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This Stanford professor is confronting tech’s billionaire philosophers

Adrian Daub, a professor of comparative literature at Stanford, set out to show his students that the tech industry doesn't have answers to all of life's big questions.

Adrian Daub

"There are all these tech CEOs who believe they are the victims of random meanies on Twitter.," says Adrian Daub. "And you think, how can you be so blind so as to not understand what the power differentials are here?

Image: Adrian Daub

In the early 2010s, professor Adrian Daub began noticing changes in some Stanford undergraduates that troubled him. "I met students who signed on to startups that had a cool story and not much else," he said. Many of his students took a leave of absence, often returning to the classroom a year later, deflated and confused by their forays into the tech world.

In a particularly memorable interaction, a student told Daub that she was leaving Stanford to work at Palantir. Daub asked the student whether she found Palantir's technology at all creepy. The student responded that she wasn't worried because she knew several upperclassmen who worked at Palantir and they were all nice people.

"I was genuinely spooked," Daub said of the conversation. "I'm supposed to teach these kids critical thinking … I was worried about my own competence as an instructor."

Daub observed that while the tech industry is good at giving young people a sense of purpose, it often abandons them later in life. He sees parallels between tech wunderkinds and star athletes: "I met 24- and 25-year-olds who had gone as far in life as they possibly could in some ways … I got to see a lot of the other side of this — people entering their 40s and realizing that no one had even the faintest outline of where their journey should go."

He believes this explains certain aspects of what he calls "VC Twitter," constituted in part by "people who just seem kind of lost, who feel like they need to be opining on something because they're rich as hell and kind of useless."

Aside from the fact that he works at Stanford, Daub isn't the sort of person you would expect to get involved in the tech industry. He is a professor of German studies and comparative literature and the director of Stanford's program in feminism, gender and sexuality studies. He has taught courses ranging from "European Conservatism: A History" to "Topics in Queer Theory." And while the tech industry has a perpetual fascination with what's new and next, Daub has dedicated much of his life to studying centuries-old ideas from figures such as Goethe and Hegel.

Equipped with an outsider's perspective, Daub set out to better understand the narratives that attract so many of his students to Stanford's computer science and design programs, pipelines to Silicon Valley's most revered institutions. His purpose wasn't so much to dissuade students from taking this route, but to make sure those who pursued a career in tech did so under no false pretenses.

These concerns shine through in Daub's book, "What Tech Calls Thinking: An Inquiry into the Intellectual Bedrock of Silicon Valley," published in October. In it, he argues that many of Silicon Valley's big ideas are just older ideas that are repurposed and watered down to suit a particular agenda. "I will try to show not only how certain ideas permeate the world of the tech industry, but also how that industry represents itself to a press hungry for tech heroes and villains, for spectacular stories in what is ultimately a pretty unspectacular industry," Daub writes in the introduction.

Protocol spoke to Daub about confronting the tech world, how tech has changed Stanford students over the years (and vice versa) and whether he thinks the industry can change for the better.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

How did your interest in the tech industry come about?

I'm not in any way a native of the tech industry. My acquaintance with it came from moving to the Bay Area. I came here in the summer of 2008. Everything else was failing; the aura that tech lost after the dot-com bust was coming back with a vengeance. By the time I had settled in here, made friends and connected with my students, tech was sort of the only game in town.

I became fascinated with tech and, given my own area of specialization, found it strange in many ways. That intensified over the next couple of years: This was the heyday of the Google bus controversy; gentrification in San Francisco proceeded on steroids. While I could be troubled by students who swallowed the salvation narratives of Silicon Valley whole, just as often I saw disillusioned tech workers who had really interesting and nuanced things to say. So from the very beginning, I thought there's a lot to criticize here, but given that tech draws a lot of incredibly smart people, there's a lot that runs against the current.

Have you noticed changes in the way your students view and interact with the tech industry over the years?

Absolutely, yes. I started thinking about the questions that became the book in the early [2010s]. At that time I was genuinely spooked. There were definitely some students who were swallowing what were ultimately sales pitches by the tech industry as gospel.

That has completely changed, and I think 2016 was a watershed year because of the election. A lot of the residual tech optimism went poof up in the air. The people who were 20 in 2016 were total Obama babies and for them it was a shock.

