In Liar’s Poker, his 1989 Wall Street memoir, Michael Lewis described a newly ascendant, egregiously conceited type of alpha-male bond broker. This type had a name: they called each other Big Swinging Dicks. “Everyone wanted to be a Big Swinging Dick,” Lewis wrote, “even the women.”
A quarter century later, the A-list entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley occupied an analogous place in the American power structure, but their self-presentation was less aggressive. Instead of “Greed is good,” their aspirational bromides were “Think different,” and, “Don’t be evil.” Instead of Dionysian feats of consumption — Porsches and cocaine binges and morning cheeseburgers — they drove electric cars and subsisted on seaweed and Soylent. They didn’t deny themselves the pleasures of good old-fashioned capital, but they were equally covetous of social and intellectual capital. Their fondest wish was to be considered luminaries, Renaissance men, the smartest guys in the room. They were Big Swinging Brains.
They spoke with alacrity and unbridled confidence, making brash assertions that were contrarian in familiar ways, each offering expert opinions on more topics than it was possible for one person to be an expert in. Were they luminaries? To be a truly original thinker, it seemed to me, one had to be comfortable plumbing the outer bounds of one’s knowledge, even pondering the unknowable. But Big Swinging Brains were often loath to admit that their knowledge had limits; they would sooner pivot to a topic they knew about, or at least knew how to talk about. “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” A Big Swinging Brain was more likely to summarize two opposing sides of a debate and then, without pausing for breath, explain which side was right, or, even better, why both sides were wrong.
Like any powerful group with a well-defined set of interests, the Silicon Valley overlords tended to be receptive to ideas that aligned with those interests and…