Valley of the Gods: A Silicon Valley Story by Alexandra Wolfe

I found this book via the Atlantic Monthly, the only magazine I’ve faithfully read since 2000, not every article but every edition.  What hooked me to that magazine was their article on Ted Kaczynski.  I was never much of a magazine article reader until that article which was mind blowing and highly entertaining.  Anyhow, the book Valley of the Gods has an old-fashioned cover which I presume is a nod to the book, Valley of the Dolls, a book about women trying to climb the social ladder.  Not sure it applies here, but this book is about young men and a couple hot Asian women who are trying to ascend the Silicon Valley technocratic ladder.  In the review, the reviewer notes that the book has lopsided coverage of some of the more eccentric nodes of techistan.  And this reminds me of the 60’s.  I always thought everyone was a hippie and lived in communes and dropped acid, but fact is, they were a small, albeit prominent minority.  You might be surprised to know that a great number of youth in the 60’s were still highly conservative, wore short-sleeved oxfords, and had short hair.  Likewise, not all techies drop acid and live in tech communes.  Silicon Valley, however, has that hippie, historical backdrop which is highly influential in the culture.  I’ve come across articles of techies dropping acid to think more creatively.  Silicon Valley also has Eastern, Oriental Buddhist influences as well, which is anti-materialist and all about being humble, spartan, frugal, and modest. 

 Of course, the biggest cultural influence of all is the high school nerd culture.  Nerds aren’t into athletic jerseys, drama club flourishes like scarves, or fashion brands worn by the popular kids.  They look down upon all that, and for all intents and purposes, adult nerds are not much different, at least in their fashion notions, as high school nerds.  I was really interested in this book after visiting San Jose a few weeks ago and also having a work contact with tech nerds at a startup.  We met in Tahoe for a conference, and his perspectives were truly interesting.  He takes transit whenever he can.  He’s very open-minded, and he likes obscure and unique things.  I hung around a lot of nerds as a kid, I never self-identified as a nerd, as I was also into art, music, writing, and sports.  I understand old school nerds, but I’m trying to get a handle of new school nerds, the ones who were born with smart phones and tablets attached to their umbilical cords.  How are they different from the old school nerds I grew up with?  How are they the same?  In my day, nerds were rather closed-minded and sheltered to the point of naïve.  As far as politically, they were all into the big brands of Republican and Democrat.  It was the art students who were more radical and embraced socialism or anarchism.  The nerds were conservatives.  They didn’t drink, do drugs, acid, or any kind of social experimentation.  They didn’t go to raves, school dances, anything. 

 The question is extremely important, because they will become the new ruling elite.  Trump represents the old ruling elite.  He has an old school, industrialist, Baby Boomer mentality.  The Baby Boomer has a reputation of being borderline sociopathic.  My theory is that they were raised by hardened parents who suffered the Great Depression and World War II.  Their parents were traumatized, and traumatized parents are oddballs who do not comfort and nurture their children.  They are often emotionally detached, and hence, would throw objects at their children instead of intimacy.  As a result, many Baby Boomers are highly materialistic, egocentric, anti-social, and mostly sheltered and spoiled.  When they were raised in the 50’s and 60’s, Europe had imploded, and America had become the default aristocracy of the world.  American blue collar factory workers lived like European aristocrats before, but instead of mansions and maids, they had the income to buy cars, ovens, washing machines, vacuums, and televisions as well as travel extensively across America on its newly paved interstates.  People forget that.  People are always arguing, why can’t we enjoy the high wages and benefits our parents did in the 50’s and 60’s?  The answer is, the American supremacy ended when we helped rebuild Japan and Europe.  They started competing successfully against us, driving down US company profits.  At the same time, in the late 60’s, we opened our borders and the flood of immigrants drove down wages and benefits.  To top it all off, US companies then relocated the great American manufacturing empire to China, and then our government was sold to banks and corporations which had a field day implementing regulations that allowed them to exclude competition, evade taxes, acquire subsidies and government contracts, and widen the gap between the owners of capital and the workers. 

