The narratives of the IT industry

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Narratives shape the digital transformation of society much more than we think. We don’t like to admit this because we love the illusion of rational action too much and like to assume objectivity ourselves. But in fact, almost all of us are influenced by narratives. That in itself is neither bad nor good. It is only important to be aware of it, or even better: to recognise the narratives.

In the book “What Tech Calls Thinking. An Inquiry into the Intellectual Bedrock of Silicon Valley”, published by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux (New York)[1], Arian Daub presents the most important narratives of Silicon Valley and explains the local background. Reading it, one realises how decisively our discourse on the digital transformation has been shaped by a mixture of interests, peculiarities and peculiarities of a small circle of insiders from faraway California. How they experience the world there is how we explain the world to ourselves – and are often not even aware that we don’t (can’t) understand much of it. Because the insider club in Silicon Valley preaches globally, but thinks very locally and has a pretty narrow life experience even by Californian standards.

Daub traces in detail how the ideas and beliefs of today’s Silicon Valley have developed. He shows the contingency AND the logic behind the contingency. He exposes the elegant curves that thinking sometimes had to take to make the dropout paradise the mansion of the Western world. Precisely because he does not argue polemically, but judges accurately – there are very few sentences that could be interpreted as polemical, and these are full of poetry – his diagnoses shake you. Is it all really that simple? For all the scepticism about Daub’s fantastic analytical brilliance, the answer is: yes, probably so.

Content-wise dense and insightful, the book formulates a call for intellectual revolt against the belief in the narratives of Silicon Valley. However, when recounting the contents, one quickly notices that the insights in the book are at the same time too revolutionary and too factually concrete to find broad acceptance or to impress academics or artists at all. If one takes the content seriously and combines it with economic insights (on which Daub is rather clumsy), one can eliminate many meaningless discussions without replacement – for example, about whether it was justified or a scandal that Trump was banned from social media – and who is willing to do without the meaningless.

There is much that is remarkable about this book, and it is too well written to be recounted briefly here. So here are just the names of the chapters:

  1. Get out
  2. Content
  3. Genius
  4. Communication
  5. Desire
  6. Disruption
  7. Failure.

Daub omits little that is known in the way of clichés, but adds a few things that are little known outside Silicon Valley, for example the theses of the religious and literary scholar René Girard, whose influence makes the rather strange last chapter of Peter Thiel’s “Zero to One” understandable, among other things.

If proof had been needed that research on digital transformation needs the support of comparative literature … Daub has provided it with this book. But now the uprising against the dominant narratives is around the corner and we don’t know if it will happen. Do we want to start thinking again in the old, exhausted Europe? Do we really want to? No one can imagine it. But it is a beautiful book nonetheless.


1] In German: “Was das Valley denken nennt – Über die Ideologie der Techbranche”, published by Suhrkamp

AUTOR/AUTORIN: Reinhard Riedl

Reinhard Riedl heads the BFH Centre Digital Society and edits the online magazine SocietyByte. He was president of the Swiss Informatics Society and the International Society for New Music Bern IGNM.

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