What would Ibn Khaldun have made of Silicon Valley?

Image: Pawel Czerwin

Wednesday 10th April, 2019

Morteza Hashemi

Return to Ibn Khaldun- again; this is the title the contemporary historian of the Middle East and North Africa, Stephen Dale, chose for a review of three recent books on Ibn Khaldun;. This return is indeed a recurring move among intellectuals from places as disparate as Malaysia and Singapore (Farid Alatas), Iran (Javad Tabataba’i) and the US (James Fromherz, and Stephen Dale himself). But not all such returns are the same. My own observation suggests a shift in the discussions about Ibn Khaldun’s legacy from the history departments to the sociology departments, corresponding to a shift from viewing Ibn Khaldun as a historical figure to seeing him as a classic thinker with many useful insights for our century.

Ibn Khaldun was a Medieval philosopher of history and social theorist of fourteenth century (1332-1406). He was born in Tunisia and died in Egypt. We luckily know a lot about him and his time, because of his autobiography as well as the plenty of sources on his life-time. His most discussed book is Muqaddimah (Prolegomena, 1377) which was intended to be the introductory chapter to his book on world history. However, because of the depth of the arguments, the long chapter became popular as an independent work. Muqaddimah is at the centre of the most discussions about Ibn Khaldun’s legacy- the same is true with my research project.

We should distinguish between two types of questions about Ibn Khaldun’s theory. The questions behind regular text-book treatments usually concern his identity. In the first chapters of social theory text-books we often find short sections dedicated to praising Ibn Khaldun as one of the overlooked founding fathers of social theory. He is admired as the first social theorist of pre-modern times. It is true that his understanding of the social is quite similar to that of the classic sociologists. As Ernest Gellner pointed out, Ibn Khaldun could be seen as a rival to Durkheim. Ibn Khaldun was interested in questioning the very core of what makes a society possible. He wondered how civilizations and societies emerge, thrive, decline and disappear. Hence, he distinguishes between two types of societies: Bedouins versus city-dwellers. The cyclical replacement of the one by the other is at the heart of his understanding of history. Many have tried to show who this Medieval genius was. Arguably, this has been a popular theme over the past half-century in history and sociology departments.

The second type of question concerns the quiddity of Ibn Khaldun’s theory and its contemporary relevance. Which part of his social theory was Medieval and of historical interest, and which part could be updated for today? In a paper entitled “Bedouins of Silicon Valley: a neo-Khaldunian approach to sociology of technology”, published by The Sociological Review I have tried to engage with Ibn Khaldun from this latter angle.

Could we illuminate Silicon Valley’s replacement cycle of garage-based start-ups and established firms with the help of Ibn Khaldun’s theory? I think we can. I have argued that one can explain the mentality and mechanisms of start-ups by comparison to the underlying mentality that Ibn Khaldun discovered among the Bedouins. In other words, I argue that Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Jerry Yang and David Filo were Bedouins of Silicon Valley.

Ibn Khaldun had mixed feelings for both the Bedouins and city-dwellers; he praised Bedouins for their strength, bravery, and desert survival skills. Yet it was precisely this strength that allowed the barefoot Bedouins to destroy the splendid North African cities and triumph over the cultured city-dwellers. The urbanites, protected by fortifications, had externalised the skills of self-discipline and self-protection which were necessary to the Bedouins. They had become used to a luxurious life, and were lazy and cowardly as a result.  But the cities were also the repository of civilization, fine art and academia, all worthy achievements. On the one hand, cities are great places to live but do not develop one’s inner strength. On the other, the desert-life is difficult, but it will equip people with necessary survival skills and power.

The underlying theme of Ibn Khaldun’s theory echoes a distinction Peter Sloterdijk makes between two types of character, which he calls the trained and the untrained: those who have shaped themselves and those who have externalised their self-forming talents within the complex division of labour of urban life.

My thesis is that we can consider the geeks (or nerds), working on computers in their grandparents’ garages, as Bedouins, who similarly possess nothing but their skills. They nevertheless potentially represent a real danger to the giant multi-billion-dollar firms, through their ability to design something new (e.g. an app or a website). Interestingly the garage scene is represented in both the heroic narratives of the Silicon Valley celebrities and in the fears of the giant firm’s CEOs. In response, the big firms are deliberately seeking to control the power of the powerless start-up geeks. This includes creating incubators or paying app designers to improve their new ideas inside the firms. As Sundae Pichai, the CEO of Google, in an interview said:

You always think there is someone in the Valley, working on something in a garage – something that will be better.

Updating Ibn Khaldun to explain such Silicon Valley phenomena must involve something more than just replacing metaphors: young start-up geeks for Bedouins and established tech-firms for city-dwellers. The process of rethinking and reusing Ibn Khaldun implies knowing when to reject Ibn Khaldun too. That is to say, we should be able to recognize parts of his theory which were of merely local or Medieval pertinence, and have the nerve to ignore them. After all, is not this the way we reinterpret classic and modern social thinkers like Marx and Durkheim? I have called my theoretical approach neo-Khaldunian, because of such selective method of reading his legacy. New, because selective; Khaldunian, because I maintain his basic theoretical structure.

In brief, I have tried to update Ibn Khaldun’s approach to explain a twenty-first century modern phenomenon and it seems that the theory is still illuminating. The Bedouin could be read as a metaphor for the contemporary skilled (yet disadvantaged) start-up youth. While city-dweller is a metaphor for the Silicon Valley firms with their financial and technological global empires. Ibn Khaldun could help us to explain the constant fear of the latter from the rise of the former. The Silicon Valley geeks and fourteenth century Bedouins of North Africa are following one pattern of gaining power through constant problem solving in difficult, competitive and harsh environments. The study of those technics of self-formation and training constitutes a new direction for the study of the rise and fall of the Silicon Valley firms.

Morteza Hashemi received his PhD in sociology from the University of Warwick. He is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Department of Social Anthropology of the University of Edinburgh. Recently, he published Theism and Atheism in a Post-Secular Age. His research fields are philosophy of social science, social and political theory, post-secularism, science and technology studies, and immigration. He Tweets at: @morteza_hm

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