The war that put Silicon Valley in its place

You can dine and shop well enough in the La Brea district of Los Angeles to forget that its name translates as “tar”. You can savour the treasures of the LA County Museum of Art and ignore the lake of gurgling black goo in the park outside. You can decide against the La Cienega route to LAX and avoid the sight of oil derricks, bobbing up and down like perpetual-motion executive desk toys.

In the end, though, even in California, home to the disembodied economy of tech, the coarse physicality of the energy sector is inescapable. And so, ever more, in all our minds, is its importance.

The war in Ukraine has put paid to a series of fantasies. No, Germany cannot opt out of History. No, it is not butch to tweet adoringly about a strongman you don’t have to live under or near. Yes, the EU is a dream, not an ogre, for tens of millions of people in its near abroad. Of all the illusions, though, the most quietly punctured is the idea that tech is the industry at the centre of the world: the one that makes it go round. Energy, it turns out, is still a worthier bearer of that mantle. This is an education for anyone born in the half-century since the Opec oil crisis.

Silicon Valley’s self-image as the Middle Kingdom of the business world (or just the world) comes out in different ways. Executives in retail or manufacturing don’t philosophise obiter dicta with the confidence of Sheryl Sandberg and Mo Gawdat. Wall Street doesn’t yearn to extend everyone a line of credit in the way Mark Zuckerberg wants everyone to have the “human right” of an internet connection. It is only necessary to cite that particular example of digital messianism to see that it is well-intentioned. But it is also built on a conceit: tech as the industry of industries; the shaper of events.

It is a less tenable conceit than it was a month ago. Tech is relevant in Ukraine; see the propaganda war. But next to the existential role of energy, which keeps Russia solvent, and has the west scrambling for alternative sources, what stands out is the modesty of its bearing on events. Silicon Valley is giving history a nudge here and there, no doubt, but not setting its essential course. That is still the role of people who dig stuff out of the ground for fuel.

Some good things could come of this reassertion of the old economy. One is a more circumspect tech sector. The windy “thought leadership”, the reading of profundity into the frothiest social app: it all stems from a belief that real-world events are downstream of what happens in the Valley. To understand the sector’s dire relations with sovereign states, it is not enough to consider the threats of antitrust break-up. No, there is a deeper sense in the industry that the burden of elevating the condition of the species long ago passed from government to tech. It manifests as a kind of childlike wonder as to what politicians are for.

In truth, if any business has wisdom worth sharing, it is the one that has to penetrate cultures as dissimilar as Kuwait and Santa Barbara: face to face, on the ground, over years. It is the one that is caught up in the most intimate way with matters of war and peace. Yet there it is: ever detached from the zeitgeist. Who reading this can name the CEO of ExxonMobil?

In his masterly history of oil, The Prize, Daniel Yergin, concedes that in the future political power will “come as much from a computer chip as from a barrel of oil”. Perhaps a Taiwan crisis will bear out his point. For now, though, 32 years after he wrote, the striking thing is the resilience of the barrel (or gas pipe, or nuclear plant) as a decider of events.

The present crisis is not just a lesson for preening tech bros. We almost all live what might be called the immaterial life: a life of service sector employment and contactless everything. It is a culture in which the importance of the tangible is easily lost. I grew up around some rather heavier lines of work than tech or media and I still needed a brute reminder of what makes the world turn.

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