Who would be so deeply misled that they actually believe in the fawning ideology of the tech blogs and Wired magazine, that “geek” is the new cool? No one I know, for sure. The disconnect is even more acute when you examine it by gender: despite a decade of earnest pleading, girls remain stubbornly unconvinced of the virtues of a career scoffing trail mix and writing code: surveys have suggested that the number of women going into tech is actually going down. And yet the “geek is cool” meme would appear to be in healthy condition, and growing.
Readily proliferating amidst the geek spectrum are what I call the Kling-ons: wannabe founders and start-up groupies—among them, I am sorry to say, many so-called journalists, whose views are so fawning, naive and inconsistent they would make even David Brooks wince. Kling-ons generally fly under the radar, immune to the ritual and very public humiliation lavished on the odious people they seek to emulate. That mockery, found on blogs like Gawker’s Valleywag, is the product of a depressing malaise affecting the general public as the gap between rich and poor widens. That widening gap, in turn, is a public relations catastrophe for Silicon Valley, whose business models depend on the trust and affection of a public that has little in common, economically, socially or culturally, with the ruling elites that dream up all these privacy-invading social networks.
Kling-ons are the proctors of progress, their domination of the media designed to convince us of the virtues of progress and the gospel of “disruption” through software. You see them at conferences: girls named Chelsea and Tiffany, alongside boys with monikers like Dean and Quentin, babbling about transformative innovation and “pivoting” despite having never done so much as register a company themselves. Though they produce little of value, they are the naive soft power behind aggressive capitalist machines in Silicon Valley: the trend-setting vanguard of the global Web and mobile industries. They are the public relations “gurus,” the management consultants, the “mentors” and the assorted other parasitical, retainer-based professionals who sponge off wealth-creators and corporations.
The cult of the Kling-on is especially pertinent this week because 50,000 of them are in the Nevada desert, shoveling drugs into their systems in a chaos of self-satisfied posturing known as “Burning Man”, an annual snoozefest that describes itself as “an experiment in community, art, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance.” (None of these expressions really means anything, of course; they are just bywords for self-indulgence at another person’s expense.)
There are plenty of chief executives and wealth creators at Burning Man too, in love with their own micro-celebrity, hosting (that’s tech-speak for picking up the check) dire imitations of excess. I’ve seen more genuine decadence in unknown Berlin clubs than in that entire face-painted, drug-soaked annual festival of self, but to hear these “Burners” rabbit on, you’d think they’ve reinvented the profligacy of Nero’s last days. Yet somehow it’s become unacceptable to criticize this celebration of mutual congratulation.
At once the zenith of the cult of excessively educated bourgeois bohemians and nadir of a glossy new venture-capital-funded geek culture, Kling-ons prove not only that too much of a good thing (in this case, a liberal arts education) can be dangerous, but that the middle and upper classes have entirely lost touch with ordinary people. The Kling-ons’ expanding subculture of expensive plaid, expensive ironic spectacles and expensive foreign holidays is anathema to their customers, who can relate to the McDonald’s household budget but are blessedly ignorant of the Black Keys.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that there is a rift opening up between the moneyed information-rich classes and Joe Six-Pack: after all, the products built by the companies Kling-ons worship render the latter obsolescent. If the world really is turning to software, we should all be worried: the likely consequences aren’t just deindustrialization and the disfranchisement of the working classes but the disruption of the lower-middle as well: who will need—or want—the marketing, public relations and even the media industries when consumer choices are guided by crowdsourced fads on social recommendation platforms? (That’s what makes the spectacle of the Kling-on so unintentionally funny: the louder they squeal, the faster they hasten their own end.)
The replacement of people by things is a classic sign of addiction, yet it’s also the keystone of the social software revolution. We replace genuine human interaction with “connectivity”; productive work with “keeping up-to-date”; psychological insight with analytics; working-class jobs with globalization and platforms; the service industry with the faceless idiocy of the crowd-sourced masses. Why? Because the psychology of Kling-on overlords—the Zuckerbergs, the Masons, the Pincuses—is decadent, self-absorbed and fundamentally sociopathic. Genuine human interaction is being disrupted, replaced by falseness and air kisses.
Why do I hate Kling-ons? Because we know what will be left if their gods should win: a vast underclass of economically useless human beings robbed of all agency and dignity by lines of computer code. Because we know that when a Valley “CEO” speaks of liberating the population from work through technological efficiency, we’ve already read and seen where that leads: the crime, dependency and despair that set in when people are dis-incentivized from useful economic productiveness.
They are fake: their clothes are fake, the music they listen to is fake, their sneaker brands are fake. Many can neither code, nor sell, nor perform any of the functions they celebrate. They are themselves painfully parodic imitations of success: spoilt brats indulging themselves in soulless pleasures; friendships predicated on pragmatism instead of affection; inherited and pilfered wealth claiming to be a gritty new entrepreneurial elite. There’s so much money sloshing around you have to wonder how sustainable it all is. Sadly, with the venture capital industry becoming evermore dependent on public funds, there is no end in sight just yet.
Silicon Valley experiences painful and periodic catharses because, despite the wondrousness of its A/B testing and habit-forming products, its leaders have consistently failed to grasp some basic human truths. One, that we prefer our private sphere to stay private. Two, that we vote with our feet to abandon just as quickly as we do to subscribe. Three, that when all’s said and done, we’d prefer to supply cash up front and enter into an honest relationship with manufacturers and service providers, rather than be pushed digital drugs and pay for them later with privacy compromises. Four, that we have nothing in common with the self-regarding Californian startup culture that claims to be “changing the world” while delivering little besides personalized advertising delivery networks. And five, that we see behind the curtain and we know how shallow, disingenuous and exploitative this culture is.
We are long overdue another such reckoning. Technology companies have produced remarkably brilliant new opportunities and efficiencies, but they have also raised the specter of lives bled of purpose, of the inhumanity of the new social structures that are emerging. What do we do to keep everyone gainfully occupied when globalization and technological change render the bottom two thirds of society redundant? Enlarge the state and give them new non-jobs? Whack them on welfare? This isn’t an economic or technical problem: it’s a humanitarian one.
The artifice of start-up culture is a portent of what is to come. It represents the triumph of form over function; of dissemblance over directness; of the parasitical over the productive. Because they’re weak, because they’re pointless, because what they are and what they have is based on violations they do not regret and would repeat tomorrow, we should be very wary indeed of these vacuous cheerleaders whose vague waffle about the transformational potential of photo-sharing apps is more sinister and Orwellian than anything dreamt up by a dictator.
They like to whine about capitalism and excessive consumption, these people, forever trumpeting the virtues of the “sharing economy” (while skimming a neat profit off the top, of course) but is there anything more grotesquely hypocritical than the way these people actually behave themselves?