Heirs and Hierarchy

Malcolm Harris' very different history of Silicon Valley brought about some thinking about hierarchy and their heirs to wealth and riches.

I’ve written about hierarchy a few times and often relate it back to being the default structure. The reason I believe this is because it’s a simple structure. It’s something that can be deployed quickly, works fairly efficiently, and can be established and refined as you go along. It's a "good enough" system of organisation well suited to deployment in simple problem spaces.

One of the other reasons that hierarchies are a default is because it’s a power structure with its own power dynamic. For those at the top, the hierarchy is really beneficial. Along with the power to decide, comes wealth in a variety of different shapes and forms. Therefore, hierarchy is often a desirable form and structure despite how well it functions as a system of organisation and if it is performant in its duties. If something innately enables someone and gives them power, there’s a reason to not only deploy a hierarchy but to maintain a hierarchy.

I listened to the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast with Malcolm Harris, which discusses a very different history of Silicon Valley than the narrative that we often get told. The topics discussed were numerous and diverse - from eugenics, racism, nuclear weapons, myths of hippies and anti-authoritarianism, and some retelling (with added truth and context) to the stories many of us are familiar with. It is an absolutely fantastic podcast.

As a consequence of listening, I was triggered to think about hierarchy, not as the default, but because people want it there. There are those who believe hierarchy is a requirement and a preferred state, something they are willing to invest time and effort into establishing and continuing. The history that Harris provides around Stanford is just this. A story of those seeking to set up a new and alternative hierarchy, one based on some particularly nasty ideologies. It’s also a story of their success and how their narrative has come to dominate global discourse and trends. Harris also points to this story being a great lesson on myth-making because, despite the claims of being a hotbed of counter culture and antiauthoritarianism, Silicon Valley was and is built on the militarism of the US in the global arena. Every missile and drone is powered by the chips and software developed in and by Silicon Valley. The technology we use every day was developed and funded under a regime that was not counter-culture; it was the culture. It was powered by an ideology based on dominance and dominion, not free love and peace. Much of the fragility in global supply chains we see today was brought about by the shift to globalisation and offshoring work, which was pioneered in Silicon Valley to skirt US labour laws and from having to deal with unions.

The other key idea I drew out of the podcast was the idea of hiers. It wasn’t enough to establish a hierarchy; it had to continue and in order to do that, you had to breed your successors. This is where Stanford fits in. It was established and still is, the incubator for the next generations of leaders in the hierarchy. But it's important to remember that the incubator of their heirs is based on the underpinnings of eugenics and breeding practices tested on horses at the Palo Alto Stock Farm. Not only was this group of people able to establish new power based on the West Coast away from the dominant familial lines of the East, but they also established a way to continue their lineage and ideology. While perhaps not entirely concerned with the genetics component, Stanford has become a tool for indoctrination into a way of seeing and understanding the world – one that is often completely at odds with the rest of us.

This disconnect is why no one has "innovated" a solution to hunger or homelessness. Despite having the “greatest minds” and access to infinite amounts of capital, Silicon Valley refuses to engage in real problems, mostly because they see inequality as a functional part of the model, not as a problem. You can’t have a hierarchy without someone on the bottom. You can’t compete if everyone is on the same level. You can’t have anything resembling a meritocracy (despite their prescribed belief) if it’s not what you know but who you know. Stanford and all in its shadow thrive on the inequality of hierarchy, and they will go to all ends to ensure that it continues. And they have bred generations of disciples to their ideology — that this is the way.

Before I struggled with the thought that hierarchy was problematic because it was the default method of organisation. What we lacked was imagination for how to do things differently to better suit the way we need to work, particularly in complex domains. The problem was the difficulty in moving anything forward while laden with the inertia of what is easy. Now I can see that there's another element here: desire. Some people don't want change because they seek power. Or that they feel they deserve it. It is their right. That part of the problem is that moving beyond the hierarchy is a challenge because the power it bestows won't be relinquished. That change can only come from prising it from their cold dead hands, and even part of the hierarchy is that there's an heir apparent, just waiting to step in. Moving beyond the hierarchy is not a change that can happen within an organisation but can only be done by replacing it.