Tech Culture & Democracy
Why We Should Be Far More Worried Than We Are
Can you have a functioning democracy with a participatory, informed electorate, when the control of information, data, and the capacity to direct thought, is held by a concentrated power, an unaccountable third party operating beyond the institutions of state?
There is a clear and unequivocal answer to that question. Yet this is exactly where we find ourselves, on the precipice of democracy serving as a motions process for the agenda of a new technology clerisy. To think about this, it is important to challenge certain assumptions about BigTech which tend to get swept aside in favour of the ease of Prime delivery.
First, BigTech is not a neutral actor. This should be sufficient to move for strong regulation, but it is precisely this regulation it has fought tooth and nail to prevent. Second, BigTech is monopoly power, yet there is a reluctance to use anti-trust laws to break it up, which reflects the image of benevolence it has carefully cultivated, the good-guys-in-jeans-and-tshirts-connecting-people bullshit we continue to be spoon-fed by its oligarchs. Third, the capacity for behaviour modification in the service of corporate power, aka "surveillance capitalism", is not only anathema to a functioning democracy, but is a violation of individual agency, autonomy, and human rights. Finally, data is power, and that kind of power left in the hands of a few self-appointed clerics of a new age is autocracy, not democracy.
The first point is critical; BigTech deliberately portrays itself as a benign mediator, draped in the buzzwords of "connection" and "experience". It cultivates an image of a person, an individual, and everything is at the tip of your fingers. "You are the centre of your own universe, how can we help?" This marries perfectly with the prevailing socio-economic doctrine of the past 50yrs, particularly in the US and UK, of neoliberal individualism and 'personal responsibility'. Yet, despite companies being treated as legal persons one seldom hears of corporate responsibility that should be exercised on their part, even though there is no good reason why the same principle should not apply to corporate actors. BigTech oligarchs have been unimpeded in the concentration of power, while simultaneously behaving like reckless, petulant, troublemakers at the back of the class, peddling and propagating fake news, disinformation, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fringe quackery to the mainstream. The algorithms underpinning the exposure of individuals' to (dis)(mis)information are not neutral: thus, the platforms themselves are not neutral. 'Filter bubbles' amplify or suppress particular views, based on the predilections of the user, further influencing opinions, beliefs, and behaviours.
Much of the commentary has focused on whether these platforms have been used to deliberately influence voter preference, and the evidence is now unequivocal that they have. But BigTech's defence of itself has focused on the deliberate use of the platforms for such ends, which they solemnly swear they can prevent (and of course, we should leave it up to them to self-regulate to this end. Trust them). But this is an obfuscation from the reality that unintentional influence is just as corrosive, and the so-called 'filter bubbles' reinforcing confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance in a species of irrational, emotional, chimpanzees, is just as corrosive as the Russian IDA bots posting ads about animal cruelty in the EU in the run up to Brexit, or Hilary Clinton being...Hilary Clinton. But perhaps the convicting piece of evidence in the question over BigTech's neutrality is this: BigTech is the biggest political donor, spending more money on political campaigns than any other corporate interest. And money is never neutral in politics.
The second point now flows logically on from the first: why would BigTech have such a monetised stake in politics? The answer is that the role of the BigTech oligarchy in society is inseparable from the destabilising effects of corporate monopoly power on democracy. As Zephyr Teachout of Fordham University has argued, monopoly power is never neutral in any political race. Tech is not neutral in its influence on people's opinions and thinking, nor are the monopoly powers that provide the tech neutral in their exercise of corporate power and influence. BigTech has a vested interest in political outcomes, because maintaining the neoliberal 'individual responsibility' socio-economic doctrine in the corridors of power is the safest bet to stave off regulation, accountability, and taxes.
BigTech is an insidious monopoly. House Representative David Ciciline, who chaired the House Antitrust Subcommittee that completed a recent investigation into BigTech, stated that BigTech companies:
"...enjoy the power to pick winners and losers, shake down small businesses, and enrich themselves by choking off competitors. Their ability to dictate terms, call the shots, upend entire sectors, and inspire fear represent the powers of a private government."
The conclusions of the House Antitrust Subcommittee report were unambiguous: break up BigTech, look to overturn decisions like Citizens United which allowed for unchecked and unaccountability financial interests in electoral outcomes, and strengthen existing regulations against abusive corporate behaviour.
Neither the platforms themselves, nor the corporate giants behind the platforms, are politically neutral. To quote Francis Fukayama et al. "These behemoths now dominate the dissemination of information and the coordination of political mobilisation. That poses unique threats to a well-functioning democracy." Data is also what distinguishes the BigTech monopolies of today from the industrial monopolies of the late 19th and early 20th Century; the industrialists never had access to a voluminous and continually expanding pool of personal data on each of their individual consumers.
An important element of the facade of neutrality and the guarding of monopoly is the using public: us. We are part of the social contract with BigTech. And we need to be conscious of this. BigTech has served up a rhetorical feast that we are happy to indulge in, covering its hegemony. We are constantly told that it is all for us. For our own good. Opaque concepts like 'connecting people' still serve as the rhetorical bedrock for platforms that have little interest in us as users. This is the whole point. You probably still think you are the user. These innovations are for you. But this is expressly not the case for the practice of "surveillance capitalism". You are a unit of extraction, and the more data that can be extracted from your every online search, click, and like, serves the interests of the actual user - the real consumer - for platforms like Google and Facebook: corporations and business availing of the predictive algorithms which allow for precision in targeting sales. That is the monopoly part hidden in plain sight.
