A past to present look at big tech’s influence over society and how we can fight their pervasive power.
Discovering the internet in the 90s was an important part of my teenage years. I found meaning and friendships both through my slow dial-up connection and away from it. The image of a life of landline phone calls and face-to-face connections means something to me, but in 2018 I mostly see it as a nostalgic simplification. What we gained and what we lost through technology is a balance that is not easy to see but is important to explore.
Sense of doom
All eyes are on Silicon Valley these days: issues of data safety, surveillance and the way information is filtered and served to us are hot, worrisome topics. I generally dread talks about technology, especially when they suggest a better version of life existed in the past and is now dead. It is with these sentiments that I went to see Franklin Foer talk about his new book World Without Mind – The Existential Threat of Big Tech. But what the talk and his book left me with was not a sense of doom, instead they made me reflect on who I want to be in this world of information and change.
The first part of the book is a journey from past to present, telling the story of how the internet and the big tech companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook came to be. It explains the ideas, logic and philosophy behind these, and it connects the dots to create a big picture, telling a multi-layered story in which Stewart Brand, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page meet Descartes, Leibniz, Alan Turing and Marshall McLuhan.
«The market has been open and unregulated for companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon.»
One main point is that most people behind big tech are engineers, and «The engineering mind-set has little patience for words and images, for the mystique of art, for moral complexity and emotional expression. (…) The whole effort is to make human beings predictable.» Therefore, having the media and, in general, the world of words not only dependent on Silicon Valley but dependent on Silicon Valley values is dangerous because these values idealise simplification and collectivism, namely «the hive mind,» that is easy to stir one way or another and is not able to produce individual thought.
What’s more is that the market has been, from the very beginning, open and unregulated for companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon. They have built information and market monopolies that have too much power, and have negative economic and cultural implications. «In economics, the peril of network is monopoly – where a competitive market comes under the sway of big corporations. In culture, the peril of the network is conformism, where a competitive marketplace of ideas ceases to be so competitive, where the emphasis shifts to consensus.» Paradoxically, they are the very companies that trashed the idea of elite gatekeeping and aimed to give everyone access to information and participation, yet they became the most powerful gatekeepers themselves, collecting data to increase their own position at the detriment of smaller actors and the common good. «When Facebook shifts direction […] or when Google tweaks its algorithm, they instantly crash web traffic flowing to media, with all the rippling revenue ramifications that follow.»
Big tech journalism
The side effect of big tech’s power is an umbilical relationship between them and the media: one that influences the information and content of the media, and replaces its democracy-guardianship role with a tech business-oriented approach.
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