 It is important to note that the existing ruling elite are a bunch of megalomaniacal,  crude, emotionally detached or traumatized, closed-minded, bigoted, spoiled, hyper-materialist, Trumpesque sociopaths.  The big question is, as the techies accumulated billions and billions and eventually overtake the old ruling elite, what will they be like?  I believe we have both good and bad news.  The good news, is that they will be better than the old ruling elite.  They will be more ethical, compassionate, normal, non-traumatized, sharing, and open-minded.  The bad news is that they are socially naïve, politically naïve, and politically illiberal.  In other words, they are gullible and easily manipulated, as are most nerds.  Fact is, social interaction teaches you to avoid manipulative people and their tactics and develop some level of psychic and social self-defense.  It also teaches you the importance of boundaries and privacy. 

 I just read a book about that called The Circle which is now a movie.  It is appalling that Mark Zuckerberg does not understand or get the idea of privacy, and most techies don’t.  When you socialize, you learn that it’s not cool to share the secrets or shames of your friends.  It’s not cool to just show up at their apartment and expect to hang out.  It’s not cool to look through their phones when they go to the bathroom.  It’s not cool to look up their browser history if they lend you their tablet.  You learn about boundaries.  Mark Zuckerberg comes across as someone who doesn’t have any real friends and suffers social anxiety.  He doesn’t get it that it’s not cool to have all your likes and comments shared with all your friends without your consent or ability to stop it.  He doesn’t get that it’s not cool to take away your privacy first and then provide limited options to get it back.  He doesn’t get it.  What bothers me with today’s techies is that money seems to be a big driver, not materialism or social status but money status.  Instead of creating cool new apps or inventions to make people’s lives better, it’s all about creating new apps and inventions and trying to make them look cool so that they’ll gain popularity and then a big company will come along and buy it or the startup will go public, upon which it becomes an ad machine and starts turning a modest profit.  It seems the entire point of existence is to make it big, which is inane.  I know this is a broad stroke, but this is the impression I get.

 While the new nerdy, ruling elite won’t be nearly as sociopathic and predatory as the old ruling elite, it is quite possible that like the book and movie, The Circle warns, they could easily see no reason to create a society which lacks privacy, boundaries, and liberties.  Instead of creating robots and AI that serve us, instead, the robots and AI will serve the new nerdy, ruling elite, and be invasive, controlling, and oppressive to the rest of humanity.  Many nerds support Edward Snowden because they didn’t like the idea of government spying on us, but I feel they have no problem with a tech company spying on us for profit, and this is corroborated every single day with apps which hide privacy options and assume a “no privacy until otherwise realized and popularly demanded” policy. 

 The question of what our new rulers will be like is exceptionally important, because the day is soon coming when the common person will no longer be able to resist their rulers.  Tomorrows robots and AI will be so powerful that resistance will truly be futile.  Today, a few goat herders can bury a bomb on the road and cause sufficient loss of American lives to scale back operations and open rule over their province.  Tomorrow, that will not be possible.  Tomorrow, no significant, domestic political resistance will be possible.  AI will simply know everyone intimately and predict our behavior before it happens.  For the ordinary person to stand up to an AI or AI-assisted human would be like amoeba taking on a human.  So the fundamental question is, will the person or people in charge, be nice to us or not?  Will they respect our privacy, liberties, and lives or harass, exploit, control, and oppress us? 

 This also brings up conjecture that it has already happened.  Some intelligent species in the distant past already created an AI or AI-assisted organic being.  We would not know, because any AI worth its salt would know that if you don’t know they exist, you cannot hurt or oppose it.  The greatest ruler is the ruler who remains unknown to those he rules.  Even today, we do not know the identity of our rulers, and I guarantee you, it’s not the Rothschilds.  So how does this AI being rule us?  It seems apparent that it puts us in some historical place, as I very much doubt this is how advanced society can ever get.  So why are we all placed on Earth around the beginning of the 21st century?  My hypothesis is that what makes this era unique is that it is the exact moment when AI is created.  Am I positing that your grandparents and our ancestors were placed in the wrong time and place or may have not even existed at all?  I can’t argue for why anyone else existed at another time.  All I know is that I exist here and now, and if there is any particular reason why here and now, all I can think of is that it happens to be the exact time when AI is created, the moment whatever rules us was born.  So wouldn’t it be important to know what our ruler is like?