We should also be guarded against the lack of neutrality. The BigTech clerisy carefully cultivates a new moral code, cloaking itself in a coat of social justice and environmental piety, and is now actively censoring views on its platforms. The reason people don't care about the censorship is because the demographic of university-educated, social-media using Millennial or Gen Z'ers hold views that predictably line up with those waved in your face by BigTech. Thus, to much misguided fanfare ignorant of the precedent, the censoring of specific individuals and ideas has started, but this censorship reflects the moral code of BigTech, which is all corporate knee-bending, diversity-and-inclusion declaring, neoliberal social justice voyeurism. See: Uber with its Pride-flag coloured route planner in the app, while its drivers have to fight all the way to the Supreme Court just be recognised as actual human beings. This facade of social justice voyeurism is a powerful tool in the BigTech PR arsenal, allowing it to portray itself as being on the right side of history while hoarding your data, disinforming you to death, and eroding basic human rights. If all you did was applaud when Trump got banned from Twitter, screw your head back on and realise how dangerous a precedent we are all becoming habituated to. As Shoshana Zuboff implores us to think: "Who decides? Who decides who decides?" Right now, society does not have answers - and is not being given any answers - to those questions.
Which brings us to point number 3: the capacity for behaviour modification in the service of corporate ends, aka "surveillance capitalism". The corporate aim of the project is inseparable from democracy, because the very platforms through which surveillance capitalism is practiced are the root source of the disinformation, misinformation, manipulation, and dissemination of toxic ideas, which has come to define the past decade. Shoshana Zuboff's excellent scholarship on surveillance capitalism should be sufficient warning. By 'warning', I mean the kind of warning that happened a decade ago and very few paid attention to, before the concentration of data, power, and wealth continued, along with further warnings, also paid little heed. And here we are, with the horse well and truly bolted from the stable, but with little choice now but to use all means available within a democratic state, including breaking up monopolies, regulation, enhanced privacy laws and data rights laws, to shoot the horse.
As Francis Fukayama and colleagues wrote recently, BigTech companies do not compete for a share of the market, as traditional companies may do; they compete for the entire market itself. Because the real currency of the market is not capital, but data, their capacity to amass data means that these oligarchies have the ability to move into new markets with unrivalled knowledge, and subsume companies already in that market space. Any potential rivals are swallowed up. Resistance is futile. Data scientist Kai-Fu Lee stated: "A very good scientist with a ton of data will beat a super scientist with a modest amount of data." BigTech has all the data, and wins every time.
And the aim of the data is not to serve your life, as you are told. As Zuboff painstakingly elucidates in her book, 'The Age of Surveillance Capitalism', the goal of surveillance capitalism is relatively straightforward: behaviour modification in the interests of corporate advertising and sales. That is what corporate consumers are buying from the major platforms: the ability to expertly and precisely target us. And the pursuit of data shall not be impeded. Consider the manner in which Google used its street mapping cars to hoard up data, entirely without knowledge and consent of individuals, by tapping into people's wireless connections while driving down the street. This was eventually met with resistance, particularly in Europe, but the pockets of resistance that have emerged in response to surveillance capitalism in the past decade are also instructive of the attitude of these platforms: resistance is futile.
BigTech has reacted with righteous indignation at any attempt to place boundaries on its ruthless expansion and extraction of data. It has treated democratic institutes with contempt, based on a God-complex assumption that, as the technology is advancing at speeds way beyond the evolution of democratic institutions, there is little point in trying to stop them. BigTech reserves the most contempt, however, for us: the units of extraction. It creates terms and conditions - the things that pop up on our screens that we just click 'Agree' to and no longer really notice - that, as Zuboff highlighted, would take 72 full days for someone to actually read. As such, they are abusive contracts. Habituation and resignation are the aims of the tactics here, and these are deliberate tactics. Data is extracted even unwittingly, and often without any consent: you may have consented to use with one site, but buried in the jargon of your 'Agree' was the links to others. The best analogy from Zuboff is that all of your data creates sheet music, which BigTech then sells on for others to play back to you, and watch you dance to it. All the while we are fed the same opaque, superficial, hollow sentiments about why its all good for us, and why we should just trust them, those jeans-and-tshirt-good-guys-who-just-want-to-connect-people.
All of which leads us to the final point: data is power. Zuboff has described what she termed her 'Third Law': In the absence of countervailing restrictions and sanctions, every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control, irrespective of its originating intention.
To quote Fukayama et al.:
"Digital platforms' concentrated economic and political power is like a loaded weapon sitting on a table. The question for democracy, however, is whether it is safe to leave the gun there, where another person with worse intentions could come along and pick it up. No liberal democracy is content to entrust concentrated political power to individuals based on assumptions about their good intentions."
Data is now inextricably linked to power. The empires BigTech have built can't be allowed to function on a different plane to the rest of society, existing as illegitimate political forces under a guise of benevolent 'connectivity'.
There are too many scholars, in different disciplines, who see BigTech as an existential threat to functioning democracy, to not pay attention to this. And while Michael Gove thinks this country has had enough of experts, I for one have not. Most resistance to this comes from us; GenTech who seem to have swallowed whole and internalised the narratives about our relationship with technology, a net gain on every front from a Benign Creator of our reality and comfort. In a year when the term “democratic backsliding” became a euphemism, we should start equating the loss of agency and autonomy, the control of data and thought, with loss of democratic norms and function.