In the well-known myth, the titan Prometheus steals fire from the gods, entrusting it to humanity. In so doing, humans are liberated from darkness, free to build a civilisation. Emancipation brings its own host of troubles, of course. But in the conventional telling, the Promethean gift is revolutionary, indeed utopian, compared with the black of night. This myth is often analogised with ideas of progress, especially relating to science and technology. And recent history is littered with Promethean movements and sentiments, from the Prometheus Project (cryonics) and Prometheus Society (space colonies) to the Nu-Prometheus League (hackers) and Prometheus Rising (mind expansion). 

Since 2013’s Snowden revelations, the tech world has been subject to increasingly pessimistic critique, in both the academic and public spheres. But though under siege from all sides, the Promethean imagination still thrives in Silicon Valley itself. From the Metaverse to crypto, Neuralink to space exploration, a new technological utopia hits the headlines every year. 

That said, these Promethean visions are of a specific kind. They are the grand projects of an ever more powerful billionaire class and of a highly concentrated industry: they are hyper-capitalist. In these market utopias, the road to the promised land is paved with market mechanisms, such as Big Tech R&D. But more than that, the utopian territory itself is imagined as a new arena of market relations, even by its most passionate proponents. The Metaverse will create new worlds for property speculation, for example. Crypto will enable individuals to sidestep state regulations and control. The voice-connected and data-harvested home, car, and body offer new opportunities for AI-enhanced advertising algorithms. Accordingly, today’s Prometheanism is essentially indistinguishable from creating new markets for capitalism. 

Such “market Prometheanism” did not emerge from the ether. Silicon Valley’s distinctive union of economic liberalism and techno-optimism emerged and developed throughout the 1980s and 1990s. And although tech critique has escalated massively in recent years, some scholars have long suspected some deep link between neoliberalism, libertarianism, and the “Valley of Heart’s Delight.” But to a remarkable extent, the historical rise of new spirits of capitalism in Silicon Valley remains shrouded in mystery. 

An important piece of the ideological puzzle is the rise and role of a new kind of public intellectual in the 1980s and 1990s, known as the “tech guru” or, alternatively, “cyber guru.” The archetype is best conceived as a fusion of the business guru, who had been around since the 1960s, and the visionary futurist, vintage of the same era. As such, tech gurus rarely disbursed business advice alone. On the contrary, their business was the generation of catchy paradigms and narratives about how information technology was revolutionising society. They were the prophets of the information age. 

As a class, gurus were the Valley’s most influential and innovative ideological entrepreneurs. Their narratives mirrored that of Prometheus, framing technology as divine flame. And they often articulated these visions in a mystical, quasi-religious way.  For instance, Kevin Kelly reflected that ‘hidden in the Net is the mystery of the Invisible Hand – control without authority.’  Wired’s Louis Rossetto insisted that the 1990s were witnessing a historical disjuncture ‘so profound, the only parallel is probably the discovery of fire.’ George Gilder declared that ‘the central event of the twentieth century is the overthrow of matter.’ And Esther Dyson wrote wistfully of the ‘magical market’ which, through information technology, had become ‘self-aware.’ Marketised technologies and technologised markets were hence said to have generated some kind of transcendent, decentralised, and self-organising ‘global mind.’   

Precisely what conferred someone guru status is unclear. On the one hand, tech gurus had varying professional backgrounds. Some hailed from journalism or publishing, like Esther Dyson; others, from consulting, like Michael Rothschild; while some popular academics approached gurulike repute, like Nicholas Negroponte. On the other hand, tech gurus were almost by definition prominent media personalities, enacting their influence through the lecture and conference circuit, as well as through popular books and their own patronage networks. As organic intellectuals of the new information elite (the so-called “digerati”), gurus slotted rather uniformly into particular sociological profiles. Namely, white and mainly male; products of elite universities, businesses, and socioeconomic backgrounds.  

Perhaps surprisingly given Silicon Valley’s historic links with Stanford University, gurus were as often, perhaps more often, east coast in origin. Such seminal figures as Esther Dyson (Harvard), George Gilder (Yale), Nicholas Negroponte (MIT), and Kevin Kelly (Rhode Island) all attended east coast institutions and hailed from Atlantic, not Pacific, America. Such coast-to-coast spread is a crucial reminder that whole swathes of the American (and global) elite fell in love with the technology industry and its Promethean promise at the twentieth century’s end. This romance was not just with the industry itself. But with the idea of “tech” in all its cultural, ideological, and startup-entrepreneurial specificity. The rise of market Prometheanism, then, is an all-American story.  

Some authors were fulltime cyber-sages. Yet gurudom was also a mode that executives and other elites could step into when they felt the need to articulate some grander vision. One example of this is Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead (1995), best known for its failure to predict the Internet’s popularity, even as it grew at speed. Omissions aside, Gates’ (and his co-authors’) vision was significant in itself. They explained that technology would finally realise Adam Smith’s dream of the ‘ideal market,’ inaugurating a golden age of ‘frictionless capitalism.’ Such futuristic “vision books” were therefore an important genre of late-twentieth-century capitalist literature.

Neoliberalism Reloaded 

Market Prometheans built their visions from a broad range of traditions and discourses, notably futurism, cybernetics, and complexity theory. They were not “market fundamentalists,” pure and simple. Nonetheless, classic neoliberal theorists and think tanks did play a major role in this ideology’s gestation and day-to-day life. While some gurus had links with the 1970s counterculture (and thereby with a kind of hippie-libertarianism), others were closely intertwined with mainstream American neoliberalism. The standout example is George Gilder, author of “supply-side” manifesto Wealth and Poverty (1981). Citing as inspiration Milton Friedman, Friedrich von Hayek, and Ayn Rand, Gilder made a forceful and optimistic case for free-market capitalism as the greatest force of progress ever seen. Subsequently, Wealth and Poverty became a Reaganite talisman, selling over one million copies in total. 

