How Silicon Valley learned to love America, drones, and glory

How Silicon Valley learned to love America, drones, and glory


Hundreds of bright young technologists have landed in California this weekend for a two-day hackathon — a quintessential start-up contest in which teams of coders race to build software. But rather than a posh, snack-laden San Francisco office, they’ll work in a cavernous 6,000 square-foot warehouse in El Segundo, a refinery town southwest of Los Angeles.

And instead of building mobile apps or AI chatbots, competitors will hack together surveillance tools, electronic warfare systems, or drone countermeasures for the front lines in Ukraine — battlefield technology driving a funding frenzy among tech investors.

“[Build] hard tech for the defense of the West,” a hackathon judge wrote on X, encouraging applicants. “Defense, Drones. Gundo,” an organizer wrote, using the city’s nickname to promote the event.

Until recently, tech workers have bristled at applying the fast and nimble start-up ethos to fashion deadly weapons. When Google signed a Pentagon contract to develop AI to target drone strikes, thousands petitioned its CEO in 2018 to cancel it. Such protests spread during the Trump administration, with workers railing against plans to sell augmented-reality headsets to U.S. troops and facial recognition tools to immigration officials at the Southern border.

But after a decade of pushing a utopian vision of the future, tech’s most optimistic pitch is a return to America’s past. Connecting the world is out. Rearming the arsenal of democracy is in.

Between 2021 and 2023, investors funneled $108 billion into defense tech companies building a range of cutting-edge tools, including hypersonic missiles, performance-enhancing wearables and satellite surveillance systems, according to the data firm PitchBook, which predicts the defense tech market will surge to $184.7 billion by 2027.

Skepticism against defense work has faded for younger generations raised on the tumult of foreign wars, a financial crisis and the rising threat of China, said hackathon organizer Rasmus Dey Meyer, a 20-year-old junior at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

In the world’s fragile state, Dey Meyer said, “It’s a lot more socially acceptable to be unabashedly patriotic in the national interest.”

To some among this new crop of tech workers and start-up founders, defense contracting is a higher calling to extend American ideals into the next century. This group of (mostly) men believes in hard work, real innovation, and family values. They’re eager to accelerate progress for America. And a growing number of investors can’t wait to back them.

At least three dozen funds are dedicated to the market, according to the Defense Investor Network, investing in newly-coined sectors such as defense tech, deep tech, hard tech, and space tech. Most have militaristic branding like Andreessen Horowitz’s American Dynamism fund, General Catalyst’s Global Resilience fund, and Shield Capital’s “frontier technologies” fund, which boasts the motto: “Mission Matters.” On Wednesday, the prominent start-up incubator Y Combinator announced a new fund dedicated to defense, space, and robotics.

This public embrace of nationalism marks a massive shift in Silicon Valley, where values have long been out of step with the rest of the country, Founders Fund partner Trae Stephens said.

The firm’s founder, Peter Thiel, told Stephens in 2014 to locate companies building technology to protect American interests that could be sold to the Department of Defense. In three years, Stephens, who Thiel had recruited from the CIA-backed data mining start-up Palantir, says he only found one company.

Now there are dozens, including at least seven “unicorns” valued at more than $1 billion.

Lobbying budgets have likewise expanded, from VC firms along with companies like Anduril, which Stephens co-founded, Shield AI, and Skydio.

This cultural shift has been spurred by a growing unease in tech circles, as economic and geopolitical threats collide. Rising interest rates, fragility in the global supply chain and China’s rapid militarization have led to fears that the United States, and perhaps the industry itself, is vulnerable.

“Russia invaded Ukraine and reminded us why defense technology is not merely something to debate in theory,” Katherine Boyle, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz said in a November speech at the Defense Venture Summit. “History had begun again, and we understood we were entering a new, violent age.”

Ukraine’s ramped-up use of drones prompted the Pentagon to make its notoriously arduous procurement process more hospitable to tech start-ups, launching initiatives like federally guaranteed loans for investors to fund technology deemed critical to national security, improvements that arrived as capital for venture funds was drying up.

As the bubble deflated and start-up valuations shrank, “Everyone panicked,” said Michael Dempsey, managing partner of the venture firm Compound. Some developers wondered if they had wasted their time shuffling around software. This period of searching and self-doubt presented an opening for venture firms to declare defense tech the next big thing. Even now, he said, investors lack conviction about where to focus: “It’s like, is it crypto? Is it climate? Is it AI? Is it American dynamism?”

Amid layoffs in tech, the latter has grown appealing. In a Morning Consult survey of 441 tech workers last March, 34 percent they are more likely than they were a year ago to apply their skills to military projects and 48 percent support their employer considering defense contracts involving battlefield technologies.

“When everything is up and to the right, you don’t have to do the hardest thing to make money,” said Stephens. “But it’s not the money printer moment anymore.”

The Silicon Valley-industrial complex

Tech’s military ties predate Silicon Valley, which began in the late 1950s when funding from defense and intelligence agencies transformed a stretch of fruit orchards into production grounds for mainframes and microprocessors.

