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Silicon Valley is fascists free
Mischaracterizing those who work in technology as secretive conservatives is both inaccurate and counterproductive.
A reporter for the New York Times decided to publish a piece revealing Scott Siskind’s real name, prompting him to delete his entire blog, Slate Star Codex, in the summer of 2020. (Siskind, who now writes at Astral Codex Ten, had long blogged under the pseudonym of Scott Alexander). Eight months later, the story has been published, and it’s just as bad as Siskind anticipated it would be. The article’s most concerning aspects, in my opinion, are the unwarranted generalisations it makes regarding Slate Star Codex readers and the ethos of the technology business. To put it frankly, I think the piece reinforces an inaccurate generalisation about the political leanings of Silicon Valley’s population. And I don’t think it’s helpful for America’s relationship with one of its signature sectors to perpetuate this misperception.
Who were the people who read Slate Star Codex?
Cade Metz, the writer of the Times piece, had this to say about the people who read Slate Star Codex:
The Rationalists, who called [Slate Star Codex] home, were an intellectual movement that sought to reevaluate the world using reason and logic. White nationalists and neofascists were among those who spoke up. According to [economic David] Friedman, “social justice warriors” are the only ones who have to fight to be heard. The minds of Silicon Valley were revealed in Slate Star Codex. It’s important to try to get into their heads since the choices made by tech businesses and their executives have far-reaching consequences. Mr. Alexander, who had previously written under his given name, Scott Siskind, and his blog became required reading due to the attractiveness of the concepts within Silicon Valley.
According to [Sam Altman], it was required reading for “the people inventing the future” in the IT field. Paul Graham, creator of Y Combinator, lent his name to the Slate Star Codex as an advocate. Patrick Collison, CEO of Stripe, a start-up that went on to raise a billion dollars, read it. Investors like Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz were among the blog’s Twitter followers. This makes for an interesting story: the technologists who are creating our future have been indoctrinated with right-wing ideologies after reading a popular blog. The problem is that I don’t think the article provides enough evidence to back up the claims it makes.
If we take Silicon Valley as an example, is it true that the Slate Star Codex was formerly considered “required reading”? According to Google, there are around 387,000 tech professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area. A Reddit user in 2016 estimated that the site had 3,400 regular readers, whereas Siskind’s survey of his subscribers in 2020 received around 8,000 responses. The Times received about 7,500 signatures on a petition asking them to keep Siskind’s identity secret.
This means that even if Slate Star Codex’s regular readership was four times as great as the largest of these percentages, it still would have meant that no more than 8.3 percent of Silicon Valley, or an even smaller percentage of the broader national tech industry, could have consistently read the site. Not all of Siskind’s readers were necessarily tech-savvy, by the way. Actually, the opposite is true. Around 40% of Siskind’s 2020 survey respondents worked in the computer industry: This suggests that a disproportionate number of Slate Star Codex’s readers actually work in the tech industry. However try to avoid generalisations (or as, a Rationalist would call it, base rate neglect, or the Representativeness Heuristic). The fact that 40% of Slate Star Codex readers identified as “techies” does NOT imply that the same percentage of “techies” also read the Slate Star Codex.
That is to say, Slate Star Codex was probably just a small part of the overall technology business. Was this subset disproportionately influential, rich, or well-off? Sam Altman and Paul Graham, two heavy hitters at the YCombinator accelerator, were undoubtedly huge fans. It was likely just one of Patrick Collison’s many, many sources of intriguing occasional information; he once dubbed me “more logical than the Rationalists” (thanks, Patrick!!). I’ve also met a fair amount of VCs, and to my knowledge, none of them have ever used any of the lingo from the Slate Star Codex. So while it’s possible that many prominent figures in technology were influenced by Slate Star Codex, I think we need a lot more proof before drawing any firm conclusions.
How political is Silicon Valley?
