TechnoKings Rule. But At What Cost?

Latest editorial by Mal Fletcher
Posted on: Thursday 25 March 2021

“Crowns do queer things to the heads beneath them,” wrote George R.R. Martin. 

This is as true of crowns claimed in the worlds of BigTech and new media as it is in traditional monarchies.

Tesla recently added the title “TechnoKing” to its list of official titles for its flamboyant founder, Elon Musk. The electric car-maker didn’t share its reasons for doing so, nor did it say what it means by the term.

Knowing the often mischievous Musk, the whole thing may be a stunt, designed only to get people chattering. If that’s true, it worked on me!

Whatever the motive, this coronation allows us to look again at the impact BigTech has on our lives and societies. This will be an increasingly important question as we gradually emerge from our Covid cocoon, where we’ve come to rely on technology more than ever.

In less threatening times, we’ve accepted new applications of technology without necessarily reflecting on who owns them - and what be the owners’ motivations.

As we’ll see, BigTech companies, for all their talk about promoting equality of opportunity and outcome, produce more than their fair share of inequality.

The social impact of BigTech becomes even more important in the light of new proposals to build hi-tech “smart cities” on privately-owned land.

The US state of Nevada is considering permitting new local governments to be formed on land controlled by technology firms. Jeffrey Berns, a cryptocurrency millionaire, proposed the idea. He already has plans for one such urban enclave, in which residents would access services and cryptocurrency via digital apps, using blockchain database technology.

In any city, whoever owns or controls access to essential services possesses great power. In Berns’ arrangement, private companies would own and control the infrastructure that houses the technology.

Debates about BigTech’s power and the changes it makes to society will also take on a special resonance in the post-Covid age of remote-working. Having been exposed to the frailty of life itself, how many desk-based workers will want to spend a major part of their lives penned in generic cubicles, breathing stale air and working entirely to someone else’s timetable?

Offices will still play an important role because people value opportunities to socialise and companies need the products of collaborative innovation. The latter works best in a physical communal space. But offices will need to change and many already are. That said, Cloud-based tools will be at a premium. BigTech will have even more power.

So, we may either smile or quiver at Elon Musk’s new moniker, but calling a technology chief a king may be appropriate.

What is a monarch but the ultimate embodiment of social stratification? It’s no stretch to say that BigTech is creating its own social strata. 

Following Oprah Winfrey’s interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, an important discussion erupted about possible racism in Britain’s royal household. Amidst the outcry, some people questioned again whether a royal tier, sitting atop layers of social inequality, should even exist in the modern age.

Interestingly, some of the loudest cries against the monarchy came from very wealthy and privileged Americans, who live like royalty themselves. Oprah Winfrey has herself been dubbed the Queen of TV. To my knowledge, she hasn’t come out against the title, so presumably quite enjoys it. 

It's perfectly legitimate for people to express strong opinions on issues surrounding equality. But where did folks go to share their anger? To social media. Yet very few people stop to ask about the new social inequalities produced by these platforms. 

BigTech’s titanic leaders are inventing entirely new and global hierarchies, with themselves sitting at the apices. In some respects, they act like imperial rulers, exercising great power without ever having to worry about winning elections.

The new social strata they’ve engineered are built on several foundations.  One of them is politics.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and his senior management recently evicted thousands of users from their service on what appeared to be largely political grounds.

Taking responsibility for content is something social media companies have often failed to do. They’ve argued that they merely provide a platform for the views of others. But in the wake of attacks on the US Congress, Twitter rightly took action against some users who incited violence. 

Many other users, however, had not engaged in violent or criminal acts, or incited the same and were cut off. They were given no warning and little opportunity was given for appeal. 

It seems that many were evicted for nothing more than leaning more one way than the other on the political scale. US commentators have noted that Twitter took little action against online activists in earlier, arguably more violent anti-fascist demonstrations. Presumably, because these users were rooted in the “correct” side of politics.

