Ted Chiang is a genius, but he’s wrong about Silicon Valley


Ted Chiang isn’t just one of the greatest science-fiction writers alive — he’s one of the greatest writers alive full stop. Which is why I was so saddened and disappointed by his recent excoriation of Silicon Valley in BuzzFeed. As the tech industry grows ever more powerful, we need brilliant minds critiquing and dissecting its many flaws. Instead we got a trenchant takedown of a Valley that only exists in the minds of especially shallow journalists.
To be clear, his larger point is dead on: that being that the worry about an AI which maximizes for the wrong thing, most famously one which is told to make paperclips and responds by turning the entire planet into paperclips, is a worry which applies perfectly and exactly to capitalism itself.
The maximalist capital mindset, i.e. “all the world’s problems can be solved just by making markets freer” and “the social responsibility of businesses is to increase their profits” are indeed examples of robotic thinking, either profound intellectual laziness or a very flimsy fig leaf for greedy narcissism. Such thinking — call it “paperclip capitalism” — is devoid of any context, nuance, or understanding that even at its well-regulated best, capitalism is only ever a means to an end, not an end of itself.
(as an aside: the paperclip analogy has given us what is clearly 2017’s game of the year, Universal Paperclips, which ate a night of my life a few months ago. Hilariously, and/or semiotically terrifying, people have now of course begun to train AIs to play and win at this game…)
But the thing Chiang doesn’t get is: Silicon Valley is actually not a home of paperclip capitalism. That’s Wall Street. That’s Confessions of an Economic Hit Man-style neoliberal globalization. That’s not the tech industry. The Valley is a flawed and sometimes terrible place, true, but it’s a nuanced sometimes flawed and terrible place.
Chiang: “Who adopts a scorched-earth approach to increasing market share? … It’s assumed that the AI’s approach will be “the question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me,” i.e., the mantra of Ayn Randian libertarianism that is so popular in Silicon Valley.
His argument is wrong because his postulate is wrong. Uber and Peter Thiel are not Silicon Valley; they are extreme outliers. Silicon Valley is mostly full of people who really want to build rocket ships and cure cancer with data analysis and who genuinely believed that “making the world more open and connected” could only ever be beneficial; who go to Burning Man each year and talk about how great it is that it’s decommodified and how awful capitalism is; who see capitalism as the engine that will drive them to their goal of [insert technical breakthrough here], not wealth as a goal in and of itself.
This is a major reason that Elon Musk is so hero-worshipped. Silicon Valley wants to do as he did, and follow the trail he blazed; first, make a lot of money from paperclip capitalism, yes (like Musk did with PayPal) but only in order to use that money to make rocket ships and electric cars and solar roofs. Not as an end in itself. They don’t want paperclips. They want to use the paperclip machine to build a paperclip catapult to launch humanity to Mars.
It turns out that this is a hopelessly naïve and confused and counterproductive and corruptible approach, flawed in many or at least several different ways, each of which deserves considered dissection and repudiation — but it’s nothing like the straw Valley that Chiang attacks in his piece. I hope he takes a second swing at it sometime, maybe in fiction. We absolutely need brilliant, critical eyes watching and criticizing our every move. But they have to be close enough to see through the cliché, and into the nuance.

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