Silicon Valley’s Secessionist Movement Is Growing

A rendering of San Francisco's SoMa district, circa 2080.Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Last week, I wrote about one Silicon Valley investor's excited response to the government shutdown, a response sparked by his belief that "stasis in the government is actually good for all of us." It was an extraordinary statement, it seemed to me, not only because it ignored the very real damage the government's gridlock was doing to normal, non-wealthy people all over the country, but because it revealed a broader ideological shift among certain members of the technological elite, from political apathy to active anti-government hostility.

But this weekend, at a Y Combinator start-up school, one tech entrepreneur outdid that investor by not just cheerleading dysfunction in Washington, but calling for Silicon Valley to literally secede from the United States.

CNET reports that Balaji Srinivasan, the co-founder of San Francisco–based genetics company Counsyl, used his opportunity to address a roomful of aspiring start-up founders at Y Combinator to give a talk called "Silicon Valley's Ultimate Exit," a techno-utopian vision of a world free of the constraints of civil society:

"The best part is this, the people who think this is weird, the people who sneer at the frontier, who hate technology, won't follow you there," he said. "We need to run the experiment, to show what a society run by Silicon Valley looks like without affecting anyone who wants to live under the Paper Belt," he added, using the term "paper belt" to refer to the environments currently governed by pre-existing systems like the US government ... "We need to build opt-in society, outside the US, run by technology," Srinivasan said, often reading from the slides he presented onstage with an authoritarian tone. [Emphasis mine]

Srinivasan's remarks, which CNET's Nick Statt says were given with an "air of forced evangelism" but were "received warmly" by the start-up incubator's incoming class, were predicated on his belief that Silicon Valley hasn't been responsible for any of the ills that have befallen the United States lately, and that, with tools like Bitcoin and 3-D printing, the tech sector is no longer reliant on participation in the national economy:

"We didn't securitize mortgages, order bailouts, start wars, or refuse to write movies or articles on this until too late," read one of Srinivasan's slides on where the blame lies and what the real problems are that are holding technology back.

At the end of his presentation, Srinivasan presented a slide "showing an artist's rendition of what a techno-utopia might look like if it were blossoming in the ocean off the coast of what could only be Northern California."

Srinivasan, who lectures at Stanford, is also teaching an online course on the subject of techno secession. His remarks weren't that far off from ones made earlier by Silicon Valley bigwigs like Google CEO Larry Page, who wants to "set aside a part of the world" for regulation-free technological experimentation, or investor Peter Thiel, whose "seasteader" movement wants to take out its frustrations with government by building floating societies outside the U.S.'s borders.

But Srinivasan got a bit more specific about the ways in which Silicon Valley's technological advances could pave the way for its eventual secession. Not all of these ideas make complete sense — you can't 3-D-print a highway, or develop a cancer treatment with a Fitbit band — but it sheds light onto the persecution complex some of Silicon Valley's influential thinkers have developed with respect to the political Establishment.

This complex, which has undertones of class hostility as well as simple naïveté, puts a certain cohort of Silicon Valley leaders more in ideological league with the tea party than with the progressives they've historically supported. (Though, I should note that Silicon Valley's rank and file still tend to vote for Democrats in national elections.) And anti-government sentiment appears to come out more forcefully whenever public-sector processes impede Silicon Valley's normal working rhythm — when a transportation strike makes a Twitter executive so mad that he daydreams about letting Dobermans loose on those responsible, or when a popular start-up's efforts to disrupt a new industry is stonewalled by regulatory interventions.

The secessionist instinct makes sense from the perspective of a tech executive who would be richer and more successful if not for the cautious, slow-moving tendencies of government. Silicon Valley has already created a sort of autonomous region for itself, in which private services replace public ones, and local tech companies dictate their own favorable tax treatments. And if you're a start-up founder like Srinivasan, whose industry (genetic testing) is heavily regulated on a federal level, why wouldn't you want to usurp your government killjoys and gain the freedom to experiment without penalty?

Of course, the tech industry still relies on Washington in many ways — whether through environmental tax credits or simply selling lots of products through government contracts. But don't tell that to Silicon Valley's techno-utopian clique. In their mind, true technological progress can only happen once the "paper belt" is destroyed, and government interference becomes a non-factor. And after every other industry has been changed by the tech sector's influence, the only thing left to be disrupted will be democracy itself.