We’re having problems with the internet and big tech, principally Alphabet (Google/YouTube), Amazon, Apple and Facebook. The government has taken note.
Executives from these four corporate giants testified in Congress to defend their business practices. Donald Trump convened a “social media summit” to spotlight what he and other Republicans regard as their anti-conservative bias.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, has called for anti-trust action against them, a call echoed by the justice department and the Federal Trade Commission, which voted to fine Facebook approximately $5bn for mishandling personal information.
How big is the big that may be too big to abide? Each of these four companies has a place in the top six global market-cap valuations. A fifth is Microsoft, which went through the legal wringer decades ago. The sixth, in case you are wondering, is Berkshire Hathaway.
According to last month’s annual Internet Trends Report, the world is now internet majority: 51% used it in 2018 (3.8bn people). That’s a doubling since 2009 and while US usage is much higher (over 90%), the global figure is relevant because the medium is essentially transnational.
The access terminal is changing fast. As time spent on computers declined, Americans went online a record 6.3 hours a day in 2018, up 7%. You may be using your phone to read this review.
E-commerce accounted for 15% of US retail sales, growing six times faster than brick-and-mortar revenues. Internet ad spending accelerated as well, up 22%.
Politics and public affairs run mainly now through big tech platforms, including the news “organization” with the highest number of unique visitors: Yahoo!News, which offers original as well as aggregated content. On the favored channel of newsmakers, Twitter, more than 50% of impressions now carry images and video.
No one wants to be without what big tech brings us. But as two new books make clear, our problems with it run deeper than the issues aggravating Washington and the public: privacy, pornography, violence, hate speech, bias and election interference. To the core, the internet affects our economics, politics and sense of wellbeing.
In Stand Out of Our Light, James Williams’s goal is the liberation of human attention. In that quarter of our day allocated to the internet, we are tempted by ads, games, notifications and reminders prefaced by our first names of how our lives have been enriched. Williams argues that this adds up to a loss of control. The compulsion to knock down one more sequence of Tetris blocks serves as his synecdoche for the condition he diagnoses.
Drawing on the philosophers William James and Harry Frankfurt, Williams seeks a return to the spotlight of doing, the starlight of being and the daylight of knowing. Even when we don’t engage, we lose focus on what matters. We cave in to pettiness, “pursuing a low-level goal as though it were a higher, intrinsically valuable one”. We post words and emojis and check on response traffic instead of talking to friends. The dominant tone in political discourse too often descends to reflexive outrage.
“It is now impossible to achieve any political reform worth having without first reforming the totalistic forces that guide our attention and our lives,” Williams writes. To him, Cambridge Analytica was Fort Sumter in the struggle to defeat the “politics behind politics”. But my civil war metaphor is not quite right, for this is a non-violent battle for the mind’s terrain. We can defeat the stimuli to erupt and linger with awe and wonder. We can grok Chris Hadfield singing David Bowie from the International Space Station and return, freshly motivated, to the great projects of our lives.
Williams won the first Nine Dots Prize for this expanded entry to a competition to answer the question: “Are digital technologies making politics impossible?” His title is a paraphrase of what was said to have been Diogenes’s response to Alexander the Great upon being asked what wish he would like granted. The best thing about Stand Out of Our Light is that it deepens our sense of the stakes, from privacy to autonomy. The big tech threat is not merely about what others know about you, but how you choose to live your life.
Politics, of course, is one of those big enlightenment projects to which we should devote focused attention. Americans seem to be doing so: 2018 election turnout reached a century-high mark; 2020 may set a comparable record. But we are voting and mobilizing and persuading in a tetchy frame of mind. We lack trust in most of what and whom we encounter, and manifest arrant antagonism toward those of the other party, race, gender and so forth. The internet is implicated in our campaign trail rage well beyond the social media crossfire.
Carles Boix, author of Democratic Capitalism at the Crossroads, helps us see change in a comparative and historical context. He examines the dynamics of technology, capitalism and democracy by dropping anchor in three eras, which he entitles with the locus of their distinctive innovations: Manchester, England; Detroit, Michigan; and Silicon Valley, California.
For Boix, epochal technological change catalyzes epic political battles but choices and outcomes vary, with variable effects on how technology gets deployed. At the same time, political choices are conditioned by and influential upon distributions of capital and labor, which constrain and are affected by technology.
There are recurring themes. Automation has eliminated categories of employment but it has created jobs too. There are also differences: most notably that labor and capital reached a felicitous equipoise in the middle era worthy of emulation today. While Silicon Valley inequities resemble those of Manchester in a statistical sense, they have been cushioned by the growth of working-class wages and a period of good governance. Conditions are not as dire in the age of the microchip as in the age of the spinning jenny.
“It should therefore be possible,” Boix argues, “to use our representative institutions to harness this massive buildup in wealth to smooth the technological transformations of the present and, in the process, to pursue the main collective objective – guaranteeing relatively equal life chances to all.”
What that entails is not surprising. We should cast publicly subsidized safety nets and pay to retrain those inside them. We should reject leftwing populist scapegoating of the super-wealthy and the nationalist right’s blaming of people from poorer nations.
Boix observes that we really have no idea how fast, deep and far this third big wave of innovation will go. It might not be all bad. The day may come when anyone will be able to set up an automated or robotized shop. To me, that desirable path points to the importance of assuring universal access to the latest iteration of the internet.
As for the public communication maladies in the headlines, we should oblige big tech to fund digital spaces akin to C-Span. No advertisements, no games, no anonymity, no bots, equal access to all who seek neutrally presented streams of hearings, speeches and debates, with “town hall” components.
This won’t solve the micro and macro challenges to our common lives. But it will, at least, put them into fuller and fairer consideration.