By now, you’ve heard of Balaji Srinivasan, the Stanford Ph.D. turned entrepreneur (aren’t they all?) who spoke at the “Startup School” this October. In his speech, Srinivasan (no relation) proposed that the United States has become the “Microsoft of nations” and that Silicon Valley technophiles should act like the Google founders in 1998. “There’s no way [Larry Page and Sergey Brin] could have reformed Microsoft,” he said, “so [they had to] start their own company; they had to exit.”
Srinivasan couched what Anand Giridharadas termed his “secession call” in a political theory of “voice versus exit.” Voice, he said, represents reformist politics. People who use their voice write letters to the editor and cast votes. Exit, by contrast, means opting-out; it means canceling your newspaper subscription and emigrating from a country whose principles you reject.
“Exit,” he said with disarming candor, “means giving people the tools to reduce the influence of bad policies over their lives without getting involved in politics. The tools to peacefully opt-out, as our ancestors did.” Exit, he claimed, actually strengthens voice.
There’s a lot to be said about Srinivasan’s proposition that Silicon Valley zillionaires “start new countries.” For one thing, as the New York Times noted, this is not just his dream; tech doyens like Elon Musk are already planning to colonize Mars. But what matters is not just what Srinivasan said; it’s how he said it. His rhetorically savvy speech betrayed the insidious naïveté of its widely shared undergirding ideology, whether you call it libertarianism or techno-utopianism.
Us vs. Them: In Srinivasan’s rendering, it’s the Silicon Valley versus everyone else, the Bay Area versus New York/Los Angeles/Boston/Washington, D.C., and, though he didn’t deign to mention them, versus everyone in the red states. “They have aircraft carriers, we don’t,” he said. “We don’t actually want to fight them.”
Having grown up in the Valley, I understand Srinivasan’s feeling of distance from the rest of the United States. On September 11, 2001, I went through the motions of shock and grief, documenting anti-Muslim hate crimes for my school paper and reaching out to family in New York, but I felt oddly detached from the scenes of recovery unfolding back East. California was just so far away, I thought, and so different from everywhere else, that we might as well have been another country. Going to college in North Carolina changed my provincial perspective.
There, I cultivated a more expansive understanding of “Americanness” itself, as a project inclusive of varied political attachments, cultural ideals, and historical investments. It is a project worthy of commitment, critique, and care.
The New Founding Fathers: Make no mistake about it: the new world “outside the United States, run by technology” will be yet another patriarchy. Srinivasan’s narrative replaces Washington and Jefferson with the likes of Page and Brin, but we’re still in the realm of founding fathers. It is now well known that the technology industry is an all boys club. When Twitter announced it was going public, it had to admit that there were no women on its board. Until 2012, Facebook, too, had an all male board. The company Srinivasan founded, Counsyl, counts only one woman in its fourteen-person leadership team.
Of course, board representation is not a perfect metric of gender equality or opportunity, but it is one sign of the frat-boy culture of the tech-driven world. The tech world replicates, it does not repair, the sexism, ethnocentrism, and blind spots of the existent world, resulting in things like Wikipedia articles divided into the unequally valued categories of “American novelists” and “American women novelists.” When Srinivasan dreams of a “world run by software,” he forgets that software is not some autonomous being given down to us from on high. It is not an artificial intelligence free of human fallibility. It is man-made and ineluctably human, in both its potential and its problems. A world run by software may be sexier than a world run by bureaucrats, but it’s just a sexist horse of a different color.
Ancestral Mythology: Srinivasan used the example of his father’s immigration to the United States in order to develop his theory of virtuous exit. Showing a photo of his father outside “a grass hut,” Srinivasan explained his emigration from India: “[My father] grew up on a dirt floor in India and left, because India was an economic basket case and there’s no way that he could have voted to change things in his lifetime.” Srinivasan proposed that we view America not as a land of immigrants, but rather as a land of emigrants who chose to leave their countries of origin. Now, his story goes, we should return to our emigrant-roots and opt-out of the United States.
Srinivasan’s familial tale entirely obscured India’s colonial history and sustained post-colonial efforts to develop an independent nation that would be more than what he flippantly termed “an economic basket case.” He used the specter of poverty (a poverty shared by none of the Valley execs he addressed) as an imperative to pursue one’s fortunes elsewhere, disingenuously drawing an analogy between the context of the grass hut and that of America’s supposedly technophobic regulations and outdated infrastructure.
The Indian example also gave lie to his argument that “exit amplifies voice.” Emigration out of India, also known as the brain drain, didn’t result in India’s eradication of poverty. It only reinforced the problems of a society in which upper-middle-class people don’t bother to vote because they can simply exit, if not retire into their own private Antilias.
Nations, history has shown, need more people to opt-in, people like my uncle Shashi Tharoor, who left an illustrious diplomatic career to get into the political trenches of India’s Lok Sabha. It’s hard work that involves engaging people who don’t think the same way you do, who have different values, ideals, and dreams. And isn’t that what life’s about? Srinivasan’s software-run utopia needs to be countered by feminists, historians, and anyone committed to the project of building a better, shared world.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.