Beware The Pretty People

The tech industry used to be home to a disproportionate number of misfits and weirdos. Geeks. Nerds. People who needed to know how machines worked; needed to take them apart, make them better, and put them back together again. People who existed a little apart from society’s established hierarchy … and often saw that hierarchy as another machine to be deconstructed and improved.

That is no longer the case. Now that technology is the dominant cultural and economic force of our time, and startup execs have become rock stars, the establishment is flocking to the tech industry. Rap stars and movie stars want to be tech investors. “Tech firms and consultants both appeal to the growing number of students who want to gain the right experience to start their own business,” observes The Economist. “Elite Grads in Business Flock to Tech,” concurs the Wall Street Journal.

Tech is becoming the finishing school and springboard for the upper-middle-class, the way law and finance were a decade ago. Now that the tech industry is cool, the pretty people are taking over, flooding out of top-tier universities with MBAs and social graces and carefully coiffed hair, shouldering the misfits and weirdos out of the way. And often, paradoxically, despite their privileged backgrounds, they have much less appetite for risk.

Oh, many pay lip service to being weird and different. Our whole culture does these days —

— as long as you’re not dangerously weird; as long as you’re not a genuine rebel; as long as you don’t actually try to challenge anything important. The establishment scions pouring into tech take on the trappings of subversion, while remaining fundamentally conformist. Meanwhile, rampant success inevitably causes the former tech counterculture to morph into posturing “Prada revolutionaries,” as Klint Finley puts it.

There was a tech counterculture, and it mattered. The Internet didn’t have to be so free and open. Governments have been trying to impose their demands on it for many years. Consider the long-ago attempts to impose bizarre, unworkable standards such as X.400 instead of the simple email addresses we still use. Consider the crypto wars of the 1990s, the attempted crippling of SSL, and the prosecution of Phil Zimmermann. But the tech industry ignored, supplanted, and/or fought back — and won — against these attempts.

To be fair, it’s still doing that today. The post-Snowden growth in end-to-end encryption is heartening. Everyone fought hard for net neutrality, and won. But these aren’t examples of an underdog fighting back; these are examples of a new giant protecting its turf. Meanwhile, as Dan Gillmor says in Why I’m Saying Goodbye to Apple, Google and Microsoft, “We are losing control over the tools that once promised equal opportunity in speech and innovation—and this has to stop.”

It seems to me that as the establishment slowly infects and merges with the tech industry, and vice versa, the people who actually do think differently–“the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers”–will be, and are being, pushed out. (In some cases simply priced out.) It’s all too easy to imagine the American tech industry in ten years as a new Wall Street, a giant machine built largely to siphon yet more power and privilege up to people who already have too much.

This is why I like Bitcoin: say what you like about it, such as that you want it to “die in a fire” because it’s a libertarian conspiracy, it is genuinely weird, disruptive, and potentially dangerous to the status quo. This is why I have a soft spot for Travis Kalanick: for all of Uber’s flaws, someone needed to tear down the walls of the established taxi cartels.

Technology is, indisputably, the premier force for change in the world today. Every startup is an engine of change, and a potentially enormously powerful one. But we still tend to measure their success wholly in terms of millions raised, billions in valuation, revenues, profits, and timeline to IPO. That’s not genuinely subversive. That’s not truly disruptive. That’s establishment talk.

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. But then, so did the divine right of kings,” said the great Ursula Le Guin at the National Book Awards.

I believe capitalism is excellent … up to a point. (I don’t believe anyone who has travelled in the developing world as much as I have can reasonably think otherwise.) But is that inflection point at which capitalism offers diminishing returns still ahead of us, here in the rich world? Will we live in capitalism (as we know it) forever? It seems unlikely.

While we do, though, we need the weirdos, the rebels, the counterculture, to be gathering together and founding companies. Because while we live in capitalism, no art collective, no protest, will be as effective an engine of change as a successful startup.

What’s more, there has never been a better time to try to found a genuinely subversive company than right now. Consider Y Combinator’s new openness to not-for-profit startups. Consider the remarkable recipient list of Reddit Donate. It seems to me that there is a hunger for real change out there. A huge audience. You might even call it a market.

Capitalism won’t be violently overthrown. Nor should it be. Whatever system(s) may one day supplant it will instead grow quietly in the shadows of its tallest towers, and coexist for years. But in order for that to happen, I believe we need our true iconoclasts, dangerous freethinkers, and weird subversives to flock to the tech industry — rather than recoil from it in disgust, now that the pretty people have invaded.