Silicon Valley’s Original Sin | Sojourners

Silicon Valley’s Original Sin

Big Tech offers a world of self-actualization, wealth, and progress. What could go wrong?

ON JAN 9, 2007, STEVE JOBS stepped onto a stage in San Francisco, his trademark black mock-turtleneck blending with the shadowed backdrop, his clipped hair and lean countenance offering a monk-like silhouette against the screen.

Jobs stepped forward and raised his arms. And there it was, almost inconspicuous in the palm of his hand. “Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone ... here it is ... the iPhone.” Naming a new god.

At the time, no one consciously believed that smartphones, the internet of things, or ubiquitous computing would save us. Yet, as the encyclical Laudato Si points out about technocracies: No one has to actually believe they’re gods. They become gods when we start investing our hope and identity in them.

And here we are. We live as if the connections provided by digital technologies are vital—and indeed we have made them so.

A decade after the first iPhone, environmental engineer Braden Allenby was asked whether, one day, humans would be wired directly into the internet. “Look at any city street,” he replied. “At least half the people are looking at their phones. We’re already integrated into networks beyond our physical environment.” Heads bowed, praying to strange new gods.

It began as allure: more accessible music, easier communication, maps and directions. Then it slid toward addiction: picking up the phone in the morning, like a first cigarette of the day. And now, dependence: Our lives are synced, our habits surveilled, our data monetized, and the world goes ’round. Our little intimacies power a vast machinery.

All in the name of improving our lives.

The iPhone is not, of course, the whole story, but it marked a vivid and visceral threshold. Once crossed, our interior lives began to be woven into a wider digital fabric. And while that weave offers moments of self-empowerment and social connection, it also opens us up in unanticipated ways—shaping not only what we do, but who we become.

Standing on that stage, pacing methodically, voice rising and falling with consternation and conviction, Jobs embodied a figure deeply rooted in the American imagination: the revivalist, the preacher, the evangelist, come to tell us good news.

The “good news” on offer may have been utterly mundane: little distractions and big profits. Yet it made manifest the asymmetrical power Silicon Valley has come to exercise over our imaginations, desires, and habits, a power potently linked to the belief that all this innovation will eventually save us (make us healthy, wealthy, and wise)—if we just let it do its job.

Limitless abundance

The personal computer wasn’t just born of better engineering. It was also born of a potent northern California mix of Christian individualism and Eastern metaphysics, brought together and catalyzed by countercultural politics.

During the 1950s and ’60s, a diffuse spirituality could be felt across the Bay Area. There were Zen retreat centers in Marin County to the north, the Gestalt psychology of the Esalen community to the south, and a riot of New Age spiritualities blossoming in Berkeley and San Francisco. At the center was the enticing idea that in our “peak experiences”—our moments of greatest clarity about our truest selves—we discover something transcendent: an oceanic experience of unity-in-difference where our true self is tangled up with, and empowered by, everything else. The cosmos as amplifier.

For this spirituality, such moments of peak experience seem to reveal that, deep down, the world isn’t defined by scarcity or brokenness, but rather by limitless abundance, one hidden behind our small imaginations. As theologian Ted Peters puts it: This is a spirituality that never asks for forgiveness because every limitation or letdown is only an opportunity for growth. A world without shadow.

For countercultural engineers, this vision of abundance took material form in the idea of personal computing. Think about the iPhone: You hold it in the palm of your hand. In a very real sense it is an extension of yourself—your schedule, relations, habits, aspirations. Yet at the same time it is connected to everything else, a vehicle of self-amplification. It’s built on the idea that information knows no limits, that technology is the key to abundance, and that the only constraint is failure of imagination.

For most in the 1950s and ’60s, the computer was about big business and war—corporate, powerful, centralized. Yet, for a handful, it was also about self-actualization. In the 1930s, the computer pioneer Vannevar Bush had envisioned the “memex”—a machine that could collect human knowledge and make it available whenever needed. Bush’s idea never went away.

By the late 1960s, Douglas Engelbart and colleagues at the Stanford Research Institute were making good on the idea that computers could augment human intelligence. By the ’70s, countercultural figures such as Stewart Brand were asking whether personal computers might link geographically dispersed experiments in radical democracy.

Underneath it all was something almost metaphysical. The mathematics behind computing were born from the strange physics of quantum mechanics—an enchanted world where information seemed both fundamental and limitless. At the heart of this world was Moore’s Law: the discovery that every time the size of a transistor on a computer chip shrank by half, the space on the chip for circuits quadrupled. Moore’s Law became a guiding metaphor, the exponential power of computing as both technical and social reality. And once programmers discovered that a few years’ work could be transformed, overnight, into a few billion dollars, belief in the abundance unleashed by technology became cultural common sense.

No need to choose

In the 1980s and ’90s, the world of geeks-in-garages morphed into the machinery of global capitalism. Silicon Valley traded its explicitly spiritual content for the corporate-friendly vibe of self-empowerment.

