Nov. 8 (Bloomberg) -- The tech world is all atwitter over accusations of arrogance. In an essay in the Wall Street Journal headlined “Silicon Valley Has an Arrogance Problem,” Farhad Manjoo decried the industry’s “superiority complex” and wrote: “For Silicon Valley’s own sake, the triumphalist tone needs to be kept in check.”
He probably intended his piece as a friendly warning, but not everybody in the Valley took it that way. (Just peruse the comment threads.)
What sparked Manjoo’s column was a speech last month by Stanford University lecturer Balaji Srinivasan titled “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit.” Srinivasan proposed that techies should think about leaving the U.S., in part to escape from regulators who stifle progress but also because, even though the tech industry is the nation’s only reliable creator of wealth, Americans will eventually “try and blame the economy on Silicon Valley.”
Now, I love a good controversy, and Srinivasan’s proposal, whether meant seriously or mischievously, raises important questions. But before we consider any of them, there is another nagging issue: What exactly makes his proposal arrogant? The burden of Manjoo’s argument seems to be that Srinivasan, like many successful techies, is rather full of himself. And it’s true that we nowadays have a sloppy tendency to use “arrogant” when what we mean is “conceited.” But there’s an older definition of the word that might actually assist in our analysis. There was a time when arrogant wasn’t synonymous with overbearing or swaggering -- when it meant, in effect, to be conceited without having anything to be conceited about. In this older sense, arrogance represented an overestimation of one’s own capabilities.
This, for example, is the sense in which reformer John Bradford used the word when, shortly before his execution in 1555, he confessed to the sin of “arrogancy.” If not for arrogance, he wrote, “how should I, of all wretches the greatest, think me to look to the highest room and vocation that is upon earth.” His point was that he thought more highly of himself than he should have.
In fact, there’s an old tradition in theology of equating arrogance with a false self-belief. One finds echoes of the same usage well into the 19th century. So, for example, it was common for abolitionists to refer to the slaveholding states as “arrogant” -- not because they were stuck up, but because their exaltation of their system was baseless.
Arrogance understood as a false belief, then, might stand in contrast to an earned pride in one’s own achievements. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition is “Making or implying unwarrantable claims to dignity, authority, or knowledge.” The important word is “unwarrantable.” An Olympic medalist in the 100-meter dash who calls himself the fastest man in the world might sound overbearing, but he isn’t arrogant. One remembers the words of sci-fi writer Herbert Russell Wakefield in his classic short story “Professor Pownall’s Oversight,” describing the chess master: “He is great; he knows it; he can prove it, that is all.”
Thus, when Tiger Woods is described as “the most arrogant golfer and perhaps the most arrogant athlete ever,” the charge cannot possibly be accurate if Woods’s play backs up his attitude. He might be overbearing; he might be swaggering; but as long as he is the best golfer in the world, he isn’t arrogant. By contrast, when Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is described as arrogant, the word is being used in its more traditional sense: The idea is that he isn’t (yet) as good as he seems to think he is.
All of which brings us back to Manjoo’s critique of Silicon Valley. He takes note of Larry Page’s call for a safe place to try out new technologies and Peter Thiel’s support for seasteading. It isn’t clear whether Manjoo considers these examples of Silicon Valley’s arrogance problem. One hopes not, because they seem to me more examples of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial solutions.
The idea of testing out technologies before they’re applied in the world is a good one. Going to sea to find new ways to live isn’t to everybody’s taste, but it nevertheless presents to the debate a new and exciting possibility.
As for Srinivasan, his speech wasn’t really about secession. He relied on the work of the late economist Albert O. Hirschman to suggest that exit rights are at the heart of both freedom and progress. Exit, Srinivasan argued, “means giving people tools to reduce influence of bad policies on their lives without getting involved in politics: the tools to peacefully opt out.” Over the next decade, he argued, it is vital to “reduce the importance” of political and regulatory decisions.
This statement of libertarian principle led Srinivasan to an insight about the function of technology: to provide people with options and choices. His admittedly controversial vision of an “opt-in society” somewhere outside the U.S.’s borders is a common -- and in many ways commendable -- Silicon Valley dream.
None of this is arrogant in the traditional sense of the word. His commentary about technological change is couched in the language of choice, not inevitability. He wants to journey to a particular future, but unlike so many utopians, he isn’t insisting that everyone else come along for the ride.
Is Silicon Valley perfect? Far from it. Is there too much swagger? Maybe so. But the wheel of history turneth. Technological brilliance doesn’t necessarily imply a special insight into tomorrow.
I’m old enough to remember the dawn of Silicon Valley. I was an undergraduate at Stanford 40 years ago, back when “tech giant” meant Hewlett-Packard Co. When I told the teaching assistant in an engineering class that my term project was a program that would mimic a pinball machine, he warned me that the undertaking would present enormous difficulty, even for an experienced programmer. Another time, I attended an off-the-record talk by one of the world’s leading theorists of artificial intelligence -- a cocky bearded fellow who said he didn’t feel guilty about taking money from the Defense Department (in those days, still considered naughty at Stanford) because the contract was to construct what everyone in the field knew to be a practical impossibility: a program that would understand human speech.
You can like or dislike Srinivasan’s vision. Just don’t call it arrogant. It’s an idea, no more: provocative, well-conceived and, in some ways, attractive, but still an idea. As the U.S. turns increasingly inward -- less influential in the world, less confident in its own potential -- exciting ideas are what we need most.
(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.” Follow him on Twitter at @StepCarter.)
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