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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Silicon Valley Conservatives Are Stepping Out of the Shadows

Hi, everyone. One question: Did the search warrant include toilets?

The Plain View

One tweet recently struck my attention. “We are currently in the midst of the largest right-ward shift in Silicon Valley politics that I have seen in my 20 years here,” it went. “Some of this is on the surface, a lot is below it.”

The writer was Aditya Agrawal, a former engineer and executive at Facebook and Dropbox and currently the cofounder of South Park Commons. I’ve known him for a while as a smart, sensitive person and wasn’t sure if he was decrying, celebrating, or merely observing this shift. When I spoke to him about it, he confirmed he was referring to a subtle yet very real movement he considers himself a part of. It’s not about contesting the 2020 election, and certainly not cheering the demise of Roe v. Wade. It’s more of a disenchantment, and a sense that the liberal politics that many techies once embraced are now a turnoff.

“Most of the one-on-one conversations I have with people around the industry—executives, venture capitalists, CEOs, founders—seem to be pretty dissatisfied with the left-leaning politics of Silicon Valley,” he says.” Everyone's pretty disillusioned by the extreme woke-ism, kind of within a larger political sphere, but obviously within the companies themselves. Everybody is clearly dismayed by the publications we all used to respect for a long time, like The New York Times and The Washington Post, now taking a decidedly anti-building, anti-technology point of view.”

Conservatism in Silicon Valley is nothing new. The industry’s 1950s roots are in the defense industry. Long before engineers wore hoodies and shorts, they favored white short-sleeved shirts and crewcuts. And, of course, libertarianism has always been entrepreneurial catnip. Check out the bookshelf of a founder and you’ll often find a battered paperback of an Ayn Rand novel. But the hippie-inspired personal computer movement produced a wave of liberal-minded companies, with Apple as their avatar. Over the years, the uncontested perception of the Valley was that of liberal companies led by bleeding-heart CEOs.

In that era, being right-wing in tech was seen as a disastrous career move, unless you were so rich that no one could fire you, as Google did to James Damore when he wrote a shamefully disrespectful memo critiquing diversity efforts. But even billionaires got pushback. After Peter Theil funded Trump, people demanded that Facebook kick him off its board of directors. (Zuckerberg kept him, making the ridiculous claim that Thiel’s politics added diversity to the board.) Maybe the peak of the Red Scare came in 2017, when a CNN report on conservative tech “counterculture” could get subjects to speak on camera only if their images were blurred, as if they were in witness protection. “Pretty much anything that seems remotely right-wing could really hurt your business,” wrote CNN’s Laurie Segall. “You can lose your job and your livelihood, all because of a political belief that you feel is shared by half the country.”

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That stigma no longer seems to apply. There may not necessarily be more who lean right, but you no longer see stories with titles like “The Secret Republicans of Silicon Valley.” They’re tweeting! They even have a role model: Elon Musk, the closest thing that tech has to a philosopher-king. Last May, he startled people by tweeting that his political steering wheel had veered to the right. “In the past I voted Democrat because they were (mostly) the kindness party,” he wrote. “But they have become the party of division and hate, so I can no longer support them and will vote Republican.” (To keep this column moving, I won’t deconstruct the logic here.) And just last week, another much-admired industry leader, former Y Combinator CEO Sam Altman, went on Twitter to gripe about “the failure of government” in liberal California.

“Those who were what you’d call centrist a couple of years ago, or people avowedly conservative, are much more willing to go publicly counter-narrative,” says Antonio García Martínez, an ad-tech exec who once had his own problems with woke foes.

A possible turning point came during the June recall election of San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin, whose opposition was largely funded by tech money. García Martínez says that another key data point was Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong’s controversial edict banning political speech on the company’s internal chat boards. The move was seen as silencing voices for diversity, something that might previously have led to Armstrong’s being shunned. He hasn’t been. “They basically canceled cancellation at Coinbase and fired everyone who disagreed, and … nothing happened,” he says. (Actually it wasn’t so simple, but Coinbase did get past this and is dealing with other issues.)

Another incentive to go full-conservative is the crypto movement. For some reason, embracing regulation-resistant blockchain tools, notably cryptocurrencies, seems to vibe with the “freedom” celebrated by not wearing masks. Under cover of the hot new trend, formerly stealthy conservatives may feel empowered to unleash their inner William Buckley–or Steve Bannon. Maybe that’s why crypto conferences seem similar to MAGA rallies.

Nonetheless, many of those involved in the “rightward shift” that Agrawal speaks of want nothing to do with Trump. (Agrawal says that for him, it’s not about choosing one political party over the other.) Also, certain parts of the GOP agenda, particularly on immigration, repel these newly declared conservatives. 

