November 3, 2013

PIERCE: Head for the Exit

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I’ve learned that it is a good rule of thumb to take cues from people who are brighter than you are, and right now the smart money is making for the door. Balaji Srinivasan’s talk on “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit” is only one of the most recent examples. Google cofounder Larry Page has called for a part of the world to be set aside for unregulated experimentation. The PayPal mafia is less subtle and even more fantastic, with Peter Thiel expressing serious interest in taking to a life on the high seas and Elon Musk laying the groundwork for an exodus to Mars.

The fact that the drivers of our country’s most dynamic economic sector are openly fantasizing about secession should give us pause. Unfortunately, most of the press seems content to simply sneer at these ideas and write off their proponents as naïve and disconnected from “the real world.” This exchange between the press and the leaders of the tech sector illustrates the inherent tension between the political concepts of voice and exit. The digerati are opting for exit over voice, and media’s reaction is to be expected, as the idea of exit has been cast as defeatist by our culture — and for good reason. The myth of the social contract only functions as long as the parties in the agreement are deluded into thinking that their signatures are binding. Politics is suffocating and seems inescapable until you realize that you can, in fact, walk away.

The only form of political action that our system recognizes as legitimate is that of voice. Voice gives rise to the ideas of “the public sphere” and of “national debate” and voice is what is exercised through voting, through campaigns of all sorts and through pretentious opinion columns. Even most so-called radicals know no other form of action than voice: They camp in parks and smash windows and swing baseball bats in order to be heard.

Further, and this may seem obvious, voice is dependent upon an audience. This essentially amounts to a relationship of weak captivity, as one’s opinion really only exists as long as someone is able to hear it, let alone listen to it. The reciprocating circuit of voicing between speakers and listeners is what constitutes our political system. At its core, the use of voice inherently perpetuates established power. To really change something, you have to shut up and get to work.

Exit is something the system fears because it attempts neither to speak nor listen.  Exit agrees to disagree and takes its business elsewhere. At the individual level, it seems like a laughable form of effecting systemic change. Leviathan doesn’t care if you pack your bags and ship out, but when the crowd heading for the door is large enough or its members important enough, exit translates into a vote of no confidence. Suddenly, the system begins to experience a phenomenon it thought it was immune to: competitive pressure.

Exit provides an alternative to the morass of politics by consensus. Why bother trying to convince others to change the system when you can route around it or help to build something better? Negative liberties must be fought for if they are to be preserved, so give yourself a fighting chance and make the battle asymmetrical. Tune in, turn on and drop out — but instead of taking some hits of acid and spinning out on your kitchen floor, expatriate and take your money and talent with you.

Owing to its start-up culture, the tech industry doesn’t do reform. It sizes up the old system, notes the flaws and then builds a better version. To use Srinivasan’s example, the U.S. has become the Microsoft of nations: “Codebase is 230 years old, written in an obfuscated language; system was shut down for two weeks straight; systematic FUD on security issues; fairly ruthless treatment of key suppliers; generally favors its rich enterprise customers but we still have to buy it.” The plan of attack here isn’t to apply for a job at Microsoft and try to orchestrate a turnaround, but to engineer something better on the periphery that will force the behemoth to innovate or die. If DC can’t keep up, it can be reclaimed by the swamp it was so tellingly built upon. No one is forcing you, dear reader, to leave, but don’t block the exit for those of us who are.