Sex scandals, rows over terrorism, fears for its impact on social policy: the backlash against Big Tech has begun. Where will it end?
Evgeny Morozov in The Guardian
Just a decade ago, Silicon Valley pitched itself as a savvy ambassador of a newer, cooler, more humane kind of capitalism. It quickly became the darling of the elite, of the international media, and of that mythical, omniscient tribe: the “digital natives”. While an occasional critic – always easy to dismiss as a neo-Luddite – did voice concerns about their disregard for privacy or their geeky, almost autistic aloofness, public opinion was firmly on the side of technology firms.
Silicon Valley was the best that America had to offer; tech companies frequently occupied – and still do – top spots on lists of the world’s most admired brands. And there was much to admire: a highly dynamic, innovative industry, Silicon Valley has found a way to convert scrolls, likes and clicks into lofty political ideals, helping to export freedom, democracy and human rights to the Middle East and north Africa. Who knew that the only thing thwarting the global democratic revolution was capitalism’s inability to capture and monetise the eyeballs of strangers?
How things have changed. An industry once hailed for fuelling the Arab spring is today repeatedly accused of abetting Islamic State. An industry that prides itself on diversity and tolerance is now regularly in the news for cases of sexual harassment as well as the controversial views of its employees on matters such as gender equality. An industry that built its reputation on offering us free things and services is now regularly assailed for making other things – housing, above all– more expensive.
The Silicon Valley backlash is on. These days, one can hardly open a major newspaper – including such communist rags as the Financial Times and the Economist – without stumbling on passionate calls that demand curbs on the power of what is now frequently called “Big Tech”, from reclassifying digital platforms as utility companies to even nationalising them.
Meanwhile, Silicon Valley’s big secret – that the data produced by users of digital platforms often has economic value exceeding the value of the services rendered – is now also out in the open. Free social networking sounds like a good idea – but do you really want to surrender your privacy so that Mark Zuckerberg can run a foundation to rid the world of the problems that his company helps to perpetuate? Not everyone is so sure any longer. The Teflon industry is Teflon no more: the dirt thrown at it finally sticks – and this fact is lost on nobody.
Much of the brouhaha has caught Silicon Valley by surprise. Its ideas – disruption as a service, radical transparency as a way of being, an entire economy of gigs and shares – still dominate our culture. However, its global intellectual hegemony is built on shaky foundations: it stands on the post-political can-do allure of TED talks much more than in wonky thinktank reports and lobbying memorandums.
This is not to say that technology firms do not dabble in lobbying – here Alphabet is on a par with Goldman Sachs – nor to imply that they don’t steer academic research. In fact, on many tech policy issues it’s now difficult to find unbiased academics who have not received some Big Tech funding. Those who go against the grain find themselves in a rather precarious situation, as was recently shown by the fate of the Open Markets project at New America, an influential thinktank in Washington: its strong anti-monopoly stance appears to have angered New America’s chairman and major donor, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet. As a result, it was spun off from the thinktank.
Nonetheless, Big Tech’s political influence is not at the level of Wall Street or Big Oil. It’s hard to argue that Alphabet wields as much power over global technology policy as the likes of Goldman Sachs do over global financial and economic policy. For now, influential politicians – such as José Manuel Barroso, the former president of the European Commission – prefer to continue their careers at Goldman Sachs, not at Alphabet; it is also the former, not the latter, that fills vacant senior posts in Washington.
This will surely change. It’s obvious that the cheerful and utopian chatterboxes who make up TED talks no longer contribute much to boosting the legitimacy of the tech sector; fortunately, there’s a finite supply of bullshit on this planet. Big digital platforms will thus seek to acquire more policy leverage, following the playbook honed by the tobacco, oil and financial firms.
There are, however, two additional factors worth considering in order to understand where the current backlash against Big Tech might lead. First of all, short of a major privacy disaster, digital platforms will continue to be the world’s most admired and trusted brands – not least because they contrast so favourably with your average telecoms company or your average airline (say what you will of their rapaciousness, but tech firms don’t generally drag their customers off their flights).
And it is technology firms – American companies but also Chinese – that create the false impression that the global economy has recovered and everything is back to normal. Since January, the valuations of just four firms – Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft – have grown by an amount greater than the entire GDP of oil-rich Norway. Who would want to see this bubble burst? Nobody; in fact, those in power would rather see it grow some more.
The culture power of Silicon Valley can be gleaned from the simple fact that no sensible politician dares to go to Wall Street for photo ops; everyone goes to Palo Alto to unveil their latest pro-innovation policy. Emmanuel Macron wants to turn France into a startup, not a hedge fund. There’s no other narrative in town that makes centrist, neoliberal policies look palatable and inevitable at the same time; politicians, however angry they might sound about Silicon Valley’s monopoly power, do not really have an alternative project. It’s not just Macron: from Italy’s Matteo Renzi to Canada’s Justin Trudeau, all mainstream politicians who have claimed to offer a clever break with the past also offer an implicit pact with Big Tech – or, at least, its ideas – in the future.
Second, Silicon Valley, being the home of venture capital, is good at spotting global trends early on. Its cleverest minds had sensed the backlash brewing before the rest of us. They also made the right call in deciding that wonky memos and thinktank reports won’t quell our discontent, and that many other problems – from growing inequality to the general unease about globalisation – will eventually be blamed on an industry that did little to cause them.
Silicon Valley’s brightest minds realised they needed bold proposals – a guaranteed basic income, a tax on robots, experiments with fully privatised cities to be run by technology companies outside of government jurisdiction – that will sow doubt in the minds of those who might have otherwise opted for conventional anti-monopoly legislation. If technology firms can play a constructive role in funding our basic income, if Alphabet or Amazon can run Detroit or New York with the same efficiency that they run their platforms, if Microsoft can infer signs of cancer from our search queries: should we really be putting obstacles in their way?
In the boldness and vagueness of its plans to save capitalism, Silicon Valley might out-TED the TED talks. There are many reasons why such attempts won’t succeed in their grand mission even if they would make these firms a lot of money in the short term and help delay public anger by another decade. The main reason is simple: how could one possibly expect a bunch of rent-extracting enterprises with business models that are reminiscent of feudalism to resuscitate global capitalism and to establish a new New Deal that would constrain the greed of capitalists, many of whom also happen to be the investors behind these firms?
Data might seem infinite but there’s no reason to believe that the enormous profits made from it would simply smooth over the many contradictions of the current economic system. A self-proclaimed caretaker of global capitalism, Silicon Valley is much more likely to end up as its undertaker.