Secession is a popular topic in Texas, parts of Colorado and a rural area of northern California and Oregon that calls itself the “State of Jefferson.” But now the idea of breaking away has come up in an unlikely place: Silicon Valley.
Yes, we’re talking about seceding from the U.S. Some call it “the ultimate exit strategy.” Such a move – support for which seems somewhere between “serious but not really” and pure fantasy – could separate technologists from their customers and financiers, among other problems. It also points to what blogger Farhad Manjoo calls the Valley’s “arrogance problem.”
Last month, Balaji Srinivasan, a Stanford lecturer and co-founder of genetics startup Counsyl, laid out a proposal for opt-in societies where government can’t meddle. His talk at the Y Combinator conference was described by CNET as a “radical dream for making techno utopias a reality.”
“We need to build opt-in society, outside the U.S., run by technology,” Srinivasan said. He’s not the first to make the suggestion. He cited Peter Thiel’s proposed floating tech incubator and Elon Musk’s plans for a Mars colony as potentially good ideas.
Last May, Google CEO Larry Page suggested at Google I/O that tech might need some place where it can experiment without running afoul of government rules, CNET News reported.
There are many, many exciting and important things we can do but we can’t do because they’re illegal or not allowed by regulations. As technologists we should have safe places where we can try out new things and figure out the effect on society and people without having to deploy into the normal world. People who like those kind of things can go there and experiment.
Why does tech need a homeland all its own? According to Srinivasan “they are going to try and blame the economy on Silicon Valley…. We didn’t securitize mortgages, order bailouts, start wars, or refuse to write movies or articles on this until too late,” he said at Y Combinator. He says tech needs a peaceful exit from the U.S. rather than potentially violent secession.
Not so fast, says Wall Street Journal columnist Farhad Manjoo in a piece headlined, “Silicon Valley Has an Arrogance Problem. It’s Too Proud, Too Self-Centered, and That’s Not Good For Anyone”. He writes that “Silicon Valley probably needs the rest of the nation more than the rest of the nation needs Silicon Valley.”
Silicon Valley’s money, its customers, and its legal and technological foundations are all made possible by institutions that belong to the paper belt. The government funded the early technologies that led to the Internet, venture capitalists are financed by non-techies’ retirement funds, and laws passed in Washington can determine the tech industry’s legal future. Companies launched in the Valley depend on the quick, widespread acceptance of their products by everyone who lives outside their shiny bubble.
As the tech industry has shaken off the memories of the last dot-com bust, its luminaries have become increasingly confident about their capacity to shape the future. And now they seem to have lost all humility about their place in the world.
Such thinking “is a dangerous idea,” he continues. “Everyone knows that Silicon Valley aims to take over the world. But if they want to succeed, the Valley’s inhabitants would be wise to at least pretend to be more humble in their approach.”
And if you have the whole world, why would there be a need to break away from it?