For decades, tech companies promised to make the world better. As that dream falls apart, disillusioned insiders are trying to take back control
Big Tech is broken. Suddenly, a wide range of journalists and politicians agree on this. For decades, most of the media and political establishment accepted Silicon Valley’s promise that it would not “be evil,” as the first Google code of corporate conduct put it. But the past few months have brought a constant stream of negative stories about both the internal culture of the tech industry and the effect it is having on society.
It is difficult to know where to begin. How about the rampant sexual harassment at companies such as Uber, which fired 20 employees in June after receiving hundreds of sexual harassment claims? Or the growing body of evidence that women and people of colour are not only dramatically underrepresented at tech firms, but also systematically underpaid, as three Google employees alleged in a lawsuit last month? Should we focus on the fact that Facebook allowed advertisers to target users who listed “Jew hater” as one of their interests? Or that they and Google have helped clients to spread fake news?
In response to concerns about Russian interference in the 2016 election, politicians are threatening to take action against companies they have long left alone. By late September this year, when the Senate intelligence committee demanded that Facebook, Google and Twitter conduct internal investigations – and those companies admitted that, yes, foreign actors had used their platforms to communicate misinformation that was viewed millions of times by voters in hotly contested swing states – it seemed fair to ask whether democracy could survive them. A New York Times headline on 13 October captured how the mood had shifted: “Silicon Valley Is Not Your Friend.”
It is tempting to turn this shift of mood against Big Tech into a story of betrayal. On 1 November, representatives of Facebook and Twitter will appear before the Senate to testify about divisive political advertising paid for by Russian actors on their platforms. The setting suggests wrongdoing and retribution. But the drama playing out involves more than uncovering specific lies or misdeeds. We are watching an entire worldview start to fall apart.
The idea that computer networks are inherently democratic and democratising has deep roots in the counterculture that emerged in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s. Hippies and rebels such as Stewart Brand claimed personal computing as an instrument for personal liberation. Their pronouncements inspired many of the first tech entrepreneurs, and as the industry matured, it continued to use their rhetoric. It would allow users to – as the Apple slogan put it – Think Different.
The Californian Ideology, as two British media theorists dubbed it in the 1990s, combined personal liberty with market deregulation. A core tenet was that platforms such as Google and Facebook were politically neutral. They were tools for political expression but had no politics themselves. They would increase voting, but not affect it. Industry leaders espoused values that anyone could embrace: sharing, connection, community, openness, expression. The language they spoke was the language of a universal humanism – or, as Mark Zuckerberg put it in the title of a 6,000-word Facebook post that he published in February, “Global Community”.
These concepts might have sounded vague, but they produced concrete political outcomes. They convinced politicians to privatise public goods – starting with the internet itself. In the 1990s, a network created largely by government researchers and public money was delivered into private hands and protected from regulation. Built on this enclosed ground, a company like Facebook could turn formerly non-economic activities – chatting with a friend, or showing her a picture of your kid or crush – into a source of seemingly endless profit. Not by chance, the values that these companies touted as intrinsic goods – openness, connectivity, deregulation – were also the operating principles that made their owners rich.
As with most successful ideologies, the Californian Ideology did not look political. Despite its internal contradictions, for decades, it remained invisible and intuitive: a form of common sense. It allowed Silicon Valley to reshape markets and labour, political and social life all over the world, more or less unquestioned – until now....MORE