The Spirit of Digital Capitalism


Why do tech elites believe they are the world’s greatest do-gooders and why does it matter what they say and (claim to) think? In this paper, we use the concept of the spirit of capitalism to shed light on the ways in which normative beliefs inform and justify the business models of tech companies. We first reconstruct, systematize and operationalize the concept of the capitalist spirit. We then argue that solutionist ideas have become central to the (self-)image of today’s tech companies. Solutionism refers to the idea that the use of technologies – by inventive and cunning entrepreneurs – is the royal road to fixing social problems. We use a classification algorithm trained on handcoded documents to empirically trace the relative importance of solutionist vis-`a-vis other normative beliefs in three novel text corpora. We find that solutionist ideas are indeed central to the worldview of tech elites, and that they are also gaining ground in the broader tech milieu, although not yet in the normative discourse of capitalism at large. Finally, we theorize and illustrate the motivating, legitimizing, and orienting role of the capitalist spirit. In doing so, we contribute – conceptually, theoretically, and empirically – to the budding debates on the moral embeddedness of economic action and on the nature and trajectory of digital capitalism.

Timo Seidl
Timo Seidl

I am a Post-Doc at the University of Vienna’s Centre for European Integration Research (EIF).