What is responsible for the problems we’re having with Big Tech?
In the late 1990s, the end of the century was shaping up to look like the End of History, a capitalist utopia. The Internet was still the “information superhighway” and it was going to make us all smarter and our lives more convenient. The revanchist Russia and wealthy but authoritarian China we contend with today were unthinkable. Wealth and stability derived from liberal democracy and fueled by free-flowing information was going to triumph everywhere.
But somewhere between the attacks of September 11th and the election of Donald Trump things got all mixed up. For the convenience of online shopping and instant connection with our loved ones we seem to be paying a high price in anxiety and mass, institution-wide incompetence. Smartphones have even been blamed for the 25% increase in the suicide rate in the United States since 1999, a rate which has doubled for teens in the last ten years. Nobody seems to know how we got here, but we’re all pretty worked up about it.
That’s why, when I picked up a copy of the latest issue of Harper’s with the cover story “The Dark Hole of Social Media, How the Internet Subverts Democracy,” I thought I was going to read a satisfying hit piece about Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. The company he and Cheryl Sandberg run has been blamed for allowing the distribution of propaganda by foreign powers, launching its own antisemitic attacks against George Soros, and of wantonly sharing private customer data to seize market share.
I was looking forward to a few thousand words of Schadenfreude, as the headline promised. Instead, I got something better but tougher to stomach. I got an argument stating that the problem with technology isn’t the algorithms or the screens that regulate our lives. It isn’t the corruption or greed of the people who manage the algorithms or sell the screens. It isn’t even the people who manipulate technology to win market share or elections. The problem is our belief that we can turn over our most vital decisions to non-human systems.
In the words of Fred Turner, the Stanford communications professor who wrote the Harper’s piece, “The new authoritarianism represented by [white nationalist Richard] Spencer and Trump is not only a product of who owns today’s media. It’s also a product of the political vision that helped drive the creation of social media in the first place–a vision that distrusts public ownership and the political process while celebrating engineering as an alternative form of governance.”