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Will Silicon Valley Finally Try to Secede in 2014?

Before we get into the persecution complex that lies at the heart of the tech industry’s secessionist instincts, it’s worth pointing out that the idea is not all bad.

by Grace Wyler
Jan 7 2014, 4:35pm
Startup founder Balaji Srinivasan, new leader of the Inverse Amish. Photo courtesy of Y Combinator. 

Looking back on 2013, you might say that it was the year of Silicon Valley’s political awakening. Between revelations of the federal government’s sweeping domestic espionage programs and protracted battles over Internet tax policy and immigration reform, the tech industry finally started to play its hand in Washington, with the apparent realization that ignoring the US government won’t make it go away.

But 2013 also saw a more cynical strain of politics emerge among the country’s technological elite, as apathy turned into outright hostility toward the government. Dreams of Silicon Valley seceding from the United States—making the “ultimate exit” from the burdens of the nation-state—captured the imagination of a growing cabal of libertarian futurists last year. Now, just one week into 2014, these clamors for secession show no signs of subsiding. In fact, the ideas are just getting crazier.

Take, for example, this Twitter screed from Balaji Srinivasan, a startup founder and venture capitalist who argued at a Y-Combinator conference in October that Silicon Valley should create an “opt-in society” that uses 3-D printers and BitCoin to escape the oppressive dysfunction of government laws and regulations. On Friday, Srinivasan elaborated on this notion, clarifying that he is not suggesting Silicon Valley actually secede from the U.S., but instead create an autonomous zone inside the U.S., where disruptive Masters of the Universe like Srinivasan can live unencumbered by the outdated regulations of what he calls the “Paper Belt,” or the rest of the country. It’s an idea that Srinivasan calls, with apparent sincerity, the “Inverse Amish”:

Just like the Amish live nearby, peacefully, in the past - imagine a society of Inverse Amish that lives nearby, peacefully, in the future. A place where Google Glass wearers are normal, where self-driving cars and delivery drones aren't restricted by law, and where we can experiment with new technologies *without* causing undue disruption to others. Think of this like a Special Innovation Zone similar to the Special Economic Zones that Deng Xiaoping used to allow China to experiment with capitalism in a controlled way.

As Valleywag's Sam Biddle points out, it is not clear where Srinivasan’s “Special Innovation Zone” will actually exist, or how it will provide things like food, water, and public safety to these Inverse Amish folk. Srinivasan also conveniently overlooks the fact that the tech industry relies on the rest of us to buy their disruptive technologies and supply their data. What he describes is less an actual nation than it is a techno-libertarian version of Disney’s Tomorrowland where “risk-tolerant early adopters” cavort in driverless cars and trade in BitCoins, without actually making any money off of their ideas.

The concept is not new. Libertarian futurists have been fantasizing for years about ways to bypass big government and rebuild the nation-state in their own techno-utopian image, most famously through the Seasteading movement, a Peter Thiel-backed venture that envisions a maritime utopia of floating libertarian city states. Blueseed, a Seasteading offshoot that I visited last June, is already putting these ideas into practice with its plans to launch a floating startup nation off the coast of San Francisco, where entrepreneurs can tinker at their ideas free of US regulations and visa requirements.

But an idea that was once the exclusive purview of technological idealists and Ron Paul fans permeated the mainstream ethos of Silicon Valley in 2013. Srinivasan is not some fringey hacker—he’s the co-founder of a well-respected genomics startup who was recently hired by all-star venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. And he is not the only Silicon Valley bigwig jumping on the secessionist bandwagon. In May, Google CEO Larry Page suggested that “the world” set aside a similar lawless technological experimentation zone, describing a kind of beta-test Burning Man where mad scientists are free to do their mad scientist thing without pesky government oversight. Noted VC investor Tim Draper offered a variation on these ideas last month, submitting a ballot initiative that would divide California into six separate states with the goal of freeing the Bay Area from Sacramento’s antiquated grip.

Before we get into the persecution complex that lies at the heart of the tech industry’s secessionist instincts, it’s worth pointing out that the idea is not all bad. Yes, the notion that Silicon Valley could break free of the United States is ridiculous, but it also represents part of what is great about the country’s dreamy tech capital: a capacity for reinvention and willingness to make the rest of us realize that things don’t necessarily have to be the way that it has always been.

But underneath all the idealism and disruption rhetoric lies a darker, classist hostility, and an ugly sense of techno-exceptionalism among Silicon Valley titans who believe that the industry’s economic success should make it immune to criticism and government oversight. Defying federal regulations became a badge of honor among startups like 23andMe, Airbnb, and Uber, whose founder Travis Kalanick uses the cover of Atlas Shrugged as his Twitter avatar. This Galt complex has more sinister implications as well, evidenced by AngelHack CEO Greg Gopman’s recent Facebook rant against homeless people, which suggested that poor people in San Francisco should “sell small trinkets, beg coyly, stay quiet, and generally stay out of your way.”

But what this flirtation with secession really shows is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for Silicon Valley to ignore the government. After years of letting the tech industry run relatively undisturbed, the nation’s creaking legislative machine is finally starting to catch up with the technology, and battle lines are being drawn. And with each regulatory intervention and city council run-in, the idea that the Valley would be better off without the rest of us gains a deeper hold. The question this year is whether any of these techno-libertarians will move beyond their secessionist thought-experiments and actually try to make a move.