so on. I’m not sure that’s as strong now.
As one of my informants put it, a sort of “Harvard mentality” has started to take over [from the “Stanford mentality”]. The psychology of the playground rather than the commune is prevailing. I think there’s a mercenary element that’s stronger than used to be the case.
To some extent, the revolution is being betrayed by the new generation of entrepreneurs. And you can see that in the way that they work their staff to death. I think that is, itself, a betrayal of human ideals. They should not be expecting people to be working 24/7/365. That phrase was originally invented for computer servers. You should not apply it to human beings.
Waddell: You caution in your latest paper against emulating Silicon Valley to create new technology hubs elsewhere. If you were creating a new Silicon Valley, how would it look different?
Duff: It would look more like Scandinavia than Silicon Valley. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t develop the tech industry—we can learn a massive amount from Silicon Valley.
In Scotland, we have what’s called the Silicon Glen. In my view, that needs to be pushed much harder by the Scottish government. The central corridor between Glasgow and Edinburgh needs to be invigorated. We’ve had SkyScanner, and a few other major names, coming out of Silicon Glen, but we could be doing so much more. We’ve got top universities—our own Stanford—so really, we need to push a tech valley in Scotland.
But what we shouldn’t do is incorporate the abuse of the boundary between work and home, we should treat people with respect, we should have integrated workforces. A study came out that only 2 percent of Google’s, Yahoo’s, and a couple of other top companies’ workforces were black. Twelve percent of the U.S. population is black, so that is not good, is it? I’m not saying they discriminate overtly against black people—I very much doubt that—but they’re not doing enough to change things.
We need the best of Silicon Valley and the best of European social democracy, combined into a new type of tech cluster.
There’s a book by Manuel Castells and Pekka Himanen called The Information Society and the Welfare State: The Finnish Model, which argues that you can have a different type of information society from the libertarian, winner-takes-all model pioneered in Silicon Valley. You can have a more human, a more proportioned, a tamer information society, like we’ve seen in Finland.
Waddell: And that would require more governmental influence?
Duff: Yes. I mean, let’s be honest. Silicon Valley is based on government subsidies, on Defense Department contracts. It was the biggest player in the origins of Silicon Valley in the forties and fifties, and it’s still a massive presence, visible and invisible, secret and open.
So it’s a myth, a libertarian myth, that the state is not involved in American high-tech capitalism. So we would just be more open about it: We would say that the state has a role in protecting workers, health and safety, integration policies, subsidizing startups—there aren’t as many venture capitalists around here as in America. The state should be involved in helping people start companies and educating people.
The state should have a paternal role in developing a European information society. The state is not an evil. It is an absolute folly to call the state an evil. The state is simply people working together through an agency to coordinate things, so we should use it.
Japan has done that. Japan has been a leader in information technology, and it was arguably the first information society. It coined the term information society. The word is “joho shakai.” And the state had a big role in that. It was a policy from the sixties to develop a Japanese information society, so there’s a success story to cite.