Silicon Valley isn't full of fascists
Stereotyping the tech industry as a bunch of secretive right-wingers isn't correct, and it isn't helpful.
Back in the summer of 2020, Scott Siskind deleted his entire blog, Slate Star Codex, because a New York Times reporter had resolved to reveal his real name in an article (Siskind, who now writes at Astral Codex Ten, had long blogged under the pseudonym of Scott Alexander). Eight months later, that article is finally out, and it’s every bit as negative as Siskind feared. Most troublingly, the article draws conclusions about Slate Star Codex’s readership, and about the culture of the technology industry, that I don’t think are warranted. To put it bluntly, I think the article both draws on and feeds into the mistaken stereotype that Silicon Valley is full of right-wingers. And I don’t think sustaining this misconception is good for America’s relationship with one of its flagship industries.
Who were Slate Star Codex’s readers?
Here is how Cade Metz, the author of the Times article, characterizes the Slate Star Codex readership:
[Slate Star Codex was] the epicenter of a community called the Rationalists, a group that aimed to re-examine the world through cold and careful thought…
The voices also included white supremacists and neo-fascists…The only people who struggled to be heard, [economist David] Friedman said, were “social justice warriors.”…
Slate Star Codex was a window into the Silicon Valley psyche. There are good reasons to try and understand that psyche, because the decisions made by tech companies and the people who run them eventually affect millions…
The allure of the ideas within Silicon Valley is what made Mr. Alexander, who had also written under his given name, Scott Siskind, and his blog essential reading…
It was, [Sam Altman] said, essential reading among “the people inventing the future” in the tech industry…
Slate Star Codex carried an endorsement from Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator. It was read by Patrick Collison, chief executive of Stripe, the billion-dollar start-up that emerged from the accelerator. Venture capitalists like Marc Andreessen, and Ben Horowitz followed the blog on Twitter.
This weaves a compelling narrative: The technologists who are building our future had their heads filled with right-wing ideas by reading a popular blog. The problem is, I don’t think the article has the evidence to support this narrative.
For example, is it really true that Slate Star Codex was ever “essential reading” within Silicon Valley? The San Francisco Bay Area has about 387,000 tech workers, according to Google. In comparison, Siskind’s survey of his readers in 2020 got about 8,000 responses, while a Redditor in 2016 estimated that the blog had about 3400 regular readers. About 7,500 people signed the petition urging the Times not to reveal Siskind’s name.
So even if Slate Star Codex’s regular readership was four times as large as the largest of these numbers, that would still mean that a maximum of only 8.3% of Silicon Valley could have regularly read the blog — or a much smaller percent of the overall nationwide tech industry.
And that’s assuming all of Siskind’s readers were techies! In fact, that’s far from the case. Siskind’s 2020 survey found that about 40% of his readership was in the computer industry:
Now, that means Slate Star Codex’s readership came disproportionately from tech. But remember not to fall prey to stereotyping (or as, a Rationalist would call it, base rate neglect, or the Representativeness Heuristic). Just because 40% of Slate Star Codex readers were techies does NOT mean that anywhere close to 40% of techies were Slate Star Codex readers!
In other words, Slate Star Codex was almost certainly a niche interest within the tech industry.
But was that niche disproportionately important, wealthy, and powerful? Certainly Sam Altman and Paul Graham (two big shots at the accelerator YCombinator) were big fans. Patrick Collison, who once kindly called me “more rational than the Rationalists” (thanks, Patrick!!), probably viewed it as just one among his many many sources of interesting occasional information. And I must say that I know quite a number of VCs, and I’ve never heard them use Slate Star Codex jargon.
So while it might be true that Slate Star Codex had an influence on a significant number of tech luminaries, I’d say much more evidence is warranted.
What are Silicon Valley’s politics?
I always get annoyed at the narrative that Silicon Valley is rife with fascists — a narrative that I feel that Metz’ Times story unfortunately furthers. In reality, the tech industry is almost entirely a bunch of liberals.
A 2014 survey by Crowdpac showed a breakdown of political donors by industry. “Online computer services” — i.e., Silicon Valley — was the third most liberal industry, after academia and entertainment. It was more liberal than newspapers and print media!
That’s just an average, so here’s Crowdpac’s full breakdown. Note that there’s a huge peak at the extreme liberal end of the scale!
There’s a small, lonely-looking lump of conservatives over on the right. That undoubtedly includes Peter Thiel and a few other prominent conservatives. But they are iconoclasts within an industry that leans very strongly to the left. And remember, these are donors, not voters, so this sample is probably skewed toward people with money.
Other data sources back this up. In 2020, according to OpenSecrets.org, the internet industry gave 92% of its donations to Democrats!
