HEWN, No. 321

"Sugar Daddy Science" and the Silicon Valley positivity machine... and a pigeon

Moments after I hit “send” on last week’s HEWN, news broke that the head of the MIT Media Lab, Joi Ito, had resigned. But if his departure was supposed to bring closure to the story of the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s connections to research laboratories at fancy, private universities... well.... There were many more revelations this week, including some truly abysmal opinions from tech luminaries Larry Lessig and Richard Stallman.

Their awfulness is a particularly stark reminder, I would say, of something I’ve argued many times: that we cannot presume that the adjective “open” is sufficient when it comes to re-orienting our technologies towards justice.

I recognize that people’s heroes are falling left and right in all this. I predict more heroes are going to topple. Faves. Problematic. Etc.

But there must a reckoning. (See: danah boyd’s remarks this week as she received the 2019 Barlow/Pioneer Award from the EFF.) Things must change in tech — ideologically, structurally, to be sure. (It’s time to “destroy the MIT Media Lab,” says Noah Kulwin. And what if it is? What will we really lose?) But things must also change in many other smaller, subtler ways as well. (See: Charlie Warzel’s op-ed that this week’s Apple keynote should be the very last one ever.)

This week’s pigeon does not bother to watch Tim Cook and the other Apple execs perform product pitches in their Dad-wear. This is the crested pigeon, which can be found throughout Australia. (Image credits)

The NYT’s Nellie Bowles wrote a story this week about a recent dust-up on tech-investor Twitter. In general, it’s best to avoid that particular hell-spot on that particular hell-site. But if you were watching on 29 June, you might have witnessed the drama. (I saved a screenshot at the time, but restarted my newsletter that week with a much better topic: my book.) In case you missed it: in response to a San Francisco Chronicle article detailing the demise of AltSchool, Jason Palmer, General Partner at New Markets Venture Partners, tweeted:

And men lost their goddamn minds. Palmer’s tweet apparently broke “the first rule of Silicon Valley venture capital,” as Bowles described it. Never insult a start-up.

Bowles’ article chronicles the angry responses from other investors and entrepreneurs, many threatening to make sure Palmer and his VC firm never make another deal again. The CEO of a surveillance company — a surveillance company, ffs — called Palmer “literally the worst.” And Mike Arrington — founder of the tech blog Techcrunch and now an investor himself and not someone known as a particularly nice person — described Palmer’s tweet as “toxic behavior,” which is pretty fucking rich coming from that guy.

Bowles writes about Internet culture for the Styles section, and she’s covered ed-tech topics before, often in ways that make me scrunch up my face and mutter “mmmm, not exactly.” This latest article appears, on its surface, to be concerned with revealing “the Silicon Valley positivity machine,” wherein one is only allowed to say nice things if one wants to participate in the exuberant startup-building and money-making. But the article just sort of points and shrugs; and rather than talking about how dangerous this refusal to allow divergent opinions might be, she instead details Palmer’s apology, his performance of acquiescence, his “lessons learned.” For Palmer, “it was ‘a reminder’,” she contends, “that tech entrepreneurs truly believe they are saving the world. He wanted to be clear now that he truly believes this, too. They were right. His tweet was very bad. He has been chastened.”

And maybe Bowles thinks she’s being too clever by half here. Wink, wink. Perhaps she wants us to secretly believe, like Palmer appears to in the kicker, that we all know the conformity’s just for show. But come on. Being a vocal critic — really, trust me on this — will get you shunned faster than building technology for the police state. You can take money from a pedophile; you can dine with a pedophile; you can defend a pedophile. God forbid you speak out or speak up or speak against anyone powerful or well-connected.

To a certain extent, I think Bowles misses the point of the whole dust-up. The danger isn’t only that many people are afraid to challenge the orthodoxy. The danger is that many do not really think all that differently. Many in Silicon Valley (and more broadly those working in science and tech and in elite university labs) believe they’re all The Very Smartest Men, and if nothing else, they’ve convinced themselves to that end. Sugar Daddy Science.

There’s a whole other set of truths that Bowles never touches upon in her quest to talk about the demand for good Silicon Valley manners in order to get to be in good Silicon Valley company. See, Sugar Daddy Science is bad science. And Jason Palmer was absolutely right. AltSchool was a terrible idea. It was obviously a bad investment. Its founder had no idea how to design or run a school. He had no experience in education — just connections to a powerful network of investors who similarly had no damn clue and wouldn’t have known the right questions to ask if someone printed them out in cheery, bubble-balloon lettering. It’s offensive that AltSchool raised almost $175 million. It’s offensive that so many ed-tech journalists carried the company’s water, touting its innovative and disruptive potential. I care much less that we were all supposed to be nice about the startup. I care that this was a startup — like far too many in ed-tech — that, with its normalizing of surveillance, was poised to hurt kids.

As Benjamin Doxtdator suggests in his brilliant and scathing review of a recent ed-tech book Innovate Inside the Box, “innovation” stands as an empty antithesis to “criticism” (which he invokes alongside critical pedagogy, critical theory, critical race and gender scholarship, critical code studies, and so on). It’s not simply that the Silicon Valley positivity machine only rewards positive ideas. (“We build things,” someone once told me. “You just tear things down.”) Without a grounding in theory or knowledge or ethics or care, the Silicon Valley machine rewards stupid and dangerous ideas, propping up and propped up by ridiculous, self-serving men. There won’t ever be a reckoning if we’re nice.

Yours in struggle,