As Facebook all but pleads guilty to a severe form of data addiction, confessing its digital sins and promising to reinvent itself as a privacy-worshiping denizen of the global village, the foundations of Big Tech’s cultural hegemony appear to be crumbling. Most surprisingly, it’s in the United States, Silicon Valley’s home territory, where they seem to be the weakest.
Even in these times of extreme polarization, Trump, who has habitual outbursts against censorship by social media platforms, eagerly joins left-wing politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in presenting Big Tech as America’s greatest menace The recent call by Chris Hughes, Facebook’s co-founder, to break up the firm hints at things to come.
Neither the Silicon Valley moguls nor financial markets seem to care though. The recent decision by Warren Buffet – one of America’s most successful but also most conservative investors –to finally invest in Amazon is probably a better indication of wait awaits the tech giants in the medium term: more lavish initial public offerings, more Saudi cash, more promises to apply artificial intelligence to resolve the problems caused by artificial intelligence.
More than a year after the Cambridge Analytical scandal, the Big Tech debate is still mired in the same hackneyed categories of market efficiency, tax evasion, and odious business models that had launched it. If we are going to break up Facebook, shouldn’t we at least break it up for reasons other than its effects on competition or consumer welfare?
The two ideological camps, despite their presumed convergence on the Big Tech issue, are unlikely to use this debate to reinvent their own political projects. Those on the right who hope to score electoral points by bashing Big Tech are still mum on what their preferred alternative future looks like. Furthermore, in as much as these movements pine for the return of a conservative and corporativist society ruled by forces seated outside of elected institutions, Silicon Valley, with its extensive digital infrastructure for permanent soft governance, is their natural ally.
In the international context, this insistence on salvation by Big Tech acquires an extra twist as there’s so much more salvation – and, also, national development – to be meted out by those very technology giants. This prompts some populist leaders to fantasize about turning their entire countries into efficiently-run fiefdoms of some Big Tech overlord. Thus, the Bolsonaro government in Brazil has proudly announced that they “dream” of having Google or Amazon take over the national post office, soon to be privatized.
Today’s crisis-prone Brazil reveals yet another consequence of surrendering the space formerly occupied by politics to the savior-industrial complex of Big Tech. The long-term effect of their supposedly revolutionary activity is often to actually cement the status quo, even if they do it by means of extremely disruptive solutions.
Nowhere is this more evident than in how digital technologies are being used to deal with the most burning of social problems. Thus, as crime rates have skyrocketed, Brazil has become a hotbed of innovation in what we might call Survival Tech, with a panoply of digital tools being used to check on the safety of particular streets and neighborhoods and coordinate joint community-level responses.
Thus, Waze, a popular Alphabet-owned navigation app, already alerts users in large cities like São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro that they are about to enter a risky part of town (the provenance of the data that is feeding such recommendations has been quite murky). Likewise, residents concerned with crime rates in their own neighborhoods increasingly use tools like Whatsapp to share tips about any suspicious activities in the area.
As things get worse – and not just in Brazil – such Survival Tech, allowing citizens to get by in the face of adversity without demanding any ambitious social transformation, stands to flourish. The last decade, with its celebration of austerity, has been good for business as well. In fact, the entire technology boom that followed the 2007-08 financial crisis can be effectively explained through this lens, with venture capitalists and, later, sovereign wealth funds, temporarily subsidizing the mass production of Survival Tech for the dispossessed and the disaffected.
“Survival Tech,” however, is too lousy of a brand to merit its own conferences or laudatory manifestos. Instead, we prefer to celebrate the “sharing economy” (with startups helping the poor survive by accepting precarious jobs or renting out their possessions), the “smart city” (with cities surrendering their technological sovereignty – in exchange for temporarily free services – to the digital giants), the “fin tech” (with next-generation payday loans based on user data being marketed as a revolution in “financial inclusion”).
Unless the underlying economic conditions improve – an unlikely proposition – governments will continue their implicit alliance with the technology industry: this is the only way to guarantee that the masses, increasingly unhappy with the massive fiscal and behavioral sacrifices expected of them – eg the prospect of higher environmental taxes already stokes riots in Europe – get at least a modicum of security and prosperity, however short-term and illusory.
Hence, we arrive at today’s paradoxical outcome, whereby 99% of technological disruption is there to merely ensure that nothing of substance gets disrupted at all. Pathology persists – we just adapt to it better, with sensors, maps, AI, and – why not? – quantum computing. The real gospel of today’s Big Tech – sanctioned and celebrated by governments – is innovation for the sake of conservation.
Such programs might be launched and celebrated under the banner of “digital transformation” but, in reality, they imply very little conscious and guided social transformation at all. Rather, what is sold under that label is the very opposite idea, ie the notion that individuals and institutions need to adapt to – not to transform – the technological world around them. As preached today, “digital transformation” is all about transforming institutions and individuals to match the seemingly unchangeable social conditions – not the other way around.
The favorite policies of today’s progressives – breaking up the Big Tech or even redistributing their data – might resolve some real problems. But it’s hard to see how such measures would undermine the world of Survival Tech. After all, such virtual gear can be perfectly furnished by hundreds of start-ups – the alternative world of Small and Humane Tech, so beloved by Silicon Valley’s critics – and not just by the likes of Microsoft or Amazon.
In contrast, we can imagine an alternative future world of Rebel Tech, which does not perceive social conditions as set in stone, to be accepted and adjusted to, by means of latest technologies. Instead, it deploys bespoke technologies to alter, shape, and – yes – rebel against entrenched social conditions. The distinctions between Survival Tech and Rebel Tech are not philosophical or eternal; clever policy can get us more of the latter and less of the former.
Breaking up the tech giants, having them pay a fair share of taxes, making better use of their data are all necessary but, alas, insufficient conditions for effective social – not just individual or institutional – transformation. Today, such nominally progressive slogans are often made from depressingly conservative vantage points. They imply that, as long as the tech industry accepts its responsibility as the anointed successor to the car industry – becoming, in the best of cases, the ecologically-friendlier driver of economic growth –we would eventually go back to the comfy and prosperous social-democratic world of the 1960s or 1970s.
As appealing as this vision might seem, it merely camouflages the lack of any strategic thinking on behalf of the progressive or social democratic forces that are backing it. The rise of Big Tech is a consequence, not the cause, of our underlying political and economic crises; we will not resolve them merely by getting rid of the Big Tech or constraining their operations.
Small and Humane Tech might be of some help. However, without an overarching vision – and a concrete plan – for ditching Survival Tech in favor of Rebel Tech, progressive forces would not have much to say about technology – and, by extension, of contemporary politics as well. “Small tech” cannot afford to be so small-minded.