The Idle Class (Reading 01)

History is full of clever inventions to justify exploits by the upper class, and for Silicon Valley merit has been the most effective one. In Marxist theory capital must be abstracted from the absolute source of value, labour. Merit as an essential value is nonsensical within such a theory, as personal merit can only exist within a certain relation to capital. Now Silicon Valley believes that not only do its inhabitants possess merit that justifies their extreme wealth, but that they have also created a successful meritocracy. The articles we read today rightly call this idea a myth. Silicon Valley leaders have adopted a worldview that can sustain the trajectory of innovation and appropriation. Promoting universal access to software, they claim anyone can achieve in their field and present software solutions to needs that required an entire profession. There is no denying that software is a powerful force, but seeing it as a purely technical field with its own ineluctable objectives had obscured its status as a cultural object.

Let’s think more about what merit means in this context. When we say certain entrepreneurs earned their way, we mean they had something like genius, some superior insight to the demands of the shifting social landscape. We seem to demand the existence of such a quality when we start to ask questions like, why was it them? How could one person change the daily lives of so many people? We are amazed by how things are, and begin to look for explanations, almost thinking that we will find some nameable object to explain how that came about. We posit something like genius within the entrepreneurs, who seem impossibly situated in such an influential position. Really, we could reach similar amazement if we follow such questioning about any daily object, asking how it came to be assembled and so situated in our daily lives. Genius does not hold up as a personal quality; it rests on historical contingency and societal affirmation. So the idea of a meritocracy should not be critiqued solely for its unacknowledged background of personal privilege, although there is much to be said of that, but also for the questionable status of merit in any society. Merit is never an intrinsic trait but a socially defined one. The merit of a given person, or even software, has been determined by preexisting power relations, so there is no such thing as an unbiased evaluation. These power relations can never be separated from the creation of software, which must fulfill a certain economic role. Nevertheless, some software developers have sunk so deep into their bourgeois ideology that they no longer recognize it. Rather than a means to increase the production of capital, software has become a kind of utopian mission, creating a society where a few can maintain software and the rest can reap the benefits as the idle class. Now the Bourgeois class does not even credit the laborers with the work that was their one rightful claim. I wonder how many of them would want to join the idle class.

Still I do not feel there is no hope for Silicon Valley’s ethos. I am still working in computer science after all, so I must seem some good in it. I still find certain projects pursued in Silicon Valley fascinating and would consider working there, but I want to somehow change the predominant mindset. We need to pay more attention to software as a cultural object. ¬†Software shapes lives, but not through the objective necessity of scientific progress. The software we publish deserves as much care and consideration as a play or a political treatise. In the same way it can shape the world around us, not just allowing for more leisure but enriching our way of life.