Yet the vision of abundance remained. Each of the Big 5 companies offered a moral tale about why it should be allowed to reach into every corner of our lives. Microsoft would put “a computer on every desk”; Facebook would “connect everyone”; Google would “organize all knowledge”; Amazon would be “the store for everything.” Then Apple, along with the rest, offered a vision for ubiquitous computing—infusing daily existence with artificial intelligence.

The monopoly reach of Big Tech is disquieting for old-fashioned reasons: Monopolies dominate and exploit. Yet equally troubling is how the story tech tells about itself justifies an approach to engineering that aims to remake our very subjectivity. As author Franklin Foer puts it, “Tech monopolies aspire to mold humanity into their desired image.” The more we use their tools and infrastructures, the more our behaviors get caught in an inexorable feedback loop with their algorithms. Our activities and affections sync up with Big Tech’s ambitions.

“[Big tech corporations] intend for us to turn unthinkingly to them for information and entertainment while they catalogue our intentions and aversions,” continues Foer. “They think they have the opportunity to complete the long merger between [human] and machine—to redirect the trajectory of human evolution.” That may sound overblown. Yet, in quiet ways, the impulse to transform humanity is all over the Valley.

Consider Facebook. For more than a decade, Facebook has invited us to upload our most intimate moments—weddings, births, parties, griefs, joys, laughs. Its business model is all about surveilling this trove of intimacy, picking it over, and asserting its algorithms in unobtrusive ways that begin to steer our habits and desires. And what Facebook does with our friendships, Alexa is doing to our homes, and wearable devices to our bodies.

For a long time, most of us shrugged this off as the price of progress. Then the Edward Snowden affair, Russian trolls, and Cambridge Analytica forced us to face the fact that little nudges of inclination and appetite produce profound effects. We’re being governed by micro-adjustments.

Nevertheless, the Valley’s vision for a transformed humanity is protected from critical examination by its central tenet of faith: Innovation is always good, and more is always better. Create powerful technologies, improve humanity and the planet, and make piles of money. All at once, no need to choose.

MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson, a true believer, puts it like this: “Technology can create enormous bounty, but the road to abundance may be very rocky as existing business models and ways of creating value are disrupted.” If there’s any negative fallout from innovation, not to worry. It’s just the birth pangs of a new order.

This is where the countercultural roots of Silicon Valley, which might otherwise be inspiring, prove dangerous. The secularized spirituality of Big Tech—that information is unlimited, technology abundant, and imagination king—buffers it against any ability to contemplate its own potential evil. The Big 5 may admit to data breaches or the occasional bad actor, but for them, true innovation is always unalloyed.

It’s this belief—that technology will save us because there are no real trade-offs between self-actualization, wealth, and progress—that ultimately makes the wheels go ’round. The real story of Silicon Valley is a story of faith that admits no darkness. Innovation is all light and no shadow. Which may sound good. But without recognizing shadow, there can be no moral realism. And without moral realism, the potential for genuine innovation, beyond superficial updates, is gone.

Holy matter

The new gods of Silicon Valley aren’t alone in this. The belief that light can be purified from darkness has been the fantasy of many regimes of human power. It’s a way of assuring ourselves that darkness is only “out there” and never “in here.”

Christians certainly aren’t immune from these seductions. Turn on the news and watch. Why else would St. Paul have warned the believers at Corinth to steer clear of those masquerading as “angels of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14)? When it comes to self-righteousness and the dangerous denials that accompany it, there’s a long list of offenders.

But if Christians have been among the offenders, they’ve also pioneered practices to help resist the lure of believing life can be all light and no shadow. There are lots of examples. Surprisingly, one of the most politically potent forms of resistance has been the Christian notion of sacrament—holy matter. It’s surprising, because many moderns think of sacrament as a “mere” symbol, one that is primarily about personal (i.e. not political) belief.

It’s politically potent because the politics of holy matter resists splitting light from shadow. It does this by refusing to hive off material from spiritual life. Often, those in power who want to claim self-righteousness do so by valorizing spirituality over materiality—as if darkness and evil were all on the material side of the ledger. The biblical metaphor of false “angels of light” reminds us things are more complicated.

For much of Christian history, the material side of holy matter really mattered. It mattered because sacrament emphasizes the deep and inextricable connections between God and the world, spirit and flesh. Holy matter is a radical proposition that the being of God is so deeply entwined in the world that divine presence imprints on materiality itself.

Christians have long used the politics of holy matter to counter the injustices of their day. Think of groups such as the Catholic Worker movement, which embodied a theological response to industrialization. For the Catholic Workers, the trouble with the exploitative institutions of industrialization—the factory and the state—was that, by regimenting and “individualizing” the worker (everyone is given a number, punches a timeclock, and stands in line), those institutions created a form of life marked by a combination of pacification (comply with the routine) and extraction (routines will activate your energy and channel it).

That combination effectively cut off the human person from the earth, from daily connection to family, from spontaneous creativity, and ultimately—in the view of many activists—from life lived in the divine image. Industrialists, of course, saw all this as nothing more than the birth pangs of a new order.

