The early days of the internet were rife with optimism about the future of the technological society. Techno-utopians naively hoped that a society running on the so-called “Information SuperHighway” would be armed with facts, and civic life would evolve past the tired dialectic of partisan politics.
Instead, we have the culture war and a myriad of trivialities that threaten to ensconce the human race in low-stakes concerns like preferred pronouns and microaggressions.
Of course what they predicted, and what ended up happening, are two very different things. Far from enlightenment, we’re confronting a world of conspiracy theories and alternative narratives produced within echo chambers and widely disseminated through social media—some of which are downright dangerous.
Before we can understand why things are the way they are, it is necessary to recall what happened in the first two decades of the 21st century. That’s likely what motivated Joe Bernstein’s recent retrospective on BuzzFeed. For all the utopianism and hope that defined the end of the 20th century, we still haven’t ended starvation and inequality, accomplished world peace, or established a colony on Mars. Instead, we have the culture war and a myriad of trivialities that threaten to ensconce the human race in low-stakes concerns like preferred pronouns and microaggressions.
Bernstein, who’s very much a “normie,” laments the ways in which the new age of enlightenment, driven by technological progress, failed to deliver. But the utopia he grieves for is very much a product of Big Tech’s monocultural hegemony. Big Tech, which has engineered the current state of political discourse, has been subsumed by leftist beliefs—both from within and without.
THE TWIN HISTORY OF SILICON VALLEY LIBERALISM AND MAGA-NET
Remember Usenet? You probably don’t. In the ‘90s, Usenet was a series of message boards that existed on an alternate network before the dominance of the “world wide web.” Usenet and other disparate networks existed alongside the web—and continue to do so. Usenet was something anyone with a client could access, the same way you can access the world wide web through browsers like Google Chrome, Safari, or Firefox today. This decentralized network of message boards—“newsgroups”—served as sounding boards for people to have conversations. They were run very much like forums are these days, dedicated usually to singular topics or fields of interest.
Just as radical left-wing ideas began to trickle out of the insular Usenet intelligentsia, so too did the counter-establishment on imageboards.
Many of the terms used these days by the LGBT+ or social justice community first emerged or took on prominence through these Usenet communities, including the term “cisgender” (the opposite of transgender). The concept was never really a thing until the denizens of these newsgroups made their way to proto-social media sites like LiveJournal, and eventually dominated social media platforms. Now these concepts, which were incubated in echo chambers, have proliferated mainstream political discourse. Democratic politicians announce their pronouns. It’s kind of crazy to think about.
But just as radical left-wing ideas began to trickle out of the insular Usenet intelligentsia, so too did the counter-establishment on imageboards—the first of which was 4chan. This counter-establishment aligned itself around conservatism.
True, it’s a mode of conservatism that’s no doubt different from what the Founding Fathers and the classical liberals of the Age of Enlightenment would have identified with. “Reject modernity. Embrace tradition,” or so the slogan goes. It is a shibboleth often spoken and then regurgitated ad nauseam by disconnected self-declared conservatives who regard the present state of conservatism as “progressivism in slow motion.” Unhappy with the way things are, the disenfranchised turn towards a form of cultural neo-fundamentalism, laden with a sense of nostalgia for things that never were.
The “manosphere” exists in tandem with social justice activists who also imagine the world is against them—and that is the shared history that the soft-critics of Big Tech like Bernstein conveniently ignore. It’s easier for them to blame GamerGate and individual actors for expressing their “toxicity” on the internet than blame the internet for capturing our expressive life the way that it has.
GAMERGATE: SILICON VALLEY LIBERALISM’S WHIPPING BOY
Bernstein blames Big Tech for disempowering people, but he understands this disempowerment through the problem of harassment. Harassment, he says, is a significant issue in today’s social media landscape. If you’re being shouted down by a racist who’s making fun of your IQ, and you can’t punch him through the monitor, it’s understandable why you’d feel actively disempowered.
“Try to imagine every woman and every nonwhite, non-Christian and LGBTQ human who has been threatened with death, torture, rape, or worse, on a major social platform. Add up all of those feelings of anger and powerlessness, against the backdrop of a $24 billion company that wouldn’t take it seriously for the longest time.”
