Silicon Valley is a Science Fictional Utopia

For every SF utopia, there is an equal and opposite dystopia.

by Jamie Riedesel on July 1st, 2015

Utopias in Science Fiction have a long history. What drives many people to write science fiction is to shed light on what a better world could look like, one where the problems we face are done away with science! or a more evolved approach to cultural differences. These alien and futuristic worlds show how things could work out if things right now were different.

G. Wells’ Time Machine put forth the care-free Eloi, whose every need is taken care of by the Morlocks.

Issac Asimov’s Spacers, introduced in the Robot books, were the first wave of humans off Earth and into interstellar space, found they quite liked it, and built personal paradises.

Trek’s United Federation of Planets (a.k.a. The Federation) describes a post-scarcity economy that was both startlingly integrated (for the 1960’s) and almost socialist in culture.

Joanna Russ’s A Few Things I Know About Whileaway examines what a world of only women would look like.

Gibson and the rest of the Cyberpunks postulated a world where human industry has surpassed the bounds of nation-states.

Nancy Kress’ Probability Moon and Probability Sun show an alien culture where variance from culturally accepted norms of behavior is enforced by biologically evolved, crushing headaches.

Ken Mcleod’s Cassini Division described two separate utopias; a socialist one founded in the Solar System, complete with a centrally planned economy and no system of money, and a libertarian one founded in another star system where capitalism reigns supreme.

Charles Stross’ Accelerando, and to some extent Glasshouse, show a world where cornucopia machines can produce anything, even copies of living and thinking creatures, and explores the cultural changes this would trigger.

Awesome things, and great ideas. This is what SF is all about.

The moons Janus, Pandora and Mimas against Saturn's rings.

Photo CC-BY alan taylor, filtered.

This is also the drive behind Silicon Valley culture. It’s about a better future through human industry, like the Cyberpunks.

It’s a better future through ingenuity, risk-taking, and a rock-solid belief that technology is humanity’s best chance at a better future. Asimov’s Spacers and the two Stross stories are founded on just this drive.

It’s a better future through the unshakable belief that anyone can come up with something that will change the world for the better. Mcleod’s libertarian utopia in Cassini Division provides a free marketplace of ideas that makes this happen.

Optimism for a shining future. Utopian SF and Silicon Valley are founded on the same base instinct to make a better world. Like those stories, it takes a lot of time to bring about the desired changes. For Silicon Valley, it took the spirit of SF in the 40’s and 50’s to combine with both the competitive business environment and the emerging electronics sector to get to where we are now. Many of the current luminaries of our field weren’t even born yet when the cultural seeds were sown.

Long time readers of SF will have noticed that my examples of utopias… aren’t actually utopias. As Moze Halperin pointed out in “Why Are So Many Fictional Utopias as Terrifying as Dystopias”:

False utopias — art’s favorite variety — tend to be more sinister than dystopias, because they initially present themselves as Solutions.

For every SF utopia, there is an equal and opposite dystopia. Utopias are tricky from a storytelling point of view, because there is no conflict. The point of a utopia is to be perfect. Most of the utopias I put forth are examined by outsiders, which provides the conflict good storytelling needs. Wouldn’t it make an interesting story if that perfect gleaming city on the hill was actually the stock pen for an underground race to keep their cattle (Time Machine)? It takes an outsider to notice the knives.

Pure utopias are boring. John Norman’s Gor books are uncritical of utopia and not taken seriously, because they’re seen as mere fantasies of the author with no social merit. Jeanne Gomal critiqued them in Janus 02 in 1975 (pg. 40). She describes them as good swashbucklers, the setting is just right; but the social aspects are off-putting, falling down under any critical analysis:

“Come now, is this believable when one remembers that one aspect of advanced culture is the freedom it gives its women?”

All of the utopias I presented require some broad simplifications to society or the environment. Wells’ Eloi/Morlocks require two obviously divergent races. Asimov’s Spacers require a high uniformity of opinion among the Spacer population in order to get the culture he describes. Trek’s Federation, described as a ‘United Nations of Space’, purposely overlooks the failures the actual UN has experienced. Russ’s Whileaway requires eliminating an entire gender. The Cyberpunk nation-state postulate elevates corporate personhood so high that you’re not really a person unless you’re incorporated (preferably internationally so). Kress’ Probability series requires a single landmass, otherwise there would be cultural divergence. The singulatarian novels by Mcleod and Stross assume that mapping minds (and their thinking bodies1) can be done in computing, and done within a century of ‘now’.

A man reclining in a chair, with virtual reality headgear, numerous wires attached to his body, flanked by large amounts of blinking computer equipment.

Photo CC-BY thierry ehrmann, filtered.

Silicon Valley’s dominant culture exhibits the same simplifications. It assumes all people are equal creators of intellectual property, have equal access to funding, and accessible markets. This utopia is purposely ignoring the effects of racial and gender biases and smugly assumes that we’re beyond that sort of thing.

Halperin’s statement about art’s favorite form of utopia being the false one is spot on. Trek’s Federation has a stand-alone military that violates the Prime Directive at a whim. Russ’ Whileaway is extremely binary in its gender thinking, outright erasing the gender-variant. In the Cyberpunk world nation-state allegiance has been replaced by corporate allegiance. Mcleod’s libertarian utopia is only one if you have resources to spend; the socialist one is repressive of individual desires. Stross’ cornucopia machines allow taking backups of whole thinking bodies, which gives real life the video-game mechanic of going back to an earlier save, and leads to an incredibly violent society.

The gates to the Silicon Valley utopia are barred to anyone that doesn’t look like a successful person in the making. Access to funding is notoriously biased. Unpaid work as a prerequisite for getting paid work requires an already sound economic base. The benevolent indifference towards non-technologists in the economy prevent them from achieving full membership.

Utopias, especially false ones, are almost all about privilege. Asimov’s elite Spacers had access to the apex of human technology, allowing them to automate the creation of individual paradises. The Singulatarians took this a step farther and uploaded their minds into digital paradises, a feat of computational engineering that requires the peak of human technology. Rapture of the nerds in deed, not just idea; leave the sheeple meat-sacks behind. The Cyberpunk corporate utopia requires the privilege of good upbringing, childhood wealth, and higher education to participate in. These utopias have strict membership rules.

The privileges required to participate in the Silicon Valley utopia are very similar to the Cyberpunk ones, but add more specific individual requirements. To get equitable access to funding, you need to be white or Asian, cis, male. To have equitable opportunity to be a creative person with prospects, you need to be white or Asian, cis, male, have a technology degree from a small handful of schools, and afford to live in or around Silicon Valley.

You can achieve partial membership in this utopia by hitting most of these boxes. Your access isn’t equal, but the narrative says it is, so you don’t notice the absence. You then try harder, since effort is part of the narrative too. To cement your membership you do and say things to reinforce the dominant narrative; that proves you’re part of the in-group in outlook at least, and demonstrates that you belong.

False utopias are sneaky that way. This is why they’re more evident to outsiders: we see the knives.


1. Elizabeth Bear. Feb 26, 2006. She expanded on this topic later, in 2011 on Charles Stross’ blog.