If there was one thing that united the founders of today’s tech giants in their early days it was contempt for politics, manifested as suspicion of government and a pathological aversion to regulation (not to mention paying taxes). In part, this was a product of their origins in the counterculture of the 1960s. But the aversion endured as the companies grew. One saw it, for example, in the US poet and cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. “Governments of the Industrial World,” it began, “I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
For many years, Silicon Valley companies didn’t even bother to have lobbyists in Washington. As late as 2015, Eric Schmidt, then the executive chairman of Google, was predicting that authoritarian governments would wither away in a comprehensively networked world, which made some of us wonder what exactly Dr Schmidt was smoking.
During that period, governments generally played along with this myth of their irrelevance. Presidents and prime ministers queued up for invitations to the campuses of the Silicon Valley giants. And insofar as the tech moguls paid any attention to presidential politics, it was to support the Democrats. Schmidt, for example, played a big role in Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency.
Unsurprisingly, the valley was thunderstruck by the election of Donald Trump. One of his first acts as president-elect was to summon the tech bosses to a “summit” in the White House. And most of them came, slinking in like frightened schoolboys summoned to the headmaster’s study for smoking behind the bike sheds. The only attendee who seemed genuinely relaxed to be there was PayPal’s co-founder Peter Thiel, but then he was the only one of them who had actively supported Trump’s campaign for the presidency. […]