[46.0] fall down, but make it look good
The end of Issue [45.0] asked how Silicon Valley and its venture capitalists will move forward after the ongoing crypto collapse: Will venture capitalists continue to push a bajillion dollars into this foolhardy enterprise, hoping that the punishment of one (Sam Bankman-Fried) will symbolically cleanse the industry of its sins? I asked this when I was three weeks younger: How expensive will it be to turn the swamp into dry land, only for another quake to strike?
I’ve grown up since I asked those questions, by which I mean I read Malcolm Harris’s ~*exquisite*~ Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World, and also got to interview Harris for Seattle’s local rag, The Stranger.
Palo Alto comes in at over 600+ pages, which is intimidating, but it’s worth it. So many gems! Let me clear my throat and quote a nice chunk and bold a really pretty little poetic moment too:
It’s difficult to narrativize the latest phase of Silicon Valley history. From at least the time of Aristotle’s original outline in the Poetics, narratives have had a rising and falling action. We have the exposition, then conflicts build, peak, and resolve. The end. How, then, to tell the story of Palo Alto, where the conflicts swell but never seem to crest? Here, Icarus dusts himself off and pivots to zeppelins. The emperor’s nakedness revealed, he shrugs his shoulders and gets back to ruling… Despite how narratively convenient it would have been, Silicon Valley didn’t learn its lesson in the years following the dot-com bust, and neither did the capitalists who inflated the bubble in the first place. As we’ve seen, post-pop heavyweights like Amazon and Google picked up the broken pieces and made the best of them.
So here’s how I interpret that gem, polish it, and turn it into my own intellectual property: Silicon Valley’s history and logics assume that there is no end, at least not here on earth. Bad actors can come and go, but the general structure and profit motives remain intact. (Think of it as though the Bible ended with just a Rube-Goldberg-esque resurrection repeating ad infinitum—rocket emoji! The Bible as is doesn’t exactly close with catharsis or clarity, but imagine if it just went “welp, onwards and upwards!” and attached a pitch deck for you to fund its ~*worldwide growth*~. A gilded pinball knocking over whatever it damn well pleases, pivoting convincingly along a man-made path and calling it natural and good.)
Harris, in our interview, described how we’re already seeing breathless tech coverage move onto the next zeitgeist baby. Where SBF once represented the poster child of blockchain-based ~*innovation*~ (hold my hair back while I puke) we now have Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT. Ooooh, wooo, the machine can talk and do things! Is the core thesis of most of that coverage; and passing off sensationalizing as stoic contemplation is great for ad revenue.
I’m boosting this line of thinking:
Meanwhile, Altman himself is the epitome of the kind of squelchy-slimy rebranding the tech industry and the massive financial apparatus behind it are capable of. Literally less than a year ago Altman was in the news for this freaky shit:
An apocalyptic synecdoche of the “Worldcoin” project: a goddamn ORB for scanning people’s eyeballs in the name of crypto and a global currency??? Worldcoin then ran into problems because, turns out, doing phrenology-ish shit is and will always be a scam??? And now, somehow, one of his other enterprises can go brrrr and type out words and we all pretend we’re seeing magic, witchcraft, wizardry??? We’ve been through this cycle before; just look at how Worldcoin was covered at its launch. Editorial calendars need “content” and weird things fill the void nicely.
So my answer to my twenty-one-day-old inquiry is this: Venture capitalists will keep pushing money into crypto if it will make them money. They’ll also push money into mass-surveillance systems if it will make them money. Or chatbots. Or financial technology. A new shiny thing—what ChatGPT is now, what crypto was until a few weeks ago—lets other pockets of tech fall to the quieter wayside; did we see the moonwalking bear?
Divine Innovation is a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology. Published once every three weeks, it’s written by Adam Willems and edited by Vanessa Rae Haughton. Find the full archive here.