The Silicon Valley Mindset


The tech industry is one of the most powerful entities affecting our world. But who are these people? And what do they believe and how do they think about the world? A couple of recent articles provide a window into this.

Rationalist Demographics

The first is a set of demographics from the reader survey (unscientific, but with 5500 respondents) of the popular blog Slate Star Codex. SSC is the web site of Scott Alexander, pen name of a Midwest psychiatrist. It’s explicitly associated with the Rationalist movement and especially the Less Wrong community. If you’d like to get a feel for the Rationalist way of life, see the New York Times Magazine profile of them. One site says of them:

…typical rationalist philosophical positions include reductionism, materialism, moral non-realism, utilitarianism, anti-deathism and transhumanism. Rationalists across all three groups tend to have high opinions of the Sequences and Slate Star Codex and cite both in arguments; rationalist discourse norms were shaped by How To Actually Change Your Mind and 37 Ways Words Can Be Wrong, among others.

They analyze the world in terms of Bayesianism, game theory, trying to become aware of personal biases, etc. They are trying to improve themselves and the world through a clearer sense of reality as informed by their philosophical worldview above. Their heartland is Silicon Valley, though there’s a group of them NYC too of course.

Alexander is a psychiatrist, but this community, and the Rationalists generally, is highly tech centric. Alexander himself is a defender of Silicon Valley. His readership is predominantly in computer science and other related tech professions, and overlaps heavily with Silicon Valley.

His readers are 90% male, 89% white (Asians under-represented vs the Valley), and 81% atheist or agnostic. They skew significantly left in their politics. 55% of them are explicitly politically left, with another 24% libertarian. A higher percentage actually describe themselves as neoreactionary or alt-right (6.3%) than conservative (5.7%).

The following table shows their responses on various topics:

Item Left/Globalist Position Right/Populist Positions
Immigration 55.8% more permissive 20.3% more restrictive
Feminism 48.1% favorable 28.4% unfavorable
Donald Trump 82.3% unfavorable 6.6% favorable
Basic Income 60.1% favor 18.6% oppose
Global Warming 72.8% requires action 13.7% does not require action
Weightlifting 64.4% no/rarely 22.5% yes/often

Silicon Valley Founders Survey

A second source comes from a recent City Journal article by former Tech Crunch reporter Gregory Ferenstein. He used the Crunchbase database to survey 147 tech founders, including a few billionaires and other influentials, to get a sense of their belief system.

One of his core findings is that Silicon Valley founders are strong believers in income inequality.

The most common answer I received in Silicon Valley was this: over the (very) long run, an increasingly greater share of economic wealth will be generated by a smaller slice of very talented or original people. Everyone else will increasingly subsist on some combination of part-time entrepreneurial “gig work” and government aid. The way the Valley elite see it, everyone can try to be an entrepreneur; some small percentage will achieve wild success and create enough wealth that others can live comfortably. Many tech leaders appear optimistic that this type of economy will provide the vast majority of people with unprecedented prosperity and leisure, though no one quite knows when.

The founders he surveyed (a tiny subset so beware of error margins) 2/3 believed that the top 10% of people would collect 50% or more of all the income in a meritocracy (the system they endorse).

Y Combinator Paul Graham got in trouble for openly talking about inequality as inevitable. Not because other Valley execs thought he was wrong, but because the optics are bad. It’s similar to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. His real crime was being so gauche as to put a picture of Ayn Rand as his Twitter avatar. He should have known that he was supposed to spout politically palatable bromides while running his company in a Rand-like mode, which seems to be how many of these firms in fact operate.

Speaking of which, the politics of Silicon Valley are an odd mix of leftism and hyper-market economics. Overwhelmingly, Silicon Valley donates money to the Democrats and to progressive causes. (They also largely hate Donald Trump with a passion). What’s more, they have a communitarian streak and don’t think of themselves as hard core individualists:

Indeed, in my survey, founders displayed a strong orientation toward collectivism. Fifty-nine percent believed in a health-care mandate, compared with just 21 percent of self-identified libertarians. They also believed that the government should coerce people into making wise personal decisions, such as whether to eat healthier foods. Sixty-two percent said that individual decisions had an impact on many other people, justifying government intervention.

But they also support a neoliberal vision of the economy.

Silicon Valley’s reputation as a haven for small-government activists isn’t entirely off base: the Valley does support some staunchly libertarian ideas, and the tech elite are not typical Democrats. They don’t like regulations or labor unions. For instance, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have both given hundreds of millions of dollars to charter schools and supported policies that would allow public schools to fire teachers more readily and dodge union membership. Big tech lobbyists are also strong supporters of free trade. According to Maplight, several telecommunications companies have lobbied for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal that union groups and many Democrats oppose.

