As the Twitter flotation raises billions, one biotech entrepreneur has suggested Silicon Valley should break away from the US and form a separate country. Tom Chivers reports
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We live in a world built, in part, by the Silicon Valley internet giants. Now Silicon Valley wants a part of that world to itself.
Or, at least, some of Silicon Valley does. Balaji S Srinivasan, an entrepreneur and Stanford University lecturer, has made a well-received speech calling for California’s tech industry to secede from the United States and form its own country. This being Silicon Valley, it was couched in the language of software engineers – the US was dismissed as “the Microsoft of nations” (because, in Valley terms, a 30-year-old company is an impossibly ancient dinosaur).
He draws out the comparison: the US runs on 230-year-old “code” – that is, the US Constitution. The system sometimes shuts down for no good reason, as with the recent debt-ceiling fiasco. And yet the world has no choice but to use it.
Srinivasan has an alternative vision: a start-up nation. When a company is in decline, he said, you don’t have to try to reform it from the inside. You can leave, and make your own. He wants to do the same with a country. He compares it to the pilgrims who founded the US the first time around: “We’re not just a nation of immigrants, we’re a nation of emigrants, too.”
Anywhere else in the world, this speech might be seen as the babblings of an eccentric, and perhaps it should be. But Silicon Valley secessionism (although Srinivasan doesn’t like the word) has a history. A Google software engineer called Patri Friedman, and Peter Thiel, the founder of the money transfer business PayPal, have for years advocated what they call “seasteading”: that is, building floating independent city states, “which will allow the next generation of pioneers to peacefully test new ideas for government”. They picture what look like eco-friendly versions of oil rigs, complete with fish farms (“best sushi you can imagine”, promises Friedman), and hope to get a prototype version up and running by 2015.
This is not the boldest (or most ridiculous, depending on your point of view) move for an independent new nation by Silicon Valley thinkers. Elon Musk, the CEO of the electric car company Tesla Motors and, with Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, has suggested building a colony on Mars, and thinks it could be possible to ship large numbers of people – he pictures a city of 80,000 living there – in his lifetime.
He’s only 42, but even so, that’s a tight window. (He said in an interview with The Guardian that “it’d be cool to die on Mars, only not on impact”.) When Musk says these things, they carry a little more weight than they would if others said them: he is also the founder of SpaceX, the first private company to send a spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station.
These breakaway visions are common among a certain kind of mega-wealthy internet elite. Google’s CEO, Larry Page, has said he wants to “set aside a small part of the world” which would be free of the laws and regulations which he thinks can hold technology and business back: “Safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out what is the effect on society, what’s the effect on people, without having to deploy kind of into the normal world.”
America thinks of itself as exceptional; Californians think of themselves as exceptional within America; and Silicon Valley thinks of itself as the most exceptional of all. It has a superiority complex, which “sure is an ugly thing to behold”, as The Wall Street Journal’s Farhad Manjoo puts it. He quotes a venture capitalist, Chamath Palihapitiya, saying “it’s becoming excruciatingly, obviously clear to everyone else that where value is created is no longer in New York; it’s no longer in Washington; it’s no longer in LA; it’s in San Francisco and the Bay Area”.
And it’s true. Silicon Valley has given birth to a succession of vast, globally dominant businesses. Google’s Mountain View offices are there; Facebook, though born in Massachusetts, uprooted almost immediately to San Francisco; Twitter, which yesterday was floated on the stock market and at the time of writing had reached a value of £18 billion, is headquartered there too.
Apple, Adobe, Intel, Netflix and other huge technology companies are all nearby. You can see why the Valley might want to cut itself off from the rest of the US; might think it’s being dragged back by having to pay with its taxes for schools and hospitals in other, less successful areas.
The owners and founders of these companies are now superstars. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, is in particular a household name, thanks to the Aaron Sorkin film The Social Network, but Google’s Page and Sergey Brin, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos are world-famous too. All of these men have also become rich beyond most people’s wildest dreams.
It’s a far cry from the previous generation of internet pioneers – people such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, who made the source code of his creation publicly available, and never made a penny from it himself. Or Doug Engelbart, who died this year, was best known as the inventor of the computer mouse, but who also came up with the idea of screens, and windows, and “hypertext”, clickable links in text that could take you from document to document, the basis of the modern web.
The earlier pioneers of the internet saw it as a tool for upgrading human thinking; a way to make us better at communicating, and thus at solving problems. There was a utopian feel to it, somewhat hippyish: everything should be free, shareable, non-profit.
Modern web companies, for all their eco-friendliness and their brightly coloured offices with ping-pong tables and relaxed dress codes, are not hippyish, though they consciously try to present themselves as such. A wonderful, damning New York Times piece about Twitter’s Dorsey (which ended with the memorable quote “The greatest product Jack Dorsey ever made was Jack Dorsey”) explains that such companies put real work into their “creation myths”: the stories they tell the world about how they came to be.
Usually it’s one about a brilliant idea in a university dorm-room, and years of caffeine-fuelled nights cranking out code, and a family of like-minded developers; a public image of affable or awkward geekery instead of the rapacious, swaggering Masters of the Universe of 1980s finance. But it’s often darker than that, more ruthless: Twitter, for instance, forced out one of its founders in its first years, the man who came up with the name and the idea; Zuckerberg’s post-Facebook-success lawsuits are legendary; one of Apple’s three original creators, Ronald Wayne, was written out of its creation myth altogether for a long while.
All business is ruthless, of course. And you would expect an especially Darwinian selection process in a crowded new business ecosystem. But you can see how this ruthlessness is of a piece with Silicon Valley secessionism: the rest of this country is holding us back; time to make a new one. It’s the sort of ruthlessness that only bright, rich, successful young people can have; I made my world, so why should I share it?
The smart betting is against any real form of secession. Floating libertarian islands sound interesting, but as Srinivasan himself points out, the USA has aircraft carriers. And more to the point, a floating island won’t have them; there will be no state to defend its borders, no police force, no rubbish collection. Silicon Valley’s giants might have made their own companies, but they still drive to work on public roads.
But that won’t stop some of them trying; the ones who hate living in the Microsoft of nations, and who want to set up their own lean little competition offshore. The thing is, though, Microsoft is still doing pretty well.