Check out this sentence. I’ll reveal who wrote it later:
…the American West had been the most fertile field for technical innovation…California engineers exported their technology to the rest of the world and improved on that which they imported from everywhere else.
Interesting sentence, right? The author is making the point that California, particularly the Bay Area in this case, is a hub of technical innovation and engineering prowess.
And indeed it is. I mean just look all around us. Silicon Valley companies dominate the world. Three of the top five technology companies (Google, Facebook, Apple) are headquartered there, and the other two, Microsoft & Amazon, have significant presence in Silicon Valley.
Consider those five companies and what they’ve done. Just as the author alleges, those five companies have found a formula for success; they’ve “imported from everywhere else” elemental technology primitives, things like standardized and open protocols built by academics and expert committees in the IETF, IEEE and other standards bodies. These companies have taken those elemental primitives and packaged them up into new exciting innovations and won dominance in the marketplace with them. How much dominance?
Look at this chart I made in Excel. $3.5+ trillion of market dominance, that’s how much dominance. And notice how few they actually employ compared to other titans of the marketplace. They’re massively efficient. That’s the whole point. That’s why capital is so excited about the Big 5.
All around the world, people have tried but largely failed to replicate the supposed success of this vibrant hive of technical & engineering prowess. I hear it all the time on podcasts, I read it on Twitter, I read it in blogs. Everyone wants to be Silicon Valley, to be the exciting hub of innovation. Indeed, they want to be the next Silicon Valley, as if this is a repeatable formula there for the taking, as if you could just divine it out of the ether and bam, the next Silicon Valley.
You see the big 5 marketed endlessly by the apostles of the Disruption Gospel, by the trade press, by us, even when we just think we’re talking about a new device or service. Oh yeah, I love this new feature on my Android. Oh Instagram is introducing end-to-end encryption & direct messaging. People love the products they’re using from these big five companies, and some study them so much they’ve launched ancillary careers just by studying how they work. I’ve mentioned it before how I admire Ben Thompson, of stratechery.com for the one-man punditry business he’s built atop what he calls Aggregation Theory.
And the founders! We construct mythologies about them too. We build them up into icons. They collectively have more money than God or the tycoons of old.
Now circle your mind back to the quoted sentence. That’s it. Now let’s zoom out:
By 1893, the renowned Canadian mining operator James Douglas could claim that the American West had been the most fertile field for technical innovation in the development of hardware, techniques, and chemistry. California engineers exported their technology to the rest of the world and improved on that which they imported from everywhere else.
The quoted passage is from Dr Gray Brechin’s masterpiece polemic, Imperial San Francisco:Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, published by University of California Press in 1999, revised in 2006.
Brechin, is, in the words of people I follow on Twitter, my spirit animal. He’s a Geographic Historian who lectures at Berkeley and other universities in the Mountain West. His book -which invokes huge themes about mining, agriculture, cities vs rural areas, and what he terms the Anglo-Aryan race- is all about the conquest of the frontier, and how that conquest was directed by a cartel of mining interests in San Francisco just after the start of the Gold Rush. If you’re interested in Manifest Destiny, you can’t miss this book.
Throughout his polemic, Brechin details the ruthlessness of the early titans of gold & silver mining in and around San Francisco. How they pushed out or simply killed natives. How President Polk, on discovery of gold in California, sparked a war with Mexico and ultimately won control of the west for America. How the early miners scooped up and collected the easy gold first, then pitched a false vision of California to the rest of America and got suckers to move out west for cheap & easy gold. How the miners & miner interests leveled entire forests in the Sierra Nevada, changed the course of rivers, dynamited and blasted their way deep into the scarred earth. And how, once the great con was over, they set their eyes westward again, to spreading the Anglo-Aryan race across the Pacific Basin from the mouth of the Golden Gate.
It’s really a yarn, quite the page turner I tell you. Definitely a great purchase, especially if you’re interested in place and history. Brechin even links the mining & mineral themes almost up to the present day, with the founding of Lawrence Livermore Labs in the east Bay, and its work on developing nuclear weapons.
We see all the time in technology commentary people invoking the same themes Brechin masterfully describes. They talk of atoms versus bits, as in the mining of precious metal atoms vs the mining of non-physical bits, or elements of technology. We ourselves call the titans of bit-mining today founders, and we all listen to the founders as they pitch a vision that, like the mining cartels and newspaper barons before them, results in more wealth accruing to them, and, like the rubes we are, only marginal value for the rest of us*.
