By ANAND GIRIDHARADAS
NEW YORK — First the slave South, now this. Is Silicon Valley trying to secede from America?
That it is, and should, was the claim of a speech this month by a Stanford University lecturer and entrepreneur named Balaji S. Srinivasan. The speech gained attention in technology circles. But it deserves a wider audience, because it was an unusually honest articulation of ideas that are common among members of a digital overclass whose decisions shape ever more of our lives.
In a nutshell, Mr. Srinivasan, a computer scientist and co-founder of the genomics company Counsyl, told a group of young entrepreneurs that the United States had become “the Microsoft of nations”: outdated and obsolescent. When technology companies calcify, Mr. Srinivasan said, you don’t reform them. You exit and launch your own. Why not do so with America?
In practice, this vision calls for building actual communities that would be beyond the reach of the state that Silicon Valley’s libertarians despise. But in the near term, Mr. Srinivasan noted, there are piecemeal ways to opt out of the society — like spending unregulated digital currency, sleeping in unregulated hotels and manufacturing unregulated guns. What Mr. Srinivasan called “Silicon Valley’s ultimate exit,” he explained, “basically means build an opt-in society, ultimately outside the United States, run by technology.”
The speech won roars from the audience at Y Combinator, a leading start-up incubator. It earned hearty praise online as well — even as it worried others.
Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” said the speech was part of “a resurgence of millenarian thinking in Silicon Valley.” The dream of an extra-societal utopia grows in part out of a “naïve libertarianism” ascendant in the Valley, and in part out of older American cultist traditions dating as far back as the Pilgrims, he said.
The Pilgrims analogy is apt, because Mr. Srinivasan cast entrepreneurs as a persecuted people who must flee to survive. The Valley, he argued, is taking over the rest of America’s traditional raisons d’être. Netflix and iTunes challenge Hollywood. Twitter and blogs challenge New York media. The Khan Academy and Coursera challenge Boston’s universities. Uber and Airbnb challenge the regulatory state personified by Washington.
“We are putting a horse head in all of their beds,” Mr. Srinivasan said, using a blood-soaked “Godfather” reference.
Disruption makes enemies, Mr. Srinivasan said, but war is not an option: “They have aircraft carriers; we don’t.” His proposed solution is seceding from the society before the “backlash” against the Valley grows.
The tools are already here, he noted: 3-D printing makes it “impossible to ban physical objects,” from guns to drones. The borderless digital currency Bitcoin defies economic regulation. The Quantified Self movement helps people self-measure and opt out of the health care system. He urged his audience to invent opt-out tools of their own, including one “allowing people, the middle class, to make tax shelters.”
Mr. Srinivasan has influential support: Some of the biggest names in the Valley have variously proposed building a Mars colony, an unregulated zone of experimentation on Earth or floating libertarian islands at sea.
Not everyone in technology wants to flee, though. Catherine Bracy, director of community organizing at Code for America, criticized this genre of thinking as reflecting a simple lack of exposure by many Valley engineers: “Most of them aren’t confronted with or don’t have an understanding of most problems regular people are facing. If they had to collect food stamps or ride the bus or send their kid to public school, they might be more empathetic to the role that government plays in people’s lives and more interested in fixing those problems than opting out.”
Mr. Srinivasan is happy to let reformers stay behind. “The best part is this,” he said. “The people who think this is weird, the people who sneer at the frontier, who hate technology — they won’t follow you out there.”