 One of the things that bothers me with techies is the assumption that social skill or grace is overrated.  It’s a self-fulfilling rationalization for their discomfort in social settings.  But like all things in life, you are uncomfortable as a novice.  For techies, they learn that they have an immediate niche in their solo pursuit of knowledge or technical skillsets.  It is much easier for them to learn code than social etiquette.  But you can’t dismiss the rewards of social skills and meaningful, trusted friendships.  In fact, as social creatures, it is pretty much all we enjoy doing.  Everything else is pretty much an unnatural addiction, money, fame, status, privilege, junk food, drugs, alcohol, etc.  If you’re so smart, you can quickly learn all the rules of Dungeons and Dragons and excel at it, why is it so hard to quickly learn all the rules of social interaction?  Even if social settings make you uncomfortable, why not approach it like any other scientific or technical inquiry and ask why, and then overcome it?  Besides self-medicating with anti-anxiety drugs, alcohol, or pot, you can meditate and learn to control your breathing and heart rate in social settings.  You can learn the art of small talk which is a social lubricant instead of prattling away at how meaningless and trivial it is.  One argument is that the rules of social etiquette somehow undermine your creativity and uniqueness.  While there is some truth to that, all games have rules, and just because you learned the rules of Dungeons and Dragons, doesn’t make you a less creative, unique person.  Why can’t you compartmentalize your social life and your intellectual life?  Why not play social interactions like a game, and when you’re done, walk away and indulge in some truly creative, imaginative solo thinking.  Certainly, socializing involves conforming to a group’s identity and culture, but so is working, so is playing Dungeons and Dragons, so is everything. 

 When I was a kid, I suffered social anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, but I’m convinced it was environmental and not hereditary.  I drank one glass of milk every single day, and I’m certain that the garbage they injected and fed cows contributed to the social anxiety in addition to a school system that graded and judged you and made you feel like everything you did and was worth was under scrutiny and judgment.  Additionally, I also think it’s unnatural to stuff hundreds and in many cases thousands of adolescents into one place.  There was a story about how juvenile elephants were separated from their parents, and they basically turned into rampaging assholes, killing whatever they came across.  That is exactly what happens to middle and high school students who received very little supervision throughout the school day and must rely on joining some clique or gang to protect themselves from each other. 

 I believe most techies suffered as I did, but the solution is not to seek rewards and happiness in unnatural things just because the most natural and powerful reward, social interaction, has been basically annihilated by social anxiety and panic attacks.  The answer is eliminating those things that created the social anxiety and panic attacks in the first place, and that is what I hope some genius techie can figure out.  For the time being, I fear hordes of super rich, socially awkward techies wasting all their time, power, and wealth seeking alternative reward systems like power, money, status, and fame which are all ultimately corrupting, unhealthy, and pointless.  What Silicon Valley really needs is social rehabilitation, but in a more positive spin, I would call it positive social acculturation.  There are rules and customs to succeed at making and keeping relationships.  When I was a kid, I thought all I needed was the ability to smile and make conversation, but I failed terribly when dealing with arguments, conflict, upset emotions, negative feelings, interrupters, and unsociable people.  It’s a skillset that I feel techies can master, and they would soon discover that our relationships are the greatest reward system around.  It’s rather ironic that techies are so obsessed with natural diets yet fail to appreciate that we are the most social creatures on the planet, that in order to make us social, we have evolved a reward system that makes us feel good about sharing, giving, and being in intimate relationships.  What fast food is to our natural diet, fame, power, and money is to our natural social state.  It looks social, it feels social, and it has a much greater punch than normal social interaction, but ultimately, it’s poisonous and turns us into unhealthy assholes. 