Published three years before the Apple Macintosh’s 1984 launch, Wealth and Poverty already gazed at the emerging “new economy” in awe. For Gilder, the ‘boffins and callow geniuses of the semiconductor and microprocessor revolution’ were culture heroes, and there was ‘no way to fathom the full potential of this technology, now in its Promethean infancy.’ As the 1980s wore on, Gilder transformed himself into one of America’s most prominent tech gurus, a constant presence in the 1990s’ Dotcom bubble years.  

Gilder was not alone. Taking their lead from Hayek on currency denationalisation, a different strand of free-market idealists pioneered early digital cash, with one group duly denominating their new currency in “hayeks.” Others, like the libertarian Prometheus Project and Prometheus Society advanced cryogenics and space colonisation. Still others experimented with market approaches to computation, such as Bernardo Huberman’s SPAWN project, or with information marketplaces, like American Information Exchange. All such projects drew the eye of the ‘chief guru of the tech world,’ Esther Dyson. 

Dyson had Promethean pedigree. Daughter of physicist and space colonisation advocate Freeman Dyson, Esther Dyson started out on Wall Street before specialising in technology analysis. Like Gilder, she was enamoured with the ‘magical market.’ And by the mid 1980s, Dyson’s newsletter, Release 1.0, was essential reading for the tech elite. Dyson’s readers were fed an eclectic diet of technical analysis, futurism, popular science, and ideological commentary, such as the analogies between IBM and the Soviet Union (said to be sclerotic bureaucracies, by contrast with Silicon Valley’s dynamic, decentralised order). Publications and networks like Dyson’s were therefore another important source of market Promethean thinking. 

Promethean gurus enjoyed tight and underappreciated links with the American conservative and neoliberal think tank world. Dyson, Gilder, and several others worked especially closely with the Progress and Freedom Foundation, for example, a futuristic neoliberal think tank which had a major impact on 1990s policy debates.  Less partisan than Gilder, Dyson enjoyed a productive relationship with the Clinton Administration, sitting on the President’s Advisory Committee on the National Information Infrastructure; Clinton subsequently made her inaugural chair of ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). Thus, gurus were not just pundits or popular authors. They were respected experts on the information age, listened to by policy and business elites. 

Silicon Valley has never been one entity. There were always significant sociological and ideological cleavages, such as between executives and programmers, big companies and start-up challengers, let alone American professionals and those on production lines overseas. There were also many different Promethean visions in the 1980s and 1990s, not all of which were pro-market. Consequently, it would be simply false to frame the entire computer culture of the period as some vast vehicle for Hayekian ideas. 

Instead, market Prometheanism drew strength from specific power bases. And there were different varieties of Promethean thinking. Like any ideology, this included radicals and moderates. As opposed to the extreme libertarian subcultures which also thrived in Silicon Valley at this time, mainstream market Prometheans like Gilder and Dyson spoke to a more moderate base, especially venture capitalists and technology executives. Gilder duly shaped the output of magazines like Forbes ASAP and Upside significantly. Mainstream market Prometheans were therefore closely allied with the Silicon Valley hierarchy, despite their populist rhetoric about “decentralisation” and “networks.”  

The full reach of market Prometheanism in the 1990s remains only partly charted. Further research will be needed. But excavating the tech gurus’ ideological hinterland of business paradigms, think tanks, boards of directors, conferences, publications, and social networks helps to demystify this often-mystical discourse.  

In many ways, the Dotcom rush was the formative period for Silicon Valley today. Consequently, that era’s chief gurus leave major legacies. While many gurus were seriously stung by the Dotcom crash, the kinds of projects championed by Dyson and others eventually led to Bitcoin in 2008. And predictably, as crypto migrated into the mainstream, an aging Gilder reinvented himself as one of its greatest champions. 

Nineties ideology also leaves its mark on Silicon Valley’s political culture.  Even today, the Valley is a much smaller social world than is usually presumed. Back then, most major executives – including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos, for example – used to attend Dyson’s showcase conferences. Even more read Release 1.0 or subscribed to Gilderite magazines. Many of these same executives have only grown in importance since, becoming billionaires many times over.  

But even slightly younger figures, like Mark Zuckerberg, display a curious debt to the nineties’ imagination. Many have noted the Metaverse’s roots in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel, Snow Crash, for example. Others have argued that the Zuckerberg era’s technological hype largely recapitulates the soaring rhetoric of the Dotcom bubble. In other words, the nineties are strangely inescapable. 

Consciously or not, today’s capitalist utopias are therefore rather retro. And though battered and bruised by a decade of stormy criticism, tech’s market Prometheans march on. 


Dan McAteer is completing a doctorate in the history of science and technology at Oxford’s History Faculty and is a Senior Scholar at Wadham College, where he is researching futurism and Silicon Valley ideology in the late twentieth century. He is on Twitter @Daniel_McAteer

This is the seventh contribution of PERC’s series on the Silicon Valley ideologyEach week for the next two months, experts from the fields of political economy, political theory, economic history, cultural studies and law will share their research perspectives on the recent trends that have animated the Silicon Valley bubble. If you wish to get involved or would like to pitch an idea for a contribution, get in touch with our editor Carla Ibled (c.ibled[at]