Posted by: Mark Gimein on November 30, 2011 at 7:35 AM
Reading Debt: The First 5,000 Years, the history of the economics and ethics of debt by David Graeber, I stumbled on one of the oddest histories of Silicon Valley you’ll ever see. Graeber is the anthropologist who is in some ways the intellectual father of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Debt is not precisely an academic monograph, or a popular book. It’s what in the 19th century would probably have been thought of as a treatise on political economy. And it covers a lot of ground. Including, on page 96, this bit:
The greater the need to improvise the more democratic the cooperation [within companies] tends to become. Inventors have always understood this, start-up capitalists frequently figure it out, and computer engineers have recently rediscovered the principle … Apple Computers is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Republican) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other’s garages.
Especially after the saturation coverage after Steve Jobs’ death, it’s not really worthwhile going over what’s wrong with that last sentence. Yesterday I sent a tweet asking about this with a big “!?” Here’s the ensuing Twitter dialogue.
@markgimein David Graeber,Debt,p96: Apple was founded by engineers from IBM who formed little democratic circles of 20-40 with laptops in garages.-HUH?!
@davidgraeber: oh ask Mr Wolff
@markgimein: You mean Tom Wolfe (this http://bit.ly/tuUz4O ?) But he was talking about HP, not Apple.
[I though Graeber might have had in mind Tom Wolfe’s essay about the origins of Hewlett Packard and Silicon Valley. That was somewhat closer to the description in the book.]
@davidgraeber: no I mean Richard Wolff the Marxist economist whose student did a study of the origins of Apple and never published it
@markgimein: Don’t know about Wolff. But I don’t think Apple was founded by IBM refugees. And when it was founded there were no laptops.
@davidgraeber: the laptops thing was a result of a compression of two sentences, that was silly
@davidgraeber: Richard Wolff actually and I think he led me astray
@davidgraeber: yeah I know I think Wolff was just kind of wrong about a lot of this; I tried to check with him but he didn’t answer the email
@davidgraeber: it’s upsetting; it’s also possible he was talking about a different early start-up; anyway won’t be in the 2nd edition!
Give Graeber a pass on the laptops. I’m prone to typos myself, and know how irritating it is when I make a hash of what I meant to say with a quick last minute rewrite that introduces mistakes. Graeber is old enough to remember that there were Apples long before there were laptops. Still, the sentences about Apple in the book do elicit another “Huh?”
The questions that Graeber broaches about how moral worth became entwined with the values of the marketplace are important. The values of the market pervade our social interactions. We discuss paintings in terms of price and books in terms of Amazon’s sales rankings.
Morally, this is a problem. Economics alone is a terrible guide to ethics. But questioning the moral equivalence of wealth and worth can’t require dismissing economic facts—whether it’s the history of Apple or of the bank bailouts—as an artifact of “conventional” thinking. Not even having finished Graeber’s book yet, I’m not going to start making conclusions here from a couple of sentences about Apple. But they do bring to mind a deeper question: is there enough agreement between Graeber and the folks on the other side (read: Wall Street) on economic and historical facts for a reasoned debate to happen?
Update: Hat tip to Anna Gimein (yes: related), who pointed me to the Richard Wolff lecture some of this seems to be drawn from. You can see some echoes here:
Over the last 30 years, every year, hundreds and in some years thousands of engineers in that little strip of land between San Francisco and San Jose called Silicon Valley, have done the following interesting thing. They quit their jobs working for big companies like Cisco or IBM or any of those, and together with a few friends, having walked away from those jobs, they set up a little enterprise amongst themselves, working out of one of their garages. . And they come to work each day, not wearing a suit and tie, the way they used to when working at IBM, not taking their orders as to what to do as software engineers from a supervisor, whom they didn’t like. Instead they came to work, with their laptops in tow, at the garage of their friend, wearing Hawaiian shirts, grasping a Frisbee, maybe with a dog, maybe with a toddler, and having a wonderful time in a new little enterprise.
Based on this alone, I don’t think it’s really fair to blame Wolff here. Most of what he says in this passage is fairly general and not really objectionable (though I’m not sure all that many startup engineers came from Cisco or IBM, or that every startup is such a wonderful time).
Also worth noting: I’m not the only one to notice this section of Graeber’s book—the blog Unfogged also pointed it out.