“I, too, am Contrarian”: moving on from Social Capital / final newsletter

A major personal announcement: I’m moving on from Social Capital! I’m not leaving for any new opportunity in particular; instead I’m taking some time for parental leave, and my hope is to get lots of good writing done while I’m off. As of today, all of my writing going forward will be back on alexdanco.com (and stay tuned for a new newsletter as well…).

In the meantime, here is the last issue of Snippets for Social Capital, which I’m reposting here for your reading:

For my last Snippets, I want to take a minute to riff on something that we’ve probably all thought a lot about, in one way or another: being contrarian. Folks, allow me for a minute to poke some fun at this whole idea that being contrarian is “in fashion”, or something, for the past several years. It’s one thing to value independent thought because it’s valuable; it’s entirely another thing to pursue it as a status symbol. Is there truly anything more ridiculous to hear someone pronounce than “I, too, am contrarian?” But here we are, in 2019, and that’s basically the discourse at this point: Tech Twitter taking their turn gingerly stepping to the microphone in order to announce their great, heretical, forbidden idea, then nervously looking from side to side to see whether or not their tweet is doing numbers. 

People, the way to find genuinely interesting ideas is not by trying to be contrarian. It’s to not care what other people think about you. That’s it. That’s the only trick. But it’s a hard pill to swallow, because if we’re being honest, independent thoughts aren’t what we’re really after. What’s truly fashionable in Silicon Valley today isn’t having contrarian ideas; it’s to be contrarian as an identity. It’s pretty revealing that the phrase we use is “to be contrarian”, rather than “to think contrarily”. That says it all, really.

“Being contrarian” in tech isn’t a thought process; it’s a performance. And those performances are often pretty funny. Watching the tech community create new Takes every day is a bit reminiscent of the two aldermen in Don Quixote who run around the mountains searching for a lost donkey. They each make braying noises into the wilderness, in the hope of convincing the lost animal to come home, but their imitation is good enough that each person continually fools the other from around a corner or over the ridge. The characters take turns falling for each other’s donkey impression, just like Silicon Valley luminaries take turn listening intently at each other’s Contrarian Takes, becoming progressively unable to distinguish between their imitative attempts versus the real thing. 

That’s not to say that Contrarian Takes are devoid of any information, however. The supposedly “provocative” take is a performance, but put enough of them together and they’ll inevitably reveal an actual truth: the real conformist opinion behind them, usually some kind of fear or resentment, that goes unmentioned and unchallenged. The more sophisticated and “enlightened” the participants, the more obvious the real truth that goes unsaid, if you look for it. There’s a devastating moment in The Brothers Karamazov when Smerdyakov, the clever household servant, remarks to Ivan (the middle brother, who is the most envious and the most susceptible to worrying about what others think of him), “It’s always interesting to talk with an intelligent man.” Smerdyakov is not paying Ivan a compliment. What he’s actually doing is openly mocking Ivan for compulsively revealing his deepest fears and insecurities: “The more intelligent people think they are, the more they desperately care about what other people think of them, and the more transparent their real feelings and secrets become. They simply can’t help themselves.” In the novel, Ivan is introduced as the deepest thinker; the most ‘original’ and the most intelligent. Over the course of the book we come to realize that, in Ivan’s case, these are not positive nor desirable traits. He may be the most educated, but his thoughts and desires are the most imprisoned, and the most tormented. Who were the Ivans this week on Tech Twitter? Well, how about the chorus of “I, too, think that a pitch memo is a superior format to a slide deck; in fact, I have always thought this”? 

All kinds of funny things happen when people realize that there is no higher status symbol among our Bay Area peer set than being seen by the group as interesting. People here brag about their angel investments; not because it implies they’re rich, but because it implies they saw something no one else did. The irony, of course, is that this social obsession with being seen as an independent thinker drives everyone towards the same narrow band of nervous conformity; and this conformity is actually an important part of what makes Silicon Valley work smoothly. It unlocks capital; it lowers friction; it creates templates for how to speak, feel, fundraise, build and ship, that we copy from one another. Silicon Valley works because, in a lot of important ways, everyone thinks and acts the same way and wants the same things. But we never admit this. 

We ask, ‘Is Silicon Valley a bubble?’ Well, it is, but it’s a bubble that has evolved a superego, as Freud would call it: a mediating, clamping, scolding influence that directs our thoughts and impulses into acceptable forms. This isn’t all bad; it’s an important part of the reason why scams like Theranos are so rare in Silicon Valley, and why we don’t quite see the kind of violent group exuberance that we get in other bubbles, like crypto. The Silicon Valley Superego is born out of a simultaneous and deeply conflicting pair of impulses: the desire to admire, copy and imitate people who have unique ideas, while simultaneously getting quite irritated and genuinely bothered by those same people: we can’t all be contrarian, after all.

Once enough people start pursuing this goal of being recognized as unique and different, you see this hilarious kind of social dance take place: “contrarian snobbism”. We can’t help but raise our noses just a little bit at other people’s Takes, thinking, “pshh, that’s not contrarian, that’s obvious.” We are really no different from any other kind of snobs when interacting with one another – we understand each other at first glance, and then are immediately resentful of each other. Nothing is worse than seeing your own imitation and your own striving mirrored back at you. 

Henry Kissinger has a famous quote, referring to his time at Harvard: “The battles were so fierce because the stakes were so small.” This isn’t merely an observation; this is in fact a causative relationship: the smaller, the pettier, the more insignificant the challenge, the more comically and sullenly people will obsess and fight over it. Why is this? Because tiny stakes imply similar participants; often peers or neighbours. When differences are great and stakes are high, our opponents are likely quite distant from us, and we treat them like straightforward rivals. But when differences are minute, our peers start out as role models and then steadily morph into objects of envy who live next door. That’s where the real hilarity comes from, as does the equally real Shakespearian tragedy that follows. 

While the VC Twitter Contrarian types usually trend towards safer kinds of performances, there’s another, worse kind we now have to deal with too: the Hacker News Poster Contrarian who, in their desire to be seen as ambassadors for “diversity of thought”, just openly behave like assholes. Creating a kind of “hushed, forbidden discussion” that’s really just belittling (or often racist and/or sexist) isn’t contrarian either; it’s just bad. (I promise: when someone posts this kind of thing, the first thing they do is check to see who’s praising it and who’s condemning it. That’s not contrarian; that’s status-seeking within their group of jerks.) Unfortunately, our obsession with original thought has created a whole generation of chattering tech voices who know no other way to distinguish “radically original thought” from “it shocks people and makes them mad.” 

(As an aside; Silicon Valley is supposed to be somewhere where people think freely. You know what a place where people think freely looks like? It looks like somewhere with a cheap art scene; with a lot of musicians; somewhere where young people hang around and cause minor problems. It looks like what San Francisco used to be, for sure. But San Francisco nowadays more closely resembles something like the TV show The Good Place.)

Anyway, look people – I’m all for celebrating independent thought, and I’m all for having my Twitter feed being funny. By all means, don’t stop. But my request for everyone in the Contrarian Tech Scene is simply: please find some new material! There’s so much out there, begging to be discovered and packaged up and Hot Taked and Medium Posted. You want to go look for contrarian ideas? Go read literature, especially 19th century literature. The nature of human behaviour hasn’t changed, except arguably in one respect, which is that people back then were actually better at understanding other people than we are now. All in all, it’s a good thing that people in Silicon Valley and on Tech Twitter tend to be on balance fairly nice people. All I ask is, please get some new ideas; maybe by reading some old books? Not many of your peers are, I’ll tell you that much. Imagine how bold and unique you’d be if you did. You, too, can be a contrarian. 

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