Current Events: 2021 Humility

Slate Star Codex and the State of Things

If you, like I, came of professional age in the earliest days of the Internet boom (we’re talking the early ’90s), you might have been exposed to the overwrought sense of intellectual entitlement and rationalization endemic to the San Francisco Bay area. This has mushroomed in recent years to the point of ridiculousness. And you, like I, might have walked away from it.

I grew up in the New York Metro area, and am no stranger to Regional Superiority Syndrome. Like-minded people in large metro areas, living a balls-out Darwinian oval track race, trying their best to out-think one another, all the while shrouding their self-esteem varia with a veil of civic pride. “We’re a great city, filled with the best minds, surrounded by the best culture the world has to offer. Not here? Sucks to be you!”

Generations of people in Silicon Valley (and in the New York Metro) have produced important things; this is not up for dispute. But starkly missing from this sort of culture is a genuine appreciation for, and sense of, humility.

It is this lack of humility that I find myself responding to in the work that I do. An important part of a CIO’s job is to protect the companies they work for from the incredible amount of bullshit that is threaded through our industry. Promises of AI; new features that are always on the way; so much software that is apparently so great, so easy to use; anything can be solved with an integration or an API; Object Linking and Embedding is architecture of the future (or maybe it was ActiveX); Citrix is good; Cisco is great; Access is wonderful; SAP is amazing; Electron is groundbreaking; Apple is doomed; blockchain can solve issues with tracing lettuce from farm to table; every report is valuable. If you are a CIO, add your own bullshit to this list. I will not disagree.

In this vein, part of our jobs as technology leaders is to pay attention to the culture from which these issues emanate. You might be like me, and you might fail to drag yourself out of bed to do this once as often as you should. I tired of it long ago, but there are moments where I take a deep breath, dive in, and catch up.

An article in yesterday’s New York Times is my latest diving board. Once I came up for air, I realized that I need to share this: If you are a technology leader, this piece is worth your while.


“Silicon Valley’s Safe Space” focuses on Scott Alexander Siskind, creator of Slate Star Codex, a (now-preserved) blog-cum-support-group for Silicon Valley intellectuals who shared thoughts related to rationalism in technology. In the echoes of the dialog from these Bay Area rationalists, you get the sense that these people felt that they were doing something new and different. The naïveté of that notion is amusing.

It would be fair to say that Slate Star Codexers practice (technology-) applied rationalism in the same vein that I practice (technology-) applied rhetorical theory, the principal difference being that rationalism has been regularly and predictably applied to technology throughout history, whereas rhetorical theory has definitively not.

What’s clear from reading the Times article is that many of these folks would like to shelter their discussions from scrutiny and counterpoint from less-than-likeminded individuals. This is why, despite my short summary, I think you should take the time to read the entire Times article, as well as many of the links within. Many folks might be tempted to focus on some of the right-wing versus left-wing issues in the article and in the blog’s content; that would be a waste of time, because there is little notable to be found in that aspect of the story. The bigger story is one of perspective lost to self-importance.

I particularly recommend perusing the Slate Star Codex post titled “Gender Imbalances Are Mostly Not Due To Offensive Attitudes,” a carefully self-disclaimed, pseudoscientific attempt to dissect gender representation in special interest groups.

The post highlights a dividing line between “humanities/empathizing/intuitive” people and “sciency/systematizing/utilitarian” people (the rationalists), and treats the former with a predictable and carefully-buffered dose of contempt.

Next up is a link to a TechCrunch article titled “Geeks for Monarchy: The Rise of the Neoreactionaries.” The Times piece cites angel investor/Andreesen-Horowitz General Partner Balaji Srinivasan opining that he and his cohort “could not let that kind of story gain traction,” ostensibly because it might prove to be perfect fodder for the outsiders, providing a tad too much insight into who these people really are.

Lest you have lost track of how far along we have come, this circle of people includes Mark Andreesen, creator of the world’s first graphical web browser, NCSA Mosaic, as well as its commercial offspring, Netscape Navigator. Mark was the archetype of the perky, Internet wunderkind of the 1990s. Today, his goals are scarier, more divisive, and more threatening than his earliest work, targeting the Bay Area rationalists through a media outlet via his a16z brand.

You also should not overlook Scott Alexander Siskind’s response to yesterday’s Times article on his Astral Codex Ten blog, in which he defends himself in awkward ways, evoking rationalization rather than rationalism.

Ultimately, what the Times piece helps us see is that the Bay Area technologists’ rationalism is a powerful underpinning for yet-another-inwardly-focused media empire, as if the world needs more of that sort of thing. Poynter’s David Cohn summarizes this point nicely.

Rationalism is helpful. Anything remotely involving science benefits from it. What I find troubling about this era of Bay Area Philosophy is that its philosophers’ rhetoric is regressive, rather than progressive. It is Plato vs. Aristotle all over again. Recall the first line of Aristotle’s Rhetoric: “Rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic.” In that single phrase, Aristotle acknowledges the need for dialectic, but warns us that there is more to life than logic. In Aristotle’s world, we consider not just logos, but pathos and ethos in equal measure.

Scott Siskind’s “sciency/systematizing/utilitarian” people may have a hard time with “humanities/empathizing/intuitive” because it is more comfortable to suck the safe teat of logic. But humans are rarely logical, and we are fools to believe that we are rational. Only through humility can we come to terms with this. “Sciency/systematizing/utilitarian” people sometimes like to label matters of ethos and pathos with a dismissive epithet: “soft skills.” These cannot be empirically evaluated through rationalism, therefore they are not worth the time to pursue. What the rationalists fail to see is that this philosophy itself is a logical fallacy: an enthymeme, better-known as “a syllogism where one or more of the premises are implied rather than stated.” You can thank Aristotle’s Rhetoric for that.

As Times author Cade Metz put it:

“Slate Star Codex was a window into the Silicon Valley psyche. There are good reasons to try and understand that psyche, because the decisions made by tech companies and the people who run them eventually affect millions.”

If the people who run our tech companies fail to nurture humility, vulnerability, and empathy, then they will never be able to solve humans’ thorniest problems. What we see in the Times article is a classic imbalance between objectivity vs. subjectivity, and a call to do more. All fields need to consider the relationship between these two viewpoints; one is not more relevant than the other.

Will our profession allow these Bay Area rationalists alone to define what gets said, and what gets funded? Or will we (hopefully) promote a more balanced discussion? Read the Times article. Get up-to-speed. Please do your part to contribute to a balanced conversation.

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