If you are wondering what the blueprint for Dominic Cummings’s “reign of terror” is, don’t think Robespierre – think Elon Musk. When, last week, the Number 10 chief strategist unceremoniously fired Sonia Khan – a treasury aide Cummings accused of conspiring with anti-no-deal figures – the act reeked of Silicon Valley.
The dismissal, brutal and sudden, was redolent of the ways of a hard-hitting technology CEO, such as Musk or Steve Jobs, rage-firing employees suspected of not being committed enough to his vision. Given the circumstances around it – Cummings seemed to imply that Khan’s chat with a former colleague signified her wider disloyalty to the Brexit project – the decision came across as a literal application of late Intel CEO Andy Grove’s motto: “Only the paranoid survive.”
Grove – who pioneered Silicon Valley’s tough-as-nails leadership style, and whose management books have become compulsory reading among the West Coast tech-elites – is indeed one of the deities in Cummings’s intellectual pantheon, according to a person who used to work with Cummings. But it is Silicon Valley as a whole that looms large in the political strategist’s mind.
A cursory look at Cummings’s fabled blog will find it peppered with references to California’s startups and technology executives, from payment company Stripe, to AI lab DeepMind, to venture capitalist Peter Thiel. “For Dominic, [understanding] Silicon Valley means understanding the reality of what can get done,” the former coworker says. “He is willing to explore things out of his area to understand what works.”
Cummings loves things that work, he craves efficiency – and he seems to think that the system conspires against working things, stifling them with hindrances, delays, and fudges. Since he started serving as an advisor to education secretary Michael Gove, in 2010, Cummings’s greatest beef with the UK’s state machine – and, by extension with any “bureaucratic cancer” from the EU to the United Nations – has been that nothing ever gets done.
He sees senior civil servants as useless mandarins uniquely intent on preserving their privileges, and politicians mostly as chancers, well-versed in speech-giving but lacking in hard skills like science, technology, maths and management. An Oxford-educated historian who self-taught himself maths, Cummings loathes the politics, philosophy and economics graduates who dominate senior roles in Westminster and Whitehall, about whom he once wrote that “[their degrees] reward verbal fluency, some fragments of philosophy, little knowledge of maths or science, and confidence in a sort of arrogant bluffing combined with ignorance about how to get anything done.”
Technology startups, or elite research outfits like DARPA or the Palo Alto Research Group, are the polar opposite of that dysfunctional system: they are nimble, they are focused, they try to hire the very best in the field. They must deliver – or face oblivion.
Cummings first took a leaf out of the Silicon Valley book during the 2016 EU referendum. He has repeatedly described the pro-Brexit campaign he ran, Vote Leave, as a startup. That is partly about appropriating the language of disruption, pitting the insurgent campaign against the Remain-backing “establishment”, the way a fintech app revels in vilifying a lumbering legacy bank.
But the campaign did bear some resemblance to a technology startup: a core team of highly qualified technologists; home-brewed campaign software; an emphasis on “extreme focus” in order to achieve results. “[Our core campaign team] sacrificed weekends, holidays, and family events,” Cummings wrote in his recollection of the campaign – echoing many a Silicon Valley origin story, chock-full of founders sleeping under their desks, and developers working 23 hour days. Cummings has now brought that mindset – the impossible hours, the “extreme focus”, the lateral thinking – to Downing Street, as prime minister Johnson’s Brexit enforcer.
What’s most interesting about Cummings is that he hasn’t borrowed the tools and language of Silicon Valley simply to win elections or political ordeals. Cummings’ interest is not transactional or transitory. In 2013, his 230-page-long essay on education sparked bafflement and outrage in equal measure on this side of the pond, but earned him a ticket to an invitation-only technology summit hosted by Larry Page and featuring geneticist George Church in Mountain View’s Googleplex. His blog keeps coming back to the necessity of establishing some sort of British DARPA to fast-track innovation; he has suggested that the UK team up with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to build a lunar base; his ultimate goal is making Britain the best place in the world for science and education. For Cummings, Silicon Valley is not only a means to an end, but also somewhat of an end.
And Cummings’s passion is not just a long-distance, bookish affair. On his first day at Number 10, Cummings appeared wearing a T-shirt with the logo of OpenAI, a company set up in 2015 with the goal of researching artificial intelligence. That was not some knock-off merch: a person familiar with the matter says that Cummings has personally visited OpenAI’s office in San Francisco more than once. OpenAI declined to comment on the purpose of Cummings’s visits, but his interest in the company is nonetheless compelling.
One of the key topics OpenAI was set up to investigate is malicious use of AI; Elon Musk, one of the organisation’s founders, was much blunter in laying out his worries: for him, rogue AI is today’s “biggest existential threat”. Existential threats – catastrophic events that might wipe off the humankind – are a matter of intense debate in Silicon Valley circles, and a leitmotiv in Musk’s life: SpaceX, Tesla, SolarCity and Neuralink are allegedly all ways of staving off different flavours of Armageddon. Musk worries a lot about existential threats. So does Cummings.
According to Gabriel Milland, a former head of communications at the department of education, Cummings is a “techno-optimist, but not one with illusion, not a techno-utopian”. On his blog, Cummings has sometimes speculated about grim scenarios precipitated by emerging technologies including biological engineering and AI. And in one post, he resorts to the language of “disasters” when explaining why he is in favour of Brexit:
“I thought very strongly that 1) a return to 1930s protectionism would be disastrous, 2) the fastest route to this is continuing with no democratic control over immigration or human rights policies for terrorists and other serious criminals, therefore 3) the best practical policy is to reduce (for a while) unskilled immigration […] 4) this requires getting out of the EU.”
Later on in the same post, Cummings adds that Brexit would “improve the probability of building new institutions for international cooperation to minimise the probability of disasters.”
That, in a nutshell, explains why Dominic Cummings is he so passionate about delivering Brexit: for him, this is not about politics – it’s about avoiding disaster. The question is whether the Muskian, uncompromising, single-minded determination that has shaped Silicon Valley can really work in Westminster. We’ll probably find out soon.
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