It is hardly surprising that the bronze men at the prow of the Pioneer Monument were gold panners working the Sierra placers. California artists almost always depicted the Western miners as free men working under friendly Western skies—not underground,not for others, and not in squalor of their own creation. Such hardy individuals quickly came to symbolize Western opportunity itself, for they were the first to tap untouched bonanzas amid then-unspoiled scenery, and they remain the most enduring agents in the legend of entrepreneurial independence and of he-men living close to nature’s ample bosom.
ibid, Chapter 1, A Promised Land Plundered
And just as the gold miners of the 19th century externalized costs onto society, the environment, indigenous peoples, the Chinese,so too do the mining titans of the 21st Century externalize their costs onto our society.
These founders, and the people working to sell the vision have, like the mining cartels before them, become digital prophets and invoke almost with religious intensity the themes of the frontier, the very words & phrases of Manifest Destiny. Simon Wardley, for instance, has built another business atop bits and bit mining. He calls them Wardley Maps, and they offer strategic advice and interesting mapping techniques to software engineers & technology companies. Wardley consistently uses the words pioneers, settlers, town planners and ‘uncharted’ as if there’s still more frontier left to exploit.
The founders in charge of today’s mining cartels have been using these words and phrases for more than a decade. I just don’t think we realized they actually meant what they were saying. I think we all got confused by the razzle dazzle of what we saw on our screens, and so we listened to and trusted the razzle dazzle prophets and founders. In short order, we’ve all adopted the language of this new frontier. We’ve all taken Manifest Destiny a step further, even if we’d object to the old Manifest Destiny in principal if not in our history. Because we don’t see the metaphors the founders use for what they truly are: actual frontier-speak.
The founders’ conquests are occurring in and around San Francisco, where the last frontier closed a little over a century ago. It’s a place that, on the surface, looks much different than the one Brechin details in his polemic. Yes, there is chronic homelessness and skyrocketing rents on the surface, but no one could claim San Francisco or the Bay Area is uncivilized, that it is not a world class city, that most people feel safe there.
But San Francisco -and the Bay Area- always looked beautiful. It’s a beautiful and lovely place. As beautiful as it was in 1898 to be sure, probably more so. But that’s just the surface. You’ve got to dig deeper, you’ve got to peer across whatever industry vertical you work in in 2019 to see the real costs. To see the con and misdirection. Until you do that, you’ll miss the externalized costs and exploitation of the 21st century mining cartels. You need to look at the razzle dazzle on your screen and realize the words you’re seeing are deceptive, that the metaphors have been used to misdirect you, to create a ‘smoky hall of mirrors’ effect, as I called it in an earlier essay. And then you’ve got to read the news and study it and think about it: Rohingya violence, violence in India, the amplification of bad information, anti-vaxxer ads, measles cases soaring, the flat earth, and so much more. All of it organized, spread, and amplified at lightning speed with tooling created by the founders, their cartels, and the engineering prowess of the Bay Area.
As Brechin would point out, the costs of the first mining cartels were hidden from the eyes of the wealthy urbanites in San Francisco as they extracted value out of people and the land far away. They never saw the destruction of old growth Sierra Nevada forests because they didn’t want to see it. They never saw the Chinese Coolies -practically slave labor- herded into railcars and dispatched post-haste once the mining was done and the railroads were built. They never saw the mud and floods as millions of metric tons of mud and earth flowed down the Central Valley. They never saw any of the costs because those costs were intentionally remote.
But in our age, we do see the costs. The exploitation. We see the costs all the time and everyday on our screens, if we just flip the script and study a little bit. You see the costs and you even think about the costs in the privacy of your own home, with yesterday’s Momo freakout. You see the costs but you don’t conceive of them as costs on you or your loved ones. You think of them as social media problems or platform abuse.
Zoom out a bit, and the vista becomes clear. You see that the founders imported the elemental primitives of 20th Century standards bodies -things like TCP/IP, SMTP, and DNS, the WWW, and packet-switched networking- and got busy constructing and exporting Manifest Destiny 2.0 with those elements. And they’ve been telling us what they’ve been doing the whole time, we just didn’t realize it.
*I have noted in a previous essay how wonderful these technologies have been for women, People of Color and LGBTQ folks. I celebrate their agenda and the fact that they are seizing real political power long denied to them in the old, physical world. The value & benefit to them is immense, and I acknowledge that, and I want to ally with them in my politics. But this essay explores the costs side of the equation.