It could be that the change in politics, particularly for the wealthy people who now find Democrats unsavory, reflects their circumstances. When you reach a certain status, you might be less excited about woke politics than you are about, say, the value of your home. Last week, for instance, we learned that Marc Andreessen, the Valley’s best-known advocate of “building,” is an all-caps opponent on building when it comes to multifamily homes in his own cloistered community.

Agrawal himself says his views are not linked to his bank account. “I think that the issue of whether somebody is wealthy or not, and low taxes versus high taxes, is actually a non-issue. None of the people I talk to bring that up. There is more a kind of existential angst: Will this still remain the place where building is encouraged, where we celebrate the act of creation?”

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I’m not sure how aligning with the Grand Old Party, or even just ditching the Dems, is going to help that mission. (Note: It was Joe Biden who just signed the $280 billion CHIPS act to, um, encourage building.) In any case, it was always too simple to label the tech industry as liberal. Even as Facebook/Meta used to get labeled as lefty, it was funneling money to Republicans and allowing them to spread disinformation with abandon. Twitter recently gave a $25,000 donation to the Republican Attorneys General Association, which is devoted to banning abortion and overturning the 2020 election. And all these companies are anti-union.

The newfound conservative impulse to go public simply reflects that more nuanced reality. I’m anything but right-wing, but I like to know where people stand. So tweet away, Elon. We can’t get any more divisive … right?

Time Travel

Politics used to be simpler. In 2006, I had heard Congressman Mike Doyle defend the work of Greg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, a DJ whose heavily-sampled songs had gotten him into copyright trouble. So I arranged a summit between the two in Doyle’s Pittsburgh hometown.

I had brought the two together (at a local hot-dog joint called the Franktuary) because Mike Doyle had taken the audacious step of wondering if his constituent, instead of being dismissed as a Pittsburgh pirate, should be recognized as an artist—and that Congress should explore ways that his work could be legally sanctioned. In a March hearing of the House Telecom Subcommittee, Doyle lauded Gillis and his work, in which snippets from disparate artists fade into and out of a witty collage powered by hip-hop rhythms and rap lyrics. "Mr. Chairman," said Doyle, "he blended Elton John, Notorious B.I.G. and Destiny's Child, all in the span of 30 seconds!" Doyle asked whether what Gillis does is any different from Paul McCartney's nicking a Chuck Berry bass line in a Beatles song. "Maybe mash-ups are a transformative new art," he said. In a Congress that reflexively goes overboard on granting rights to content owners, it was a rare recognition that there may be other ways of dealing with digitally enabled creativity besides outlawing it.

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The lunch's climactic moment came when the congressman asked how one could write a law "that would somehow square up with the 167 artists you've used and allow you to get on store shelves." Gillis said that he'd try to find a middle ground where some samples were OK because of fair-use provisions in the law and others paid for by a reasonable fee. The congressman listened, but admitted the odds were long for a Mash-Up Relief bill. "Some members don't even want to understand it," he said. On the other hand, Mike Doyle said he might catch one of Gillis's Girl Talk shows soon.

Ask Me One Thing

J.L. writes, “I prefer to read WIRED in the print edition, but I know I’m missing out by ignoring the website. Is there a way to know if something posted on the website is going to be in the print edition, too?”

Thanks for the question, J.L. This is an industry-wide problem with publications that still deliver their prose and art both in digital form and glorious print. I too find it nettlesome to receive my “weekender” copies of The New York Times and discover stories I read several weekends ago online.

You clearly have that issue with WIRED. We generally consider ourselves a “web first” publication while still producing what we think is a terrific print magazine. If you track things in reverse, you will find that some features do appear in advance of the issue while others drop online about the time the magazine is sent to subscribers. We can’t tell you for certain if one of the former is destined for print because sometimes we don’t make the call until after a story appears—reader reaction or timeliness of subject and other factors come into play.

But here’s a tip: All of our features appear in a section of the website called Backchannel. (The name comes from the publication I headed for Medium, which Condé Nast purchased in 2016, and later folded into WIRED.) If you want to enjoy our features in print for the first time, maybe hold off reading anything in that section until a month or so after it appears. If it isn’t in print by then, dive into the archive and read it online.

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Personally, I find it hard to hold off reading something juicy when I know it’s available. If the story is really good, I’ll gobble it up online and then savor it once again on the lush printed page. Make the most of your subscription fee!

You can submit questions to mail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

End Times Chronicle

A former president takes the Fifth—and that’s maybe the third-worst-thing that happened to him this week.

Last but Not Least

My fifth interview with epidemiologist Larry Brilliant. Covid, you could stop this now–just go away!

We hate captchas, but we’re never going to get rid of them.

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Finally, a WIRED article with pictures of a breeding sea lamprey. Parental advisory.

An August special: the best lawn games for this summer. Leave the lampreys at home.

And a September special: the return of Re:WIRED! Join us next month for a conference on climate change.

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