These relationships dwindled during the internet era, then slowly resumed after 9/11, Margaret O’Mara writes in her 2019 book, The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America. Palantir, co-founded by Thiel, was one such company formed during the “war on terror,” with backing from the CIA’s venture firm, In-Q-Tel.

To keep up with the threat of stateless terrorist networks, the defense establishment reversed its Cold War pipeline, turning to private industry rather than government-funded labs. The Pentagon launched VC firms and sponsored hackathons to build commercial tech that could eventually be sold for military use.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, efforts have escalated. The head of the Defense Department appointed a longtime deputy of Apple CEO Tim Cook to direct of the Defense Innovation Unit, a division whose aim is to fast track commercial tech for national security, a role reporting directly to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. In August, the Pentagon unveiled a Replicator program, which will rapidly build and field thousands of drones in two years or less.

The Israel-Gaza war has amplified divisions among workers, with more than 500 Google employees protesting the company’s $1.2 billion contract with the Israeli government in December.

Still, the overarching message from elites in both D.C. and Silicon Valley is techno-optimism, said Jack Murphy, an Army Special Operations veteran and former Army Ranger turned investigative journalist. “We think there is a technological solution to everything.” he said. “Are we losing sight of the reality of what AI will probably do on the battlefield?”

But rather than out-of-touch, some tech investors present this work as a chance to return to mid-century American values. “Faith, family and the flag — the very things that used to define our national character — have eroded,” Boyle said in her speech at the defense summit, which has become a clarion call for financiers and founders. “You win the war against America when it’s nihilism all the way down.”

The clarion call from El Segundo, where the hackathon will take place, is less formal. The city, located between a Chevron refinery, a sewage plant, and Los Angeles International Airport, was once home to contractors building parts for planes, rockets and missiles. Then, in 2002, SpaceX set up shop. Now it’s a haven for a growing scene of deadlifting, nicotine gum-chewing, energy-drink chugging founders of space, energy, and drone start-ups seeking to bring cool back to American manufacturing.

Augustus Doricko, the 23-year-old founder of Rainmaker, a start-up that aims to alleviate water scarcity by “seeding” clouds with minerals, called the local tech community a “cultural project” that rejected the engineering culture prized in San Francisco.

There, one could make $1 million without doing much work or adding any value to the world.

Doricko, who sports a hipster mullet, Nike high-tops, and a casual swagger — an aesthetic he refers to as “Americana” — looks to eras of great technological progress, like the Enlightenment, the Gilded Age, and the 1960s to capture the feeling that “it was an aspirational and honorable thing to be an inventor and a creator and a builder.”

Software developers seeking a jolt of energy have been so keen to visit that Doricko put up bunk beds in Rainmaker’s headquarters tohouse pilgrims to the Gundo,” he said.

Believers evangelize online as well, with social media bios like, “Ask me why consuming energy is good and you should have more babies” and share hustle-and-grind mottos that can sound closer to religious hymnals or military slogans. “gm. the world desperately needs you to build,” wrote one anonymous poster on X, using the abbreviation for good morning favored by crypto insiders.

Some reject the previous tech era, in particular the protests against Project Maven, Google’s work to target Pentagon drones. This worker dissent ultimately benefited America’s adversaries, former Google researcher Guillaume Verdon said in a recent podcast interview with Joe Lonsdale, a Palantir co-founder and tech investor.

“What I saw with my own eyes was cultural subversion within Big Tech,” Verdon said. The issue has led him to help create a philosophy called effective accelerationism or e/acc, which advocates supercharging technological progress through unbridled capitalism. The mantra has become popular in the defense tech world, where some adopt the e/acc moniker, occasionally replacing the “e” with an American flag emoji.

Others in the field see their work as preventing conflict. “The neoconservative warmongers of the past is not something I endorse,” Doricko said. “Defense is good, but war is still bad.”

Kat Hendrickson eschewed Big Tech jobs after finishing a PhD in mechanical and aerospace engineering in 2022. She wanted to see her research tackle real problems in conflict zones.

Still, Hendrickson, a technical director working on fleets of autonomous drones at EpiSci, a Poway, Calif.-based start-up, said the word “patriotism” makes her freeze up, especially as it has become “really co-opted by the far right,” she said.

While the war in Ukraine made it easier to explain her job to friends and family, the war in Gaza stirred a lot of internal debate, Hendrickson said.

“Looking at Ukraine, a front line of troops — those are your targets,” Hendrickson said. “If you’re looking at Gaza from an Israeli perspective, you’re bombing a city. It’s just totally different.”

She and her team discuss safeguards they can put in place if their products are later resold and abused, intentionally or not. “I always tell my team that I hope we’re all a little bit uncomfortable.”

Meanwhile, Dey Meyer and his hackathon co-organizers are focused on building the pipeline of young talent. Their organization, Apollo Defense, aims to funnel undergraduates toward creating their own defense tech start-ups or working for one.

“This deep sense of uncertainty about the future [that young people have] can be molded,” Dey Meyer said. “We have agency in shaping that future. And the way that we shape that future is by building the best possible arsenal to make sure that war never happens.”





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