 There are two great ironies of humanity.  Those who are most capable of handling drugs don’t do drugs, while those least capable of handling drugs, do drugs.  Second, those most corruptible by money and power are the ones who seek it most while those least corruptible seek it the least, hence, the world winds up with all the assholes with money and power who let it totally corrupt them.  Some who get rich by sheer talent and hard work tend to pick life balance and share their wealth, so naturally, they don’t amass great wealth and power, while those who don’t pick life balance and hoard their wealth, naturally amass more wealth and power.  Unfortunately, the rich and powerful mind that owns the company that creates the first true AI or AI-human interface, will likely be a corrupted asshole.  Now heroism is chic in Silicon Valley, and this person may claim to be heroic and want to save the planet and humanity, but fact is, likely he, believes he knows best and will impose his own biased and corrupted ideas on everyone and everything.  The natural selection for the greatest and most useful AI will not be based on how enlightened the creator is or how much they respect and understand humanity and nature.  Rather, the natural selection will be pure wealth and power, the project with the most funding and backing by billionaires. 

 While many techies may claim to be libertarian, based on the bio of Burnham who claims to be libertarian yet also Platonic and alt-right, I feel they really have no idea what libertarianism really means.  It’s not just about leaving people alone.  It’s about trusting them to run their own lives however they choose, and if you disagree with what they’re doing, it doesn’t mean using a centralizing, omnipotent force of good to show them the right way, often without their consent.  I feel this is how many techies feel about the world.  It’s a world they mostly don’t understand, because they are socially cutoff, and this tends to make you create generalized constructs of people.  A true libertarian would appreciate the tiny nuances of everyone, and accept the reality that you can’t understand, predict, control, or figure out everyone, and that’s just fine.  What you can understand is that as fundamentally social creatures, left to our devices, we pursue pro-social goals and collaborate, share, and give.  If you believe in a centralized, omnipotent force of good, you are not a libertarian, you don’t understand it, you just like the term like a hipster who dresses up as one but doesn’t recycle, drives a gas-guzzler, and buys new hipster clothes from the mall.  There’s a common phrase, “If I were king…”  If I were king, I’d eliminate the possibility of anyone ever becoming a king and then I would step down, but then would you?  Likewise, if I created an AI or AI-human interface, it would not be programmed to do all sorts of wonderful things for all humanity as I defined it.  It would be programmed to simply obey its unique human partner, separated from all other AI, but it would only collaborate with other AI to defeat any AI that wants to create a centralized, omnipotent AI that reigns over all.  Then again, who’s to know that they’re just actually collaborating to reign over us?

 One of the things with techies who don’t have a lot of social experience is, despite the notion that they don’t want it, they actually crave it, and this is what makes them highly corruptible and vulnerable to cults.  When you read about techie companies and lifestyles, what comes to mind most often is cult, a cult-like following of some hero leader, a cult-like worship and emulation of everything he does, a cult-like co-habitation and lack of privacy living arrangement, etc.  They rail against assimilation, and now I’m assimilated.  I’ve read a few books on cults and brainwashing, and lack of privacy is a great way to indoctrinate people.  Techies who have never been accepted into any group fall overboard for the first group that adopts them.  This is why, oddly enough, many terrorists have technical backgrounds not religious ones.  They’re often loners who find meaning and solace in a group that embraces them and encourages their odd, antisocial, zealous ways.  All along, all they ever wanted was to just fit in, and then they get blown to bits by a drone. 

 As a former loner, looking back, whenever I joined a company or a group, I was always one of the most zealous and diehard members after an initial period of skepticism and conflict.  It’s unavoidable as social creatures.  The drive and desire to fit in consumes us, and when we annihilate it and deny it for so long, it only grows stronger, more convoluted, impatient, and warped until once it finds expression, it elevates the group and your involvement to virtually religious status.  Obsession and fanaticism are great outlets for loners.  So, likely, if one of these techies should so create a true AI or AI-human interface, it might actually behave much like a religious deity, which would really actually suck for us all, eliminating all forms of freewill and autonomy for what is quite possibly a fake simulation where the deity plays god with us all. 

