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The Old Cyberpunk Vision of a World of Neoliberal Corporations Run Amok (rwblog S6E19)

Today I am going to ramble about a topic near-and-dear to my heart: we live in a state-based society!

This is occasioned by reading Rebecca Solnit’s1 “In the Shadow of Silicon Valley”, which is a pretty crotchety, and honestly pretty typical, “back in my day we had real human connection but then Big Tech came in and ruined everything” article. I did not like it! (I will, however, leave the commentary to an appendix.) But I often find these articles slightly baffling, because they ascribe to Big Tech (so, a handful of multi-billion-or-even-trillion-dollar companies like Apple and Microsoft) a level of societal influence that does not always seem warranted?

That’s not to say they’re not influential — they very clearly are — but they’re playing in a world where states set the terms. Apple does not have a military. The United States very much does.

This is the old cyberpunk vision of a world of neoliberal corporations run amok, extending their power over the actual government.2 But that’s never quite sat right with me. I sometimes feel like the fish in David Foster Wallace’s parable (sorry):

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’

In this case, the water is “states”. We’re so used to living in a modern world where states claim literally every inch of the planet’s surface (well, except for a small strip of land between Egypt and Sudan) that we barely even notice they’re there, except when we’re slapped in the face with it (i.e. dealing with customs and immigration at a border crossing). Historically this was very much not the case (c.f. The Art of Not Being Governed).

Big Tech is a major power player, yes — but a major power player where the terms are set by state powers. Apple, the largest company in the world (and arguably, in history3), had an operating income of $114 billion in 2023. California’s General Fund was $225.9 billion in 2023. So Apple is half a “California state government,” which doesn’t include, say, the $14.5 billion budget for the City of San Francisco.

I mean, it’s sort of amusing that Apple is fucking with the EU in response to their DMA legislation, but I imagine they will eventually hit the “find out” part of fuck-around-and-find-out.

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I don’t want to complain too much about “In the Shadow of Silicon Valley”, since I generally prefer to be positive than negative, so I’ll keep this to a few quotes that really rubbed me the wrong way. (Also, I very much consider this punching up, since Solnit is, like, the most famous Bay Area writer living today.)

Does San Francisco have problems? Yes! Are some of them due to the pernicious influence of Big Tech™️? Sure! But I just don’t see how this kind of grim, pessimistic take helps at all.

Then again, maybe I’m an optimist.


  1. I don’t have much of an opinion on Solnit — I mostly think of her as the inventor of mansplaining as a concept — but I have been meaning to get around to A Paradise Built In Hell for a while.

  2. Speaking of which, Imaginary Worlds recently had an episode on the history of cyberpunk that I recommend.

  3. The British East India Company would probably beg to differ, but note that they essentially became a state power.