Alastair Somerville

Feb 13, 2016

4 min read

Colonial thinking in Silicon Valley

Marc Andreessen getting slapped down by Facebook founder, Marc Zuckerberg, was this week’s amusing moment in seeing how generational power is changing in Silicon Valley. It also helped clarify how they think about the world. How they think affects a lot of things for all of us.

When Uber tries to disrupt local taxi regulations, or AirBnB hopes that it can redefine a city’s housing market, it can be difficult to tell why it’s done by the frictionless capitalism of the Valley. Is it anti-regulation or anti-democracy?

Andreesen’s remarks showed the classic Western miscomprehension of privilege and power. It also helps to show that the doublethink necessary to run a digital empire is the same as what was needed to run the British Empire.

I’ll just cover 3 common problems with colonial thinking and how it is so embedded in how many people think and work.

Freedom and democracy for all, but not you

1943, Britain is fighting for democracy. Thousands are dying to save freedom in Europe.

1943, the British Empire is fighting for food. Millions are dying in India in the Bengal Famine.

How can Churchill be both saving freedom and ignoring it? To be a democratic leader and, at the same time, a cruel tyrant?

It is probably not a surprise that the explanation is provided by an English writer and journalist with a privileged background. Eric Blair (better known as George Orwell) wrote 1984 just after the war. It contains the well known neologism of Doublethink.

Doublethink is the ability to hold two mutually contradictory ideas without discomfort.

It is one of the foundations of colonial thinking.

It enables a British leader to stand in the Mother of Parliaments in London and speak of freedom and democracy whilst also authorising the transfer of food stocks from an Imperial territory which leads to over 3 million deaths.

The key point about Doublethink is it is not hypocrisy. The people have parallel thinking processes.

Thus, to return to today, it is possible for a Silicon Valley leader to be both highly supportive of democratic decision making and national power whilst also trying to destroy democratic decision making and national power.

Terra Incognito to us, home to you

In James Gleick’s great book The Information, there is a description of how explorers travelled up the rivers of Africa and were continually suprised that their arrival was expected by local people.

Talking Drum (Wikipedia, Creative Commons Licence)

As they travelled, they heard drums but, as Westerners, they did not (could not) understand that the rhythm was not music as they remembered from home but coherent communication. Drums told the story of their journey, they quickly told villages of the slow cruise of explorers.

There are two biases in this.

Firstly, not validating skills or ways of living practiced by others as they are not skills or ways of living that you recognise.

Secondly, recognising an inexplicable (to you) difference but not asking how it happens because of lack of respect for local or non-professional knowledge.

For Silicon Valley, the first underlies the regular blank-faced refusal to engage with governments when digitally disrupting laws and customs.

The second is a much wider problem in design: the lack of self-awareness that what you see as a problem and as a solution is because you are a visitor. You cannot see or even understand the complexities. If you do not ask, do not observe and do not have either empathy or respect: you will blunder through other people’s lives causing more pain and more problems.

Ruling like the Raj: doing more with less

Finally, Silicon Valley is beginning to repeat an interesting technique from the days of the Indian Raj. It is an engagment with local thinking but a corrupting one.

Silicon Valley is extraordinary. A tiny part of California that creates global brands and products.

Great Britain was extraordinary. A tiny part of Europe that created a global empire.

Both leveraged power efficiently by intervening appropropriately locally.

The Raj was part of the British Empire that controlled a huge number of people with very few British civil servants (as a side note, some people in modern UK complain about how the Imperial Office had so few employees compared to the modern state).

Control was maintained in India by enabling local leaders to run their own fiefdoms. Huge wealth and delimited respect for an elite willing to rule on behalf of people from thousands of miles away.

This was corrupting. This abused a whole society.

Nowadays, people need to be vigilant to the corruption of their own leaders. To watch where money and lobbying is applied.

This is the soft power without respect. Wealth for a minority to enable control beyond the borders of your own country.

Colonial revolution

In the end, it is important both to recognise how colonial thinking like this is embedded in the ways Silicon Valley trades and that it does not need to be accepted.

The United States broke free of the British Empire. So did many countries since World War 2.

The disruption, the ways of financing business and the ways of thinking that Silicon Valley imagine are theirs alone.

India said no to Facebook Internet.

The world can say no to Silicon Valley

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.