The idea that Nazis are abundant in Silicon Valley is a persistent source of annoyance for me, and I believe that Metz’s Times report contributes to this idea. The truth is that the tech industry is dominated by leftists. Crowd Pac conducted a poll of political donors in 2014, and their responses were organized by sector. After academics and the entertainment business, the “online computer services” sector (Silicon Valley) was the third most liberal. It was far more open-minded than traditional print media. On the right, there appears to be a solitary mass of conservatives. Among them are few more well-known conservatives like Peter Thiel. Nonetheless, they stand out as radicals in a traditionally liberal field. This sample is likely to be skewed towards the wealthy because these are donors, not voters.
This is supported by data from elsewhere. OpenSecrets.org reports that in 2020, 92% of internet industry donations went to Democrats. This is supported by surveys of IT startup founders. Silicon Valley founders are overwhelmingly Democrats, despite being more skeptical of regulation and unions than the average Democrat (which is to be expected, given their occupations). They are even more progressive on social issues (gay marriage, abortion, gun control, etc.) than the typical college-educated Democrat. Despite the fact that it seems to go against their class interests, they are nevertheless big supporters of government redistribution. They also rank lower on measures of authoritarianism and racial hostility than the typical Democratic voter base. To sum up, tech startup founders are your typical liberal nerds.
Everyone who has any kind of regular contact with those working in the tech industry is already well aware of this. Black Lives Matter protests had widespread support from the tech industry and its top executives. After the failed coup attempt on January 6th, they also effectively blocked former President Trump and many of his core supporters from using the internet. In addition, employees in the computer industry are continually pressuring their managers to become even more liberal than they already are. No fascists will feel comfortable here. As a technology correspondent, Metz should be well-versed on this information. Thus, he should understand that a decade after the publication of Slate Star Codex, technology has not become fascist. Hence, the narrative appeal of a solitary Rationalist site quietly spreading right-wing beliefs among Silicon Valley’s princes has not yet been borne out by the evidence
If Silicon Valley as a whole isn’t right-wing, then what about the Rationalists?
My evidence here is entirely anecdotal. In general, I get the impression that they are on the periphery of the technology sector. Siskind practices psychiatry as a profession. Only big Rationalist I directly know, Julia Galef, is a podcaster. I was able to identify a quant trader, a lawyer, a Wall Street analyst, the founder of a nonprofit, a social worker, a language interpreter, and several people whose only apparent job is working in the Effective Altruism movement, in addition to the philosopher Will MacAskill, who is one of the movement’s leaders. In fact, Eliezer Yudkowsky, who is sort of an A.I. researcher, is the only big Rationalist figure I could locate who is actually in tech.
The Rationalists appear to be on the fence about certain key political issues. The proponents of Effective Altruism seem to be liberals (Update: Matt Yglesias has a great post that goes into some of what they want). Both Yudkowsky and Galef, at heart, are uninvolved, moderate types. And Siskind, though he’d probably be angry with me for saying this, seems to be a conservative, or whatever passes for a conservative in this odd new period of politics. His criticism of Black Lives Matter and (particularly) the feminist movement places him on the political right in the San Francisco Bay Area. (Update: and as others have noted, he is not coy about holding some right-wing beliefs in private.) IQ, school vouchers, and the employment of women are just a few of the topics on which we’ve disagreed in the past. The Rationalists don’t strike me as particularly political, though. Instead, they appear preoccupied with their own brand of arcane lore. Some Rationalists are upset with me because I sometimes find this esoterica to be quite silly. Such is life. My impression of Rationalism is not that it is a fascist or secretly fascist movement, despite what I would call Siskind’s conservatism.
In regards to the Nazis who frequent Scott’s comment section, I believe he should have banned them a long time ago. However, I haven’t seen any proof that Nazi ideas have taken hold among the Rationalists, and I haven’t seen any proof that Rationalist ideas have had more than a very small influence on the technological world either.
To sum up, the story of a conspiracy to infiltrate the minds of the future’s most influential people with fascist ideas spread through Rationalist blogs is enticing, but it’s not well supported by the facts. Tech entrepreneurs are your typical liberal nerds, and Rationalism is just a small subculture that obsesses over Bayes’ Rule, utilitarianism, and robots. While I agree that the tech industry could improve in some areas, I do not believe this to be one of them.
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