The long read: 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.
As we approach the anniversary of Trump’s election, it is not just activists, journalists and politicians who are increasingly sceptical about the tech industry. A growing number of people within it are beginning to question its core values. After Bloomberg reported in October that Facebook and Google ad teams had helped spread racist fake news defaming refugees in crucial swing states, someone at Facebook posted the story in an internal discussion channel that company employees use during the day. “Responding to everything with ‘we’re an open platform’ is getting tiring,” one colleague commented.
As the ideas that have animated tech companies for decades come under attack, a new set of intuitions is emerging among tech workers. Not all employees at Big Tech firms take responsibility for what has happened; many see themselves as the victims of politicians and journalists who need scapegoats for the mess of the last election and their failure to anticipate it. But even they recognise that digital platforms have become inextricably entangled in the political process. It is not just that bad actors have hijacked digital platforms and used them to bad ends. It is that the platforms themselves are inherently political – and their politics need to change.
Some Democrats, such as Senator Mark Warner – and some far-right figures such as Steve Bannon – are arguing that the answer is more government regulation. They want to break up the tech monopolies through antitrust lawsuits. But these initiatives face many obstacles. Existing antitrust laws focus on keeping consumer prices low; they are ill-suited to deal with tech monopolies, which give users what they give us free or cheap. And at present, there isn’t much political will to enforce regulation. Despite all the negative press, favourability polls for Facebook, Google and Amazon still give them approval ratings of 60, 82 and 88% respectively.
Recognising these difficulties, a growing number of activists within the industry are developing a different plan. Their insight is as compelling as it is counterintuitive: the best people to confront the power of the tech giants may be their own employees. First, they want to teach their colleagues to see that tech work is work, even though it doesn’t take place in a factory. Then, they want to organise them, so that rank-and-file workers can begin to bring political transparency and democratic accountability to the platforms they have worked to build. Call them the Tech Left.
Before the election, the tech industry was more likely to be the target of protests than it was to organise them. Over the past few years, residents of the Bay Area have become accustomed to activists decrying the ways in which tech companies are gentrifying their neighbourhoods. But following the election of Donald Trump, many members of the tech industry became politicised. The protested became protesters. In January, thousands of tech workers flooded the streets of San Francisco and Oakland to protest the inauguration and to participate in the Women’s March. On 28 January, Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, showed up at San Francisco International Airport to decry Trump’s “Muslim ban.” So did Sam Altman, the president of the influential startup incubator, Y-Combinator. Two days later, more than 2,000 Google employees walked off the job in eight different offices worldwide in response to Trump’s revised travel ban.
It is not surprising that tech CEOs would oppose Trump. The Bay Area has long served as a fundraising stop for Democratic politicians. During the Obama years, ties between Big Tech and the Democratic party grew closer. According to the watchdog group, Campaign for Accountability, between the 2009 inauguration and August 2016, 250 people moved either from Google to the White House or vice versa. The Hillary Clinton campaign was supposed to build on Obama’s online organising tactics, and most tech leaders supported her, too.
In the wake of Clinton’s defeat, several startups have tried to turn tech money and tech methods to the project of getting Democrats elected. In November 2016, the investor and philanthropist Swati Mylavarapu and Obama alumnus Ravi Gupta founded The Arena, an “accelerator for politics”, to invest in new progressive organisations. Mylavarapu had been donating extensively to Democrats after her husband sold his startup Nest Labs to Google in 2014. But she felt dissatisfied. “I was looking for who is representing the future, and I didn’t see any opportunities,” she told me in March. Mylavarapu wanted to translate her experiences in venture capital into politics. “Would you just have a venture profile that was backing long-term incumbent serial entrepreneurs? No. Sometimes you take a bet on the potential game-changing up-and-comer.”
The Arena has been joined by a number of similarly minded organisations. In July, Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn and Marc Pincus of Zynga founded Win the Future (WTF), a fund with vague plans to “rewire the Democratic party”. In September, an organisation called Engage Progress launched, with the aim of strengthening democracy “by providing and training people to effectively use digital tools”.
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