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Secession in the Valley, and the End of Politics

Andrew Leonard has a short, sharp piece in Salon entitled "Silicon Valley dreams of secession," about a recent talk by tech entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan calling for the Valley to secede from the US on a wave of 3D printers, drones, and bitcoins. Here's Leonard's capsule of the talk, along with Srinivasan's money quote:

Virtual secession, argues Srinivasan, is just natural evolution. Once upon a time, people seeking better lives left their broken states to immigrate to the U.S. Now, it is time for their descendants to emigrate further, except this time they don’t need to go anywhere physically, except into the cloud.

“Exit,” according to Srinivasan, “means giving people tools to reduce the influence of bad policies over their lives without getting involved in politics… It basically means build an opt in society, run by technology, outside the U.S.”

Long time readers will have guessed what part of Srinivasan's quote bothered me the most: "without getting involved in politics."

In 2009, I wrote a piece entitled "The End-of-Politics Delusion," about a broadly parallel set of arguments emerging from the bowels of Silicon Valley. Democracy is bad, and what we really need is a technology-enabled society to get rid of politics, or so the true believers would have us think. I reacted with this:

Politics is part of a healthy society -- it's what happens when you have a group of people with differential goals and a persistent relationship. It's not about partisanship, it's about power. And while even small groups have politics (think: supporting or opposing decisions, differing levels of power to achieve goals, deciding how to use limited resources), the more people involved, the more complex the politics. Factions, parties, ideologies and the like are simply ways of organizing politics in a complex social space -- they're symptoms of politics, not causes.

Calls to get rid of politics can therefore mean one of two things: getting rid of persistent relationships with other people; or getting rid of differential goals. Since I don't see too many of the folks who talk about escaping politics also talking about becoming lone isolationists, the only reasonable presumption is that they're really talking about eliminating disagreements.

It's the latest version of the notion that "a perfect world is one where everyone agrees with me."

Anyone calling for an end to politics, whether via secession or technocracy or singularity, either has no understanding of how human societies work (the generous interpretation) or has an authoritarian streak itching to show itself (the less-generous version). Srinivasan's version is even worse due to its dependence upon a thoroughly unreliable, opaque, and politically-biased substrate, "the cloud."

Here's what I mean: technologies fail, sometimes briefly, sometimes disastrously, whether because of physical damage, bad code, or intentional attack; telecommunication systems, in particular the commercial telecom carriers in the US, are notoriously unwilling to divulge operational details and abide by network neutrality; and all of these technologies embed norms and choices that are inherently biased [just as one example, the vast majority of home internet connections in the US are asymmetric, with much faster download (consumption) speeds than upload (creation) speeds -- that's a choice, not an inherent fact of the technology]. Using this as the basis of a political system seems... unwise.

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