Mainstream corporate media ignore topics of critical interest to people by design, and that problem has been exacerbated in the digital age. When in the past people would pick up a newspaper, they would at least receive a bundle of assorted issues ranging from foreign policy to sports. Today, massive tech firms such as Google and Facebook have a determinative influence over the kinds of stories we see, and present that content as stand-alone morsels to consume before moving on to the next “recommended” article. The result is an echo chamber of confirmatory, bias-strengthening narratives. And with a device in everyone’s pockets, access to our minds and wallets has been made instantaneous.
Franklin Foer captures the problem nicely in his book, World Without Mind. He illustrates one of the key contradictions with which all citizens must come to grips. Namely, big tech monopolies — until very recently a near-unequivocally celebrated segment of the culture and economy — are simultaneously one of the great perpetrators of social, economic, and political disruption. They are remaking the economy and society in their image, and are doing so by way of unprecedented intrusions of user privacy and mass marketing into our lives.
The impact has been arguably covert until recently. With the rapid decline of the retail sector through the onslaught of Amazon, the gig economy initiated by Uber, fake news invading Facebook by media trolls at home and abroad, and the increasing normalization of AI assistants inside our homes, the aims of big tech are now quite clear: They want our attention, all of it, at all times. That goal incentivized companies to develop digital environments engineered to be addictive, taking their users’ personal data and recycling it back to them in the form of advertisements and worldview-affirming media suggestions that contribute to the development of discourse-stifling echo chambers.
These new monopolies are unrestrained by the antitrust laws of old, and their platforms know few national boundaries. Google and Facebook are free to use, and they achieve their bottom line by plundering user data to feed the insatiable appetites of advertisers. Rather than Millennials being characterized as a self-obsessed generation, the more apt description would be the smothered generation, utterly engulphed by the social media services they helped forge into cultural juggernauts.
Foer states the point explicitly:
“[Google, Facebook, and Amazon] are monopolies operating without restraint, regulatory or otherwise. The companies preach the gospel of efficiency as they engage in the most extensive surveillance in human history. They are rent-seekers with little regard for the independent producers whose goods they sell. They shape the minds of citizens, filtering the information by which citizens arrive at their political opinions.”
The existence of big tech monopolies is fundamentally unsustainable. Amazon is destroying the retail sector; Google is increasingly influential in political affairs and aims to ingest all possible data, enabling it to develop predictive search queries before a user finishes typing them out; and Facebook, in true monopolistic form, fundamentally changed the media landscape and maintains the power to shape — and fracture — public discourse by curating content it deems worthy of our attention. No single, private firm should have that kind of power.
The long-term vision of Big Tech is to create a cognitive map of everyone, allowing them to suggest products and display information to users before they are aware that they want it. As Franklin Foer argues, Big tech’s end-game is to essentially thwart human cognition.
Next time a news piece disparaging Millennials goes viral, remember that they are the generation that will inevitably struggle with what it means to be human in an era of digital connectivity and artificial intelligence. By clicking “agree” on obscure terms in fine print, each one of us gives license to tech giants to innovate our well being, what they think is best for us. When will they be accountable to the public, for real?
Once we come to grips with the fact that social problems require social solutions, we will know it is time to break up big tech. It will also mean the societal task of strengthening our existing institutions to make them more democratically reflexive and accountable. Big Tech understands the distinction between the real and the digital as they attempt to blur that distinction for the rest of us, and by doing so reflect the corruption of our social institutions: By eroding democracy and public accountability they have consolidated their power in service of interested parties and shareholders above all else. It is time to reclaim our digital rights to privacy and the ability to collectively decide the future of the Internet by restoring our democratic institutions in the real world if our best interest is to be reflected in the digital one. As the 2020 election season gets rolling, when the question is posed, you should know the answer: It is time to break up Big Tech.