And, as if on cue, Bernstein blames a singular event—GamerGate in 2014—for the current cultural climate:
“I first reported on the jilted 24-year-old who started an unlikely social movement with a seething blog post about the behavior of his ex-girlfriend, an obscure game developer. Gamergate! It was so stupid and about nothing and quickly became so scary and about everything. An entire culture of alienated posters and clever scammers cohered around it, around the impulse that something needed to be protected and some people needed to be attacked. What you think doesn’t count very much anymore. Some of these young men were trolls, others neo-Nazis.”
The fact of the matter is that GamerGate was a symptom of the cultural hegemony permeating out of Silicon Valley. It was a counter-establishment reaction.
That’s not to justify the behavior of people who behave badly online, or even to demonize those who behave badly online as necessarily wrong-thinkers. We are all entitled to our opinions, and how we behave in the real world is usually, if not always, based on how others react to our actions. On the internet, you can be as antisocial as you want to be, and invite other antisocial people to form a sort of antisocial collective with you, ritualistically throwing fuel on the rest of society.
But the existence of a counter-establishment demonstrates something that Bernstein and his peers are quick to ignore.
Today, leftist thought permeates throughout the mainstream, in part because of the vast amount of cultural capital that technologists have amassed alongside their wealth and have been able to export globally. Many of these technoliberal ideas are distinctively anti-male, and to an extent, anti-white.
This rhetoric—ironically promoted by white men within Big Tech who want to prove their allyship—promotes a system that values identity over merit.
For example, look to transgender feminist Coraline Ada Ehmke’s Contributor Covenant—a legally codified set of do’s and don’ts for an inclusive (read: “woke”) workplace. It has seen widespread adoption in Silicon Valley. The author of the Covenant also co-authored the Post-Meritocracy Manifesto, a pledge to repeal principles that “mainly benefit those with privilege, to the exclusion of underrepresented people in technology.” The fight against “white supremacy,” while valid perhaps in the 1940s up to the 1990s, is an older, now obsolete paradigm that only serves to inflict damage on the fabric of society in the present day. Silicon Valley’s brand of liberalism, however, is obsessed with immutable characteristics like race, gender, and sexual orientation. And through that political orientation, Big Tech chooses to disenfranchise white men.
This rhetoric—ironically promoted by white men within Big Tech who want to prove their allyship—promotes a system that values identity over merit. This, in turn, has led to young men coming together around their identity, trying to find empowerment in all the wrong places—in movements like the alt-right and incel forums, where they find mutual solace in their sense of shared victimhood. It’s hard to blame them when the media and Big Tech bombards them with messaging that extol the evils of their demographic.
As difficult as it is to swallow, it’s not entirely the fault of these arguably disempowered men who seek to regain their place in society (some of whom do want supremacy, as opposed to equality—if only out of revenge). Nor is it explicitly the fault of leftists or social justice activists that anyone is feeling disempowered. And it’s just not productive to lay the blame entirely at their feet.
BIG TECH WANTS BIG EXPRESSION—BUT ONLY FOR A SMALL MINORITY
There is a culture war that’s happening beneath the shadow of Big Tech, which, for all its pandering to “free speech” or to “diversity,” refused to take a side until it affects its bottom line. And, given how its stakeholders and investors come from the same coastal wealth as the engineers who design these platforms are, it’s no surprise that it takes the side against counter-establishment values.
We’re being strangled by Silicon Valley’s myriad tentacles, slaves to the technological society.
Beyond spectacles like the Damore incident, we have to be mindful of how Big Tech, which remains poised to spread its tentacles throughout every aspect of our lives, governs our interactions with others on social media. While condemning all forms of bigotry, and bragging about its ability to empower people to express their right to free speech, it surreptitiously concentrates the governance of where and how this speech occurs in the hands of a few coastal elites. And they love it—they make money off of it. Platforms weaponize our very human desire to express—making small gestures to make people feel personally empowered (the report tool, for instance), and thriving off of the viral potential of cancel culture and mean-spirited “debate.” But ultimately, efforts are merely an illusion to keep us distracted in our rage towards our political and ideological opponents.
For all its virtue signaling, Big Tech still takes investments from the Chinese totalitarian state, and sells user data to governments all over the world. We are asleep, naive, and unaware of the creep of Big Tech. People like Bernstein want us to focus our rage on disenfranchised white men or expressions of counter-culture—meanwhile, we’re being strangled by Silicon Valley’s myriad tentacles, slaves to the technological society.