Surveys of tech entrepreneurs back this up. Though Silicon Valley founders tend to be more skeptical of regulation and unions than the average Democrat (as you might expect given their jobs), they are overwhelmingly Democrats. On social issues (gay marriage, abortion, gun control, etc.) they are much more liberal even than the average college-educated Democrat. They also strongly favor government redistribution, which you might think would go against their class incentives. And most importantly, they score lower on racial resentment and lower on the authoritarianism scale than the average Democratic base voter. In short, tech entrepreneurs are standard liberal nerds.
Of course, anyone who actually hangs out with people in the tech industry already knows this. Tech companies and their leaders were strongly in favor of the Black Lives Matter protests. They also banned then-President Trump, and much of his core following, from essentially the entire internet after the coup attempt of January 6th. And as liberal as tech’s leaders are, their employees are constantly pushing their bosses to be even more liberal. A safe space for fascists, this is not.
Metz, being a technology correspondent, must know all this. He must therefore realize that despite a decade of Slate Star Codex, tech has not gone fascist — in fact, it has gone in the exact opposite direction. So while the story of a lone Rationalist blog whispering right-wing ideas into the ears of Silicon Valley’s princes has strong narrative appeal, it has yet to show up in the data.
Who are the Rationalists?
So if Silicon Valley itself isn’t rightist, how about the Rationalists themselves?
Here I don’t have data, only anecdotes. Overall, they strike me as people who are peripheral to the tech industry. Siskind himself is a psychiatrist. Julia Galef (the only major Rationalist I know personally) is a podcaster. Will MacAskill, one of the leaders of the Effective Altruism movement, is a philosopher; other EA leaders I identified included a quant trader, a lawyer, a Wall Street analyst, a nonprofit founder, a social worker, a language interpreter, and several people whose only apparent job is working in the Effective Altruism movement. In fact, the only major Rationalist figure I could find who is actually in tech is Eliezer Yudkowsky, who is sort of an A.I researcher.
Regarding their politics, the Rationalists seem a bit bifurcated. The Effective Altruism people seem to be liberals (Update: Matt Yglesias has a great post that goes into some of what they want). Yudkowsky and Galef are pretty much just centrists who don’t care that much about politics. And Siskind, though he would likely get mad at me for describing him this way, strikes me as a conservative — or whatever passes for a conservative in this strange new era of politics. He has certainly expressed some skepticism of BLM and (especially) the feminist movement, which in the San Francisco Bay Area will definitely put you on the right of the spectrum. (Update: And as people have pointed out, in private he’s not circumspect about holding some right-wing beliefs.) He and I have clashed on occasion over issues such as women’s labor force participation, school vouchers, and IQ.
But generally, the Rationalists don’t seem very political to me. Instead, they mostly seem absorbed in esoterica of their own creation. Sometimes I find these esoterica quite silly, which has made some Rationalists mad at me. So it goes. But despite what I would describe as Siskind’s conservatism, Rationalism does not strike me as a fascist or wink-wink-secret-fascist movement.
As for Nazis in Scott’s comment section, I personally think he should have banned these people long ago — everything is better without Nazis, full stop. But I haven’t seen evidence that Nazi ideas have taken root among the Rationalists, just as I haven’t seen evidence that Rationalist ideas have been more than a very niche influence in the world of tech.
To sum up, the narrative of a pipeline of fascist ideas from Rationalist blogs to the minds of the powerful people building the future is certainly a juicy one, but it just doesn’t have much evidence to back it up. Silicon Valley is a bastion of liberalism, tech founders are standard liberal nerds, and Rationalism is a niche subculture primarily concerned with navel-gazing about Bayes’ Rule, utilitarianism, and robots. There are definitely things to criticize the tech industry about; I don’t think this is one of them.
(Update: Siskind has a response to the Times article.)
I used to hang out pretty regularly at one of those named group houses that serves as a salon / regular party spot, which was popular with the rationalist crowd and a variety of techies. I don't know Eliezer super well, but I met him several times there, and I realized after Scott released his name that I have met him as well (but didn't know who he was, at the time).
Eliezer is decidedly left-leaning socially, moderate economically. The idea that he would endorse "fascism" is pretty much loony. Scott is I think a bit more conservative in some pragmatic sense -- he seems to be at least open to the idea that "the good life" for many people involves a world that rescues them from the pains of the "paradox of choice" by circumscribing a lot of options, and pushing them into more of a traditional lifestyle. But he also is clearly _opposed_ to the neo-reactionary types who want to achieve that kind of vision of conservative lifestyles by way of violently repressing those who disagree. Maybe you think it's bad that he will engage with those neo-reactionary types via polite conversation; maybe you think all Nazis need punching, and buy into the "paradox of tolerance" idea that for people whose end goal is intolerant, we can't try to just reason with them. But for the Times author to tar Scott as a right-winger like Thiel is a deep misreading of his arguments. I'm sure I disagree with him about a number of things, but I respect that he has a deep reverence for the value and autonomy of each human being.
Thanks for the article! Do you think it's still correct to assume that Scott Alexander is a conservative, given that he's a self described Warren-Biden voter? Or are you basing that inference more on a large body of his writing than recent voting patterns?