I sympathise with media outfits that attempt some degree of impartiality. They face being branded as biased whatever they broadcast. However, other media companies, especially in the US, unashamedly promote one political brand over another. What CNN is to the left, FoxNews is to the right. Increasingly, TV stations in the US define themselves along overtly political lines. They’re known for whom they attack. It doesn’t always work for them. Right now, CNN’s prime-time viewing figures are down 45 percent on what they early this year, near the end of the Trump presidency.

The world’s largest social media companies are also based in America. The fact that they exist in this febrile environment might help explain why they too take sides in the so-called “culture wars”. It’s hard to see the removal of an entire platform, Parler, from app stores as anything other than political.

Whatever their reasons, nobody elected Jack Dorsey, Tim Cook or Mark Zuckerberg to act as political censors. They are primarily answerable only to their shareholders, not to the wider public. 

The new social strata promoted by BigTech are also built on access to technology. 

Some 4.66 billion people in the world are active internet users, according to Statistica - that’s almost 60 per cent of the globe’s population. Of these people, 92 per cent access it using a mobile device.

Yet just over two billion young people across the world lack the stable internet access they need to learn online. While Covid-19 has revealed once-and-for-all the importance of blended learning. 

Access to digital technology is now one of the biggest opportunity gaps in the world. Yes, groups like Facebook and Google have made noises about taking the internet to poorer regions. But one wonders how much of this is motivated by altruism and how much by potential corporate gain. For these and other companies, more data means more money and power.

The new social strata are also decided by relative levels of technophilia. Young and middle-aged people are often well equipped to handle digital tools. Through much of the world, though, elderly people struggle with digital techs. In 2019, virtually all British adults aged 16 to 44 years used the internet. But that compares with just 47 per cent of adults aged 75 years and over. (Office for National Statistics).

In more than a few cases, digital tools fill older people with fear - including the fear of being cut off from family and friends if they don’t engage. These generations learned entirely different ways to communicate and conduct their commerce.

BigTech products are also opening class divisions based on access to skilled labour jobs. Germany arguably leads the world in the promotion of Industry 4.0, in which smart factories are maintained and products are created by AI-driven machines. 

A few years ago, German sociologists noted the emergence of new underclasses in their society. 

Highly skilled workers were sitting at home, watching many hours of daytime television and consuming more than their fair share of alcohol. They were listless, expressing no interest in retraining. These were among the first victims of today’s speedy transition to automation.

BigTech is also promoting inequality in the area of taxation. “When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society,” wrote Frédéric Bastiat, “over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.” 

BigTech’s behaviour when it comes to tax equates, in some cases, to corporate plunder. To justify it, company chiefs talk about nation-states becoming anachronisms, in the face of today’s more enlightened globalist approach.

In 2020, the Jeff Bezos behemoth, Amazon, profited more than any other BigTech group from an online shopping boom linked to the pandemic. Its UK profits rose by more than a third and it increased its revenues by £13.7 billion. Yet it paid just three per cent more in tax. 

Over the past decade, much has been written about similarly low taxes paid by Facebook, especially in regions where it generates massive profits. Some leading BigTech outfits have repeatedly proven that they want to have their cake and eat it, too.

When it suits them, they claim to represent the young, entrepreneurial edge of a wild-west internet frontier. Yet they behave like greedy multinationals, accruing power and fortunes - in data and money - that many other corporate heads would kill for.

Yes, digital technology has created the platform for mass innovation, on the back of mass communication. Yes, it provides opportunities for us to work together globally to solve previously intractable problems. 

Yes, digital tools provide the platform for social enterprise, the fastest growing form of business on the planet.

And yes, even on the environmental front - where BigTech’s reliance on plastics, metals and electricity is still a problem - technology can help. Digital tools will play an important role in helping us generate and manage clean fuels such as green hydrogen. 

For all these benefits, though, problems with BigTech’s performance remain - in areas like opportunity gaps, political imbalances and economic elitism. 

The bottom line is this. In the process of their growth, BigTech companies often draw more and more power to themselves and their elite leaders, while preaching equality, sharing and meritocracy to everyone else.