Adam Curtis in his wonderful BBC series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace discusses how Ayn Rand influenced many in the tech industry.
Having been accused of being a ‘techno-utopist’ Curtis’ story is a good reminder of the limits of technology and how the future doesn’t usually turn out how we imagine.
The Ayn Rand influence is worth reflecting on as Rand’s libertarian outloook is shared by many in the technology industry – from the lowest PC technician to the highest flying software mogul.
Rand’s beliefs are best portrayed in her own words, in a 1958 interview with Mike Wallace she tells of how she believes in “challenging the moral code of altruism.”
In Rand’s world view it was the duty of each man to achieve their own happiness, self sacrifice and caring for other is weakness.
That technologists should have those views is curious in that the entire computer industry, the internet and Silicon Valley itself is the result of massive US government spending during World War II and the Cold War.
An more delicious irony is the centre of Silicon Valley, Stanford University, is itself the result of a bequest by railroad tycoon and former Californian governor Leland Stanford.
So self-sacrifice, altruism and government spending forms the basis of the entire modern tech industry – something that computer industry’s libertarians ignore, if they are conscious of history at all.
An even bigger contradiction is the belief that the internet dismantles government and corporate power – one of the lessons of Edward Snowden’s revelations is how comprehensively intelligence agencies monitor online communications.
When the history of Silicon Valley and the 21st Century tech boom is written, one of the compelling themes will be the contrast between the industry’s beliefs and reality.
The final chapters of that history will describe how that contrast between reality and beliefs is resolved.