Most years, the power players of Silicon Valley regard their counterparts in Washington, D.C., with some mix of detached affection and amused pity—the way an EDM-inclined son might feel about his father’s love of The Eagles. (Sure, they might have mattered once, but that harmony’s never gonna sound as sweet again.) More than one venture capitalist has told me that when he visits Capitol Hill, he mostly wants to make sure Congress isn’t about to screw up his work, which is, it’s left unsaid, more important. Software is, after all, eating the world.
So it has been odd this week to see some of the highest-profile leaders of the technology industry speak clearly and publicly about political issues—and American partisan politics, in particular.
First, the venture capitalist Peter Thiel announced he will speak at the Republican National Convention next week in Cleveland. Thiel made his fortune by co-founding Paypal and investing early in Facebook; since then he has run venture funds with varying levels of success and created anti-college fellowships. He remains on Facebook’s board of directors.
“Many people are uncertain in this election year, but most Americans agree that our country is on the wrong track,” he said in a statement to Wired. “I don’t think we can fix our problems unless we can talk about them frankly.”
It will be interesting to see the American public’s response to that frank talk. A libertarian, Thiel holds some positions thought to lie far outside the American mainstream. He has praised the virtues of monopoly businesses in the Wall Street Journal, writing that “capitalism and competition are opposites.” (Trump, meanwhile, has implied that Amazon immorally violates antitrust law.) And in an essay for the Cato Institute in 2009, Thiel lamented that “the extension of the franchise to women […] has rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.”
He and his audience will likely disagree on social issues. The likely 2016 Republican platform supports “natural marriage” and conversion therapy, the clinically dubious practice of counseling gay people on how to become straight. Even other Republicans say this year’s platform is the party’s most anti-LGBT one ever.
Thiel, by contrast, is gay and supports marriage equality. He has also proven himself quite the campaigner on some LGBT matters. He is currently leading a multi-front legal war against Gawker Media after its flagship blog outed him in 2007. But perhaps those scruples matter less when you have the opportunity to appear on primetime television.
Then again, Thiel’s record suggests that his foray into big-time American politics shouldn’t come as a surprise. He has generously supported Ron Paul and Carly Fiorina, and Ted Cruz calls him a close friend.
This week’s second example of political activism in Silicon Valley comes as more of a shock: More than 140 executives, leaders, and developers in the technology industry publicly denounced Donald Trump’s campaign for president in an open letter posted to Medium.
Many of those leaders are well known, likely familiar to readers of tech news: Stewart Butterfield, the CEO of Slack; Ev Williams, a Twitter co-founder; Alexis Ohanian, a Reddit co-founder; Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook and Asana; and Steve Wozniak, who founded Apple with Steve Jobs. Other signatories wield power or prestige in the sector but more frequently work in the background. These include Vinod Khosla, an investor; Pierre Omidyar, an eBay co-founder; and Vint Cerf, who helped invent the TCP/IP protocol and with it the modern internet.
“We have listened to Donald Trump over the past year and we have concluded: Trump would be a disaster for innovation,” they write. “Forty percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. Donald Trump, meanwhile, traffics in ethnic and racial stereotypes, repeatedly insults women, and is openly hostile to immigration.”
What’s notable about the letter isn’t its politics—most tech leaders are assumed to be standard liberal meritocrats, and they do live in San Francisco—but its boldness. Silicon Valley has been one of the few mutually beloved positive goods in American politics, paid lip service by both Republicans and Democrats. Tech leaders tend to want to sustain that status quo. Trump, apparently, is such an anomalous candidate that Silicon Valley executives are willing to endanger their good standing.
Even this letter, for all its condemnation, never mentions Hillary Clinton. It never even asks people to vote against Trump. “We stand against Donald Trump’s divisive candidacy and want a candidate who embraces the ideals that built America’s technology industry,” say its signatories. That other candidate remains nameless.
In February of last year, the Federal Communications Commission affirmed that net neutrality was the law of the land. The decision closed an unusually public fight (at least for a piece of media regulation) that involved public statements from Barack Obama, a high-profile op-ed from the FCC chair, and a viral John Oliver rant. Throughout, Silicon Valley leaders were nearly unanimous in their support for net neutrality.
Mat Honan, bureau chief of BuzzFeed’s San Francisco bureau, saw the net-neutrality victory as the end of an era. “The internet is now meat-and-potato politics, like gas prices and health care costs,” he wrote. Going forward, the web would change and be changed by “the quotidian stuff of City Hall press conferences, empty congressional speeches, vision and demagoguery alike, and high-pressure, high-stakes regulatory action.”
Computing technology no longer held a special place as an unalloyed good, in other words. It was just politics now.
For Honan, this represented the ascension of the internet as a political force. All Americans care about the web now, so all Americans will assert a stake in its governance. But it’s also possible to see net neutrality as the last easy piece of techno-political infrastructure. It was the final policy measure that a vast majority of Silicon Valley stakeholders saw as an absolute need, the last element of a bipartisan program to create and secure the modern internet.
In that light, the internet is just as likely to become part of our “normal” politics—but in a darker way. Both libertarians and progressives have long grabbed onto the internet as a way to route around partisan politics. In the same essay where Thiel seemingly grieved the fact that women can vote, he highlighted cyberspace as a bright spot for libertarians.
“In the 2000s, companies like Facebook create the space for new modes of dissent and new ways to form communities not bounded by historical nation-states,” he said. Liberals saw the same potential in the web during that era—they might have even found themselves agreeing with Thiel, who wrote, “one would despair if one limited one’s horizon to the world of [American partisan] politics.”
Together, that alliance of liberals and libertarians have built the web together. But the operative word in that sentence is have. In the years to come, they shall find themselves in disagreement over the web’s—and the world’s—direction. They will ask politicians to solve their problems and, over time, align themselves with parties. And then the web really will belong to normal politics.