Thursday, December 25, 2014

Disrupt away, oh Silicon Friends!

"Rah-rah Stanford, it's so great! F-ck Cal, their protestors are full of hate! We love tech, it's just so awesome—let's build more apps, that's the way to innovate!"

A group of protestors rushed into the auditorium where tech investor Peter Thiel was speaking as the event neared the Q&A portion of the night. In an unfortunate bit of reporting by The Daily Cal, where the reporter didn't quote any of the protestors, we have a succession of three Berkeley students decrying the intrusion (emphasis added):
“We honestly didn’t think the protests would interfere,” said Pierre Bourbonnais, president of the Berkeley Forum and former marketing manager at The Daily Californian. “It’s pretty unimaginable and unfortunate. I’m in support of free speech, but this is not the right venue for that. I’m very disappointed.”

“I can’t believe that (the protesters) thought that this was a politically acceptable way (to protest),” said Jacob Bergquist, a UC Berkeley freshman. “It made me very angry, because some of the people (in the audience) came because they’re just trying to make an impact on the the world.”

... “we feel that it was inappropriate for them to come in and disrupt an event, said Jonathan Lin, a UC Berkeley junior. “It was disrespectful for them to disrupt Mr. Thiel."
First of all, some caveats: I don't necessarily have a strong opinion on Peter Thiel or his political views. He actually comes from an earlier generation of tech entrepreneurs, though he is now an investor in the current startup scene. The protestors appear to have taken advantage of the visibility of the event to put a spotlight on Ferguson and the treatment of African Americans by police, though there were reportedly also shouts of "No NSA, no police state," perhaps a reference to his role in founding Palantir. However, in this particular situation, the protests—and more tellingly, the student reactions—provide a commentary about "the tech sector" more broadly. In this standoff, Thiel serves as a totem of the the warped shape things have taken in Silicon Valley in recent years.

According to one UC Berkeley student in the audience, “It was disrespectful for them to disrupt Mr. Thiel." Is it disrespectful because we worship him? Maybe it's disrespectful for Silicon Valley brogrammers to disrupt people's neighborhoods, livelihoods, and lives. It was very disappointing to see the lack of support in the UC Berkeley crowd to the moment—and an insensitivity to the "people-matter" zeitgeist of recent months (also here). This is UC Berkeley we're talking about, the home of the Free Speech Movement, for cryin' out loud! Protest, public debate, cracking open tough issues to force public discourse—that's a central part of the campus identity. Instead, we see a crowd of UC kids lapping at the feet of technologists, insisting that social activists be thrown out.

In this particular situation, it appears that a good number of Berkeley folks have become part of the unfeeling tech crowd, or aspire to join the ranks of the "entrepreneurs." The sentiment seems to be something akin to, "Let's run the poor people out of town. They should just 'train themselves' to work in the new economy after all ... and who the hell are these rioters complaining about 'systemic' issues? They should just pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get out of the way, they're blocking my tech bus." These sycophantic Berkeley kids are metaphorically sucking Stanford's **** [I suppose I could rephrase that using the more PC "lapping at Stanford's bowl."]

How disturbing! I wish they were proud of who they are, because we need alternatives: other modes of development, different definitions of achievement. Don’t all come worship at the altar of tech. The world deserves better. You are better.

After all, this is the Berkeley where last night, two architecture and engineering students were talking to me about the Global Poverty & Practice minor, which requires students to go out into the world and work with NGOs in the field to gain practical experience with poverty alleviation and development. Do you know how amazing that is?

(By the way, I’m not against Stanford—I teach there, and I have great love and appreciation for this institution that is my home. It’s just that in some respects, the university is not living up to its ideals—its own professed values, the dream of this place.)

As for the following freshman—I'm sure he'll proud of that quote in 4 years: “I can’t believe that (the protesters) thought that this was a politically acceptable way (to protest) ... It made me very angry, because some of the people (in the audience) came because they’re just trying to make an impact on the the world." And clearly none of the protestors care about making an impact on the world, they are just no-good anarchists who need to mind their own business? Or are you just annoyed they don't believe in the same vision for the world? Perhaps we just gotta let the brogrammers get to work innovatin' and changin' the world.

The lack of appreciation for Cal's spirit of protest, rebellion and refusal to politely stand by while authorities crack down or systematically oppress minorities, vulnerable populations, and the weak and outcast ... THAT is far more offensive.

Perhaps these students come from households where they didn't talk about politics, and are going to Berkeley to be computer engineers. But the good thing is that by being in that ferment, they'll learn and pick up a thing or two about social justice. My own sensitization to issues of social justice was greatly heightened when I began visiting Berkeley semi-regularly in 2013. The folks there helped to sharpen my awareness of these issues and how they can be part of our everyday lives, in how we speak and interact, not just something that happens at the ballot box.

I used to be so proud of Stanford and Silicon Valley—that unlike Wall Street, we could innovate, put creativity and people first; that we could care about society and still succeed in the world. But now, we have occupied the role that Wall Street formerly did in the public imagination—a rancidly disappointing outcome. With the uncaring brogrammers, the oblivious techies, the misogyny, the self-arrogating privilege that comes with wealth but without social responsibility ... it’s really sad, because we were supposed to be better.

As for the "Berkeley" students: you're barking up the wrong‪ #‎tree‬. I didn't think I'd see the day when you were on your knees in front of Palm Drive. You can't respect yourself enough to realize that you are inheritors of a unique and proud tradition. On the eve of the Free Speech Movement's fiftieth anniversary, you've bought into something else entirely.

Don't. Please awaken to the spirit of your home. We need you.

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