It’s no accident that the Catholic Worker movement (and others) looked to cooperative farming as one form of earthy salvation: Farm work might break the body, but unlike the factory, it doesn’t break the soul. It doesn’t break the soul because it keeps you connected—in a real, material way—to land, family, and community.

Behind it all was the logic of holy matter. If you work with your hands, you participate in God’s work. Sacrament in the stuff of everyday life—abundant connection.

Here’s the key: By holding flesh and spirit together, holy matter keeps us close to the fragility of life. And when we stay close to the fragility of life, we can’t be naïve about the deep entanglements we all experience between good and bad, precious and mundane, beauty and tragedy, light and shadow. Sacrament is all about grace, to be sure—enlivened matter. But it’s about matter nonetheless: grace through the mysterious entanglements of life.

This matters for Silicon Valley. Things go sideways when we imagine ourselves only on the side of the light. One way we do that is by denying the graceful nature of matter, turning all our attention to spirit. That’s what Silicon Valley has done. Replace “spirit” with “information” and you get the picture.

Put differently, Silicon Valley has taken the Christian impulse toward finding abundance in everyday stuff and given it a twist. Like holy matter, a digitally networked society is a mysterious entanglement. But unlike the entanglement of holy matter, the connections of a networked society are algorithmic: a step-wise control of processes that reshape us through the play of information. Those interactive manipulations have real, and sometimes dark, effects. When those effects get cast as nothing more than the “rocky road” of “disruption” on the way to abundance, they don’t get taken seriously.

When you talk to people in the Valley about the kind of tangled world imagined by holy matter, they get excited: They too hate that the modern world has become so fragmented and exploitative, hence the good they see in connectivity.

Yet if you take the idea of holy matter seriously, then life is already tangled up: the world in God, God in the world, people in one another. From that perspective, computers don’t actually produce connections where there were none before—and so they certainly don’t “save” us. True, they give us new ways of activating and inhabiting our connections to one another—and that can’t be taken for granted. But in doing so they’ve also “algorithmized” life, setting loose a machinery of transformation whose contradictions are abundantly clear.

Light and shadow

Which brings us back to shadow.

The trouble with the Valley, the trouble with the gospel of the iPhone, ubiquitous computing, and automation, is that it has been pursued as if technology doesn’t have shadow. That lack of moral realism is problematic twice over. Once because it invites power without restraint. But also—and just as important—because it constitutes what entrepreneurs call an “opportunity cost.” You won’t bother with soul-searching if you think an engineering patch will do.

Christianity, like other great spiritual traditions, is filled with rich and lively metaphors of darkness and shadow: the cleft of the rock, the shadow of the mother’s wing, the earthiness of the womb, the vitality of the tomb. There might seem to be a world of difference between these enlivening metaphors of darkness and the kind of darkness that Silicon Valley has refused to acknowledge. But the thing about these biblical metaphors is that they’re simultaneously about devastation and shelter, loss and renewal, death and new life. Always both at the same time. That is their power: the hope of resurrection—the promise underwriting Christian notions of salvation. The tomb is empty, and thus, crazily, it’s a scene of vitalization. Yet it is still a tomb, a place marked by death and brokenness. The traces of death and brokenness don’t go away. They get transformed.

For anyone who has gone through the darkness of the grave in their own life, the power of redemption is that, in the midst of despair, you find the Spirit still holds you. In that moment, you discover that God can contain all our contradictions: good and bad, gifts and failings, love and hate. Our brokenness gets transmuted into new life. The logic of sacrament meets the logic of resurrection.

This means that when we do soul work, when we take seriously the hard labor of facing up to the dark parts of ourselves, our goal isn’t to deny the shadow—as if it weren’t a real part of our experiences—or to simply turn darkness into light. It’s to turn darkness into growth in love.

Real abundance, whatever Silicon Valley may believe, incorporates the shadow. To believe otherwise is to be Gnostic, not Christian. It’s to be morally unrealistic. And the failure to face up to reality is where danger really lies.

Glimmers of hope

There are glimmers of hope. There is a cohort of vocal technologists in the Valley who no longer think you can make powerful technologies, improve humanity, and make piles of money without tradeoffs. Google employees forced the company to refuse defense contracts for autonomous weapons and walked out in protest of sexual harassment.

That may seem small, but it provides an opening, an exit toward a different theological possibility: namely, that Silicon Valley, like the rest of us, has a shadow. And, like the rest of us, it needs to take work on that shadow as a key part of the life of innovation. After all, the root of innovation, innovare, means to change or renew.

Of course, it’s not only about Silicon Valley, as if the rest of us are off the hook. When Steve Jobs offered us good news, we believed. The iPhone, in its elegant tactility, may have captured our attention and enmeshed us into its networked world. But part of us wanted to be bewitched. Refusing that spell may mean simply spending more time unplugged. But it may also mean keeping a lookout for places where, collectively, we keep hoping technology will save us. We need to stop bowing our heads to these strange new gods.

Today, the limits of innovation without shadow are on full display. What remains to be seen is where a little work on our shadow might yet take us.

This appears in the January 2019 issue of Sojourners
for more info