As I say in the book, in some ways it's a very local story I'm trying to tell. One part of that is you meet someone at Stanford as an undergraduate: They're a year above you, go to work for a company and then they come back either to recruit or just meet up and explain what it's like. My impression is that some time around then, these conversations were changing. Students visited me again after having gone to the tech industry and [they] would have a more nuanced sense of the experience: They would say, "This was good, I loved the people I worked with, but I also think there's rampant sexism at this company and I'm going to warn my fellow students about this." The conversation became much [more] granular. It became about these tech companies not as a mission, not as a calling, but as places of work.

As a liberal arts professor, do you worry at all that Stanford is becoming a sort of trade school for the tech industry?

My worry is not that students are interested in these technologies. My worry was always that the students weren't interested in them for the right reasons.

A lot of my colleagues in computer science were actually very upset about the rise in computer science majors. They went from teaching a bunch of fun weirdos who wanted to think about the nature of consciousness and make AI to suddenly all these people wanting to know how to make money off this. [The computer science professors] are people who, by definition, made the opposite choice: They could have gone into industry but instead chose to hang out with undergraduates. So this was upsetting for them in the sense that they were inundated with students, but the kind of students they didn't have that much connection to.

I worry about the way in which the tech industry is proffered to my students as an easy answer, when I have the impression that it is no such thing. When I first came to Stanford — and thankfully we're getting rid of this now — there was this distinction between techies and fuzzies. I always found it extremely gendered and troubling. There was a kind of joke that the English major will work in the food service industry, as though that were some kind of shameful thing, while the techie will automatically make tons of money. That kind of fear should not be part of your life by the time you're 19. It doesn't seem like that would lead to ideal decision-making.

You criticize Palantir in "What Tech Calls Thinking." At the same time, of all the prominent figures in the tech industry, Palantir's CEO Alex Karp has perhaps the most extensive liberal arts education. You presumably believe in the power of a liberal arts education. How do you reconcile those two things?

I don't think a liberal arts education makes you a better person. It ought to enable you to more accurately describe things. Palantir was founded by a bunch of people who are much more humanistic. [Palantir co-founder Peter] Thiel studied philosophy, received a B.A., M.A. and a law degree — he's also someone who has probably spent more time reading books than learning to code.

On the one hand, of course, no education will prevent you from putting your mind to really troubling purposes. At the same time, there's a lot of thinking in Silicon Valley that is there to describe reality in a way that wouldn't immediately seem plausible. One of the themes of the book is that this is really troubling: It allows very wealthy men, usually, to escape confrontation with what they really are doing. If you talk to Peter Thiel about Gawker, he thinks he was standing up to a bully. But really, no, he put a lot of journalists out of a job, [and that kind of action] tends to be associated with bullying. There are all these tech CEOs who believe they are the victims of random meanies on Twitter. And you think, how can you be so blind so as to not understand what the power differentials are here?

These are philosophical ideas that allow them to do this, even if they're not very good ones. The ideas allow for an obfuscation of reality rather than a more penetrating analysis of it.

The book analyzes a handful of people — for instance, Peter Thiel, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Steve Jobs — who shape the public perception of the tech industry. If those 10 or so people didn't exist, is the system set up such that it would select the next 10 who could just as easily replace them? If so, how will change in the tech industry come about?

If these particular people had not existed, then Sand Hill Road would have had to invent them. There was a particular kind of money that needed a particular landing pad on the West Coast after 2008, and that has shaped a lot of what this industry has looked like for the last 10 to 12 years.

There are plenty of tech CEOs, tech investors, et cetera who are doing the right thing. The problem is that they don't become part of the story in the way that an Elon Musk does. That's not the fault of these founders themselves; if someone doesn't want to put themselves on the cover of a magazine, then more power to them.

The issue is more about what the rest of us want to see in this particular form of the tech industry. This includes its particular politics: disregard for regulation, insistence that whatever it's doing is discontinuous with the past and therefore old-fashioned things like unions should also be a thing of the past. That convenient form of politics was always going to latch on to these tech companies.

But frankly, a lot of the people in Silicon Valley are not comfortable with this: They don't read their own success in those ways. Of course, if you're going out and collecting investments, you're going to play to the audience you've got, not the one you'd like to have.

If the regulatory framework shifts, maybe our attention shifts to different founders, companies and models. There could be companies that are more hopeful: less Palantir and more sustainable, humane and elective. Having an industry with an unusually highly-trained workforce that tends to be young and idealistic can't be a bad thing, right? I think these people get co-opted into something, but if you build the right framework for them, I believe there's a ton they can do.

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