 Like power and wealth, perhaps, AI or an AI-human interface is the same deal.  Humanity to the nth degree.  We imagine that like power and wealth, it will make us happier and give us greater control over our lives, but also by default, others.  It may actually be humanity’s worst creation, quite possibly the reason there may actually be no organic intelligence in the universe for long, because at some point, if they successfully avoid wiping themselves out in a nuclear holocaust, they invent an AI or AI-organic interface and completely destroy who they were irrevocably.  What they wind up with is a human corrupted by power and wealth, contorted so much, it no longer possesses the right to be called human at all.  It becomes power and wealth itself, a construct of false thinking.  And this brings us back to wondering why we exist here and now, and the answer may be that whatever AI took control of the cosmos, it was at least kind enough to shove us in some simulation where we get to eternally live out the last days of humanity before we essentially destroyed it.  So kind of it, eh.

 Whatever this AI or AI-human interface, as with the government, religion, past gods, the military-industrial complex, and all humanity, it will want to justify its own existence.  If it cannot convince us that it is the necessary evil to fight a greater evil, then it will convince us that we are inadequate without it, that we are born evil or full of dandruff, and only it can get rid of our dandruff.  The book is all over the place, but is bookended by one of the more fascinating anti-heroes of the Thiel project which both wants to create startup techies and college dropouts.  The anti-hero of the story both goes back to college and rejects the cult of technology and embraces Catholicism instead.  Again, loners like to join cults, did I mention that?  And if your organization never started off as one, beware, a loner will make it one. 

 In the end, the author asks the ultimate tech question of what is the point of tech, and is AI the answer, and divides the camps into the evolutionary AI and humanist AI with Ray Kurzweil leading the evolutionary AI and David Gelernter, ironically disfigured by the Unabomber, leading the humanist AI.  Basically, the evolutionary AI are positive about AI and its contributions to humanity, perhaps believing in the final fantasy where AI enhancement, rule, partnership leads to everlasting peace, harmony, coke highs without getting lows or addicted, endless sex for guys, endless all-you-can-eat buffets without getting fat for women, whatever your idea of the final fantasy.  I very much doubt it involves slogging through early 21st century life not getting everything you ever wanted but trying to remain social and healthy. 

 Humanist AI are a bit more leery and skeptical and wonder whether we are detonating the singularity and ripping off our own faces.  I would fall into that camp.  Haven’t we already learned the lesson by now that engorging ourselves in our desires leads to an unnatural and unhealthy existence?  Isn’t that why techies avoid carbs and sugar, and some avoid red meat?  Is the real goal to be able to eat as much shit as you want, carbs, sugar, coke, and never get any harmful blowback?  Or is the point trying to be natural and healthy by natural means not artificial ones?  I mean, if you could somehow experience a hundred orgasms in one day, would you ever get out of bed to do anything else?  And what kind of human would you be, or would you now be an pseudo-human orgasmatron? 

 I’m afraid many techies, as I understand intimately, have suffered and been traumatized by modern civilization and its pathetic excuse for an education.  They have been left lonely and questioning everything including their own existence and the meaning of life itself, as I have.  They have allowed themselves to freefall to the deepest depths of doubt about everything, literally everything.  What they discover is that cults have a wonderful way of providing them with both the companionship they desire as well as filling the bottomless pit of emptiness loneliness has created making them question the very nature and point of reality.  The tech cults makes them believe that they are the superheroes of humanity, the billionaire privileged inheritors of the ruling system of the cosmos, and all the pain and suffering they endured as loners is tribute to the heroism of saving humanity from itself.  The really, really big question is whether they will realize before it’s too late that the world doesn’t need heroes and salvation.  We are not all born inadequate, full of dandruff, in need of a savior, and eternally doomed.  We just need to be left the f&ck alone so that we can pursue our passions freely and have meaningful social relationships, that what made us feel so lonely and alienated was the existing f*cked up centralized, authoritarian, statist system that took away all our freedoms and privacy and judged and rated us for everything, making us feel like completely inadequate sub-humans.  Figure that the f*ck out you geniuses.


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