The end of my orange marker pen (and idealism)

IMG_1184“It’s fluorescent orange your book”, observed Paul, who owns the coffeeshop. “It looks like you’ve been colouring it in. Like a mad person with only one colour of pen…who only does straight lines…”


He was exaggerating for effect, just like his “thermonuclear blend” but he had a point. I had underlined so much of the book in preparation for this detailed review that more of it was orange than, er, paper colour. Were a search and rescue helicopter flying above trendy Shoreditch coffee shops that Sunday morning to check up on book reviewers they would have had no trouble locating their rescuee. Who needs a flare gun when you can simply wave your book in the air while flicking the neon pages?


But  there was no need of a book-reviewer-rescue operation. This orangeification of the book was not a signal of distress but the sign of a cracking read.


“This will stun you”, I said to Paul, preparing to read out a passage of the book.


“You did that when you turned the pages”, he replied, putting on some glacier glasses.


I soldiered on: “The billionaires of Silicon Valley, all the geek-billionaires, they’re all mates”. I said “It’s not quite the meritocracy they would have you believe. Most of them went to university together or previously worked together! At Paypal!”


“Well, well. You don’t say”, he yawned and went to serve a customer who wasn’t holding a glowing book.


I had a similar response elsewhere: The revelations of this book only fitted what most people already thought was the case. To be specific, the news I was sharing was that Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Ebay, Amazon et al in cahoots with the Silicon Valley Venture Capitalists are hell bent on gathering all the money and power in the world while at the same time declaiming that they do it all for the benefit of humanity; To make the world a better place.


So if gut feel already told most people this, including me, something else had made me proselytise “The Know It Alls”. The writer Ayn Rand is a sort of philosopher queen for the Silicon Valley libertarian meritocratic elite. In her famous doorstopper, Atlas Shrugged a recurring piece of advice is offered every time something fails to make sense: “Check Your Premises”.  Dutifully I went back through the book and realised that what actually made the book such a terrific read was that Noam Cohen lays out precisely why the cynical interpretation is the right one. Now we have facts. Subjective, I grant you. But compelling and very well told.


Cohen structures his tale as a sequence of ten character sketches  beginning with John McCarthy, one of the founding professors of Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University and via Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and the Google founders making his way to Mark Zuckerberg.


As a tech columnist at the New York Times, Cohen has picked up a treasure trove of anecdotes and these leaven and entertain a story which otherwise remorselessly drives toward the dread realisation that you were right all along. It is all these proof points which I realise I have gleefully highlighted with my Stabilo Boss.


He identifies two primeval swamps from where the species of geek-billionaire rapidly evolved. The first is Stanford University which turned into a local Silicon Valley hothouse for the conversion of academic computer science into freemarket billions.


The second is PayPal, the online payment firm, whose former leaders are the founders or significant investors in many household names: Facebook, LinkedIn, Tesla, YouTube, Yammer and Yelp.


Some of these moguls never were idealistic in the first place says Cohen. But others were and it is his account of the “re-orientation” of the aims  of Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page once they had investors on board that are the most chilling.


The nerds who claim they want to make the world a better place now hold all the cards. And Cohen’s book suggests they chose the path not of Frodo but Gollum. People instinctively know this as my friendly baristapreneur had made clear. But with this book we know how it happened.


I read The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball

By Noam Cohen