Theirs is a move to make public schools more like charters—a different focus from a libertarian vision of simply privatizing the education system. The tech elite want to bring the essence of free markets to all things public and private. Using traditional American political categories, this would land them in the Republican camp.

This is most evident in their techno-utopianism and belief that unbridled creative destruction always brings long run benefits:

On the capitalistic side, tech founders were extraordinarily optimistic about the nature of change, especially the kind of unpredictable “creative destruction” associated with free markets. Philosophically, most tech founders believe that “change over the long run is inherently positive.” Or, as Hillary Clinton supporter and billionaire Reid Hoffman told me: “I tend to believe that most Silicon Valley people are very much long-term optimists. . . . Could we have a bad 20 years? Absolutely. But if you’re working toward progress, your future will be better than your present.”

They in part reconcile all these through a belief in high taxation and redistribution, especially in the form of a basic income. This policy idea, nowhere fully implemented, is probably completely unknown to most Americans, yet has strong majority support in Silicon Valley (60% of SSC’s readers).

The Silicon Valley State of Mind

Combining these, what we see is that Silicon Valley is made up overwhelmingly of men, who are highly intelligent and with extreme faith in their intelligence and rationality, largely atheist, and largely leftist in their thinking, but who believe in an aristocracy of talent.

They exhibit extreme faith in the goodness of technical progress and seem to believe that human problems can be resolved almost entirely through the realm of technology and engineering. They believe in policy, but a technocratic vision of it in which their rationalist designs, powered by technology, inform government decisions.

One might say they are naive, but their track record of success gives them reasons for confidence. Consider Uber. Uber is effectively a technological workaround to dysfunctional politics and regulation. It has revolutionized transportation in many cities were taxis were before almost not available. Where almost all other reform efforts failed, Uber was a spectacular success. Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc. have all been extremely successful at what they do. And in any case, Silicon Valley’s “fail false” mentality means that they don’t necessarily see their failures – say, Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million schools fiasco in Newark – as a reflection on their capabilities. Many failures and a handful of grand slams is how their system is designed to function.

What’s more, it’s not just them who thinks they can fix things. Much of the rest of society seems to believe it too. For example, Alon Levy just put up a post examining the composition of NY Gov. Cuomo’s “MTA Genius Grant” panel, and how it is heavily slanted towards tech people vs. transportation people. Of course, the politicians and transport people have failed with the MTA to date. So they lose credibility by failures as Silicon Valley gains it with successes.

However, their techno-optimistic view perhaps leads them to underestimate second and third order consequences and overestimate their ability to deal with them. For example, perhaps more than anyone else, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey made Donald Trump’s presidency possible. Without his social media impact, and the ability of his troll army to drive news cycles, I very much doubt he would have gotten over the top. That’s a second order effect they never anticipated.

Also, Trump himself is a classic example of creative destruction. He disrupted the politics business in the same way Netflix disrupted the video rental one. Yet they despise him and don’t think this is a positive change. It seems that they only like disruption when they are the ones controlling it, and don’t really believe in creative destruction per se. Instead it’s just another term of art for their taking over one industry after another.

They themselves have no problem at all radically reordering society with unproven policies at levels far beyond what almost any political figure would do. Their blasé acceptance of massive job destruction and embrace of a speculative basic income scheme to compensate illustrate that. It’s no surprise to me that Mencius Moldbug, the founder of neoreaction (one of the sub-tribes commonly grouped with the alt-right that believes in absolute monarchy or the state as a publicly traded sovereign corporation), is a Silicon Valley techie and startup founder who reportedly started out in the Rationalist movement.

They are also comfortable with an almost feudal distribution of wealth, so long as it’s based on an aristocracy of talent rather than heredity. And it’s an aristocracy that believes it should rule as well as profit. When they talk about a communitarian ethos in which the government needs to compel people to act properly, it’s pretty clear who the determinant of that is. It will of course be intelligent “rationalists” like them, who know what is right, have the technology to bring it into being, and whose motivations are beyond question (at least in their own mind).

It’s a stunningly grandiose vision. Much like the EU, I suspect the public’s tolerance for it will be directly proportional to benefits continuously delivered. To the extent that Silicon Valley is able to deliver benefits to the common good, few will stand in their way. If the benefits slow, or the costs (including second and third order costs) start exceeding the benefits, we’ll see how it turns out for them.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

Photo by Maurizio Pesce via Flickr, using CC License.