Bilaji Srinivasan and His Talk at Startup School 2013

This is an extraordinary talk by Balaji Srinivasan, who cofounded the genetics-testing company Counsyl.  If nothing else, it provides a dramatic demonstration of what I mean when I said in my previous post that the present has become elusive to our imagination.

Andrew Leonard at Salon attacked this article as emblematic of a certain techno-libertarianism.  Awash in its successes, it is losing touch with the rest of the country and the world:

 Silicon Valley has a right to be proud of its amazing achievements. But I think a lot of the movers and the shakers in the Valley don’t quite get how that pride is gradually fueling an unseemly arrogance that comes off quite badly to those in the world who aren’t lucky enough to directly partake in the wealth being generated by the Valley.

I don’t necessarily disagree with this assessment, but I’m also struck by how sophisticated Srinivasan’s talk is.  It’s more sophisticated than Leonard allows.  Srinivasan is clearly comfortable in front of a microphone: cogent, succinct, and articulate.  He knows his audience, and he speaks with impressive authority.

But beyond just the form of his speech, he makes a compelling case that we’re at the cusp of a major societal upheaval.  His notion of a “paper belt” comprised of Boston, New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC is clever, compelling us to think about how a former era’s movement away from producing products in the US toward a producer-services economy helped create the rust belt.  In the not-too-distant future, he seems to be arguing, the Coasts will join the Midwest in becoming more flyover country.

What will take the place of this regime made of paper?

According to Srinivasan, it will be a regime made of code, run with the same efficient logic of computer programs.

Just as importantly, the code will have embedded within it a history of people who decided a social order was so entrenched it made little sense to speak against its inability to solve its own problems.  Instead of looking for “voice,” then, such people chose “exit.”  That is, they left and sought to found a new social order.  What is important about exit, though, is that it is always guided by a desire to model for the old order what a better way of doing things would look like.

It’s not simply a case of succession, as Anand Giridharadas for the New York Times insisted.  (Is it worth noting that the editors chose another South Asian American to respond to Srinivasan?)

In other words, think Perry Miller’s thesis about Pilgrims being a “city on a hill.”

Or, for something more recent, think Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, which imagined the colonization of the red planet as an elaborate thought experiment for an Earth too set in its ways and unable to avoid the multiple economic, political, and ecological catastrophes barreling down on its human inhabitants.

Or, think Asian Americans.  Strikingly, Srinivasan begins by talking about the fact that there are many in the audience who shares his name.  He also jokes about how he founded his company with someone who also happens to be named Srinivasan.  More important still, he talks about his father’s decision to leave his native India to come to the United States as an example of exit.

In other words, looping through the quite complex political theory underlying Srinivasan’s talk is the experiences of Asian immigration to the United States as a model of political agency.  This model, Srinivasan seems to insist, has powerful antecedents.

What I think needs to be pointed out is that Srinivasan’s politics is not just libertarian, which his reference to the communitarian impulse behind the examples of immigration he provides suggests.  While his thinking certainly is this, sharing many similarities with the Ayn Randism of politicians like Rand Paul, it is also just as powerfully a kind of anarchism.

It’s interesting, for instance, to watch Srinivasan’s talk alongside this interview that the comedian Russell Brand gave to the BBC.

While Srinivasan doesn’t speak with as much passion, there’s also no question that he feels strongly that the state has failed us.  Higher ed has failed us.  The news and publishing industry have failed us.  The political class has failed us.  It is now time for other political actors freed from the fetters of settled ways of doing things to find a way to govern themselves more effectively.  Unlike libertarians, Srinivasan understands the struggle ahead as requiring more than simply the invisible hand of capitalism to advance a select few.  He’s driven by a much more community-minded spirited, one which feels to me genuinely interested in benefiting more that an elite.

What’s different, though, is that while Brand is speaking of something organized by people who don’t have many resources and must work laterally because they simply don’t have much choice, Srinivasan imagines political change as more top down.  Silicon Valley will lead, providing innovations that will eventually benefit everyone else even if it has to strip jobs and wellbeing from a lot of people along the way.

What Srinivasan lacks, then, is what libertarianism lacks: a critique of the economic and political reasons why the current system seems to be failing us.  He is too immersed in a bubble of entrepreneurial groupthink, where social behavior follows the model of incorporated, profit-driven being, and can’t therefore appreciate fully why this model won’t be attractive to a lot of people outside this bubble.  Nor can he see that the very models he extolls may be exactly part of the problem he’s trying to diagnose and find a treatment for.

Brand’s got his problems too.  This isn’t the place to discuss them.  But I think what we’re finding in all of the examples I’ve mentioned here—including Rand Paul—is a strong sense that major change is underfoot, and the present social order is showing itself unable to meet the challenges we find ourselves facing.

© 2013 Min Hyoung Song