What we now know as "Big Tech" was once a series of little techs, brave start-ups taking on the world. Not only did these entrepreneurs end up overturning the business world. They have taken over everything. And the result is far from pretty.
When young tech-heads working out of garages in Silicon Valley were creating initially unassuming start-ups in the early 2000s, in particular new and exciting platform businesses and “disruptive” business models, we all cheered their efforts. It was an exciting time to be in business, to be writing about business, and to be teaching business at college (as I had the great fortune to do, briefly).
These post-hippy, socially progressive Californians were upending the old business order. The phrase that perhaps best described their approach, “move fast and break things”, was turned into a book title. It was also Mark Zuckerberg’s motto.
As noted on Wikipedia:
[the] 2017 book by Jonathan Taplin [was] subtitled How Facebook, Google and Amazon Have Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy.
So not a remotely hagiographic treatment of the upstarts. More on this later.
These early agents of what we now call Big Tech – companies like Amazon, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Apple, YouTube and Twitter – were leading “innovation”, the new buzzword of every government and economic development agency.
A second favourite buzzword of the new movement was “agile”. This was a revolution in business management, championed by everyone from the Business Bible, the Harvard Business Review, to the business gurus at McKinsey and Company.
Facebook and similar platform businesses had some peculiar characteristics. Tom Goodwin has said:
Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.
Something interesting is happening.
Not so much interesting as revolutionary.
The third favourite buzzword was “disruption”. Hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been penned in virtual idolatry of this notion. Everything and everyone were potential targets for destruction – individual businesses, whole industry sectors, and, indeed, the very business models upon which traditional firms were based. The phrase “competitive advantage” took on a new meaning.
These start-ups offered hope for a better future, where entrepreneurs would rule the roost. They would stick it to the old, establishment business order.
What went wrong?
Reading the reviews of Taplin’s book provides some clues. Greed is one word that crops up. Monopolistic greed. Arrogance is another. They are seen as “damaging” the fabric of society. They have “hijacked” the original, decentralised model of the internet.
Most importantly, the new breed of entrepreneur, in “breaking things”, turned its disruption of competitors in business to the disruption of everything – culture, politics, education, the family. In short, they have ended up overturning “tradition”, and challenging the core values of a civilisation. And it turns out that these so-called platform businesses, though lacking content and property, have very strong views about how the world should work. They are challenging much that has been, until their arrival on the scene, “settled science”.
The businesses and their owners are not value-free. They have come to adopt a world view. It is perhaps most familiar to us as “Davos Man”. Every last one of them favours globalism, world government, sustainability, green energy, mainstreaming homosexuality, abortion, mass immigration and the rest of the woke agenda.
And they have decided to use their newly acquired power to change all sorts of things that are, quite frankly, none of their business. They have become not only monopolies, but they also claim the right to run our lives. To determine who has a voice. To declare certain views of which they disapprove “misinformation” and to so censor these views. To determine the outcomes of elections.
Disruption is like postmodernism. In, fact, it IS postmodernism. Anything goes, in life as in business. Everything is up for grabs. There is nothing that is protected, nothing that is secure. Nothing that is too big to fail. Nothing that cannot be abandoned. And by extension, there is nothing that is precious.
Now these innovators, who had opened up new opportunities for start-ups and a whole new generation of business owners in a tech-driven world, run the show and crush freedom and innovation. They are the new business dictators, they eliminate opposition, they control social relations, they bring down governments.
Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley pioneer with an independent mind, belled the cat. He wrote a book called From Zero to One, in which he revealed that all businesses, including the new wave of Silicon Valley disruptors, sought and gained monopoly and utter market control. Even these entrepreneurs, generally thought of as competitive free market types, turned out to like their businesses to be monopolies. This is an incredible irony. It turns out that the revolutionaries have themselves turned into boring old rent-seekers, crony capitalists who court favour and seek to control democracies.
The innovators who started their platform businesses in the mid-2000s have evolved into freedom-crushing behemoths who control our lives. They don’t just wield economic power. They wield social and political power. They are toxic, and it is far from obvious what can be done about them. Because we have grown to depend on all the goodies they offer us, goodies that have become the tools of totalitarianism.
It was all so different at the beginning. The new platform businesses of a decade ago began as small, local, community-driven enterprises which had no real idea what they were unleashing. Facebook was a platform for small groups of friends to stay in touch with one another.
These businesses appealed to us because they gave the people new opportunities to create their own stories, networks and channels to customers. This was totally exciting for a generation of people that have never had these opportunities to create a “voice”. There was diversity and real democracy. And it was cheap. Those that were platform businesses offered so much for free. We wondered, indeed, how they made money.
But make money they did. Bucketloads. The market capitalisation of these firms was beyond the imaginings of the old moguls of oil, finance, media and manufacturing.
The Big Five tech giants, or “FAAMG”—Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google (Alphabet)—have a combined market capitalisation of over $4 trillion.
Not only that. Google owns 92 per cent of the search engine market. It owns 63 per cent of the internet browser market. It owns 73 per cent of the smartphone operating system market. Together, Apple and Google own 99 per cent of smartphone operating systems. The cross-pollination of ideas and the cross-ownership of complementary companies – Google owns YouTube, the second most visited website on the planet – cements the total control of the tech giants. The recent show of brutal market power in shutting down Parler (achieved by Google and Apple with the help of Amazon), a tech competitor known for its support of free speech, is merely the latest example.
(Incidentally, speaking of cross-pollination, Facebook might not even be Mark Zuckerberg’s idea. Google the Winklevoss Twins).
Their power grew, and all the while we still regarded them as outsider heroes upending the old business regime. They appropriated our data and used it for their own profits. We signed up for this because they provided us with power and entertainment we had never previously imagined. We would never now be bored. We had computing power in our pockets. Heaven on earth.
The new business giants are now, in effect, public infrastructure businesses with all of the power that this provides. They are private sector communications monsters which have the power that we normally would expect of the state. They are hybrid institutions that control public life in ways never envisaged by private customers who initially signed up for something else.
They have the power to shut down US presidents, and anyone else with whom they take issue. They can control the outcomes of what we once thought were democratic elections. They can literally eliminate (not just disrupt) competitors (Parler, noted above) who offer greater freedom of choice for customers. They now control the social media world, the new home for bullies and “influencers” that seems to determine just about every cultural, political and policy outcome.
In an online world, where once autonomous individuals are now all paid-up customers, the modern corporates have almost unlimited power. They are Big Brothers with what they like to claim is a benign mission – to give power to consumers who do not have a clue about their new-found global social and political ambitions.
These behemoths are controlled by millennials with little moral sense, no apparent grasp of history or culture and much money. And they have a global, ideological agenda. They are social progressives, control freaks, anti-Christian, green radicals. This separates the current corporate titans from their predecessors, who, by and large had no social agendas, no desire to remake society and no global ambitions other than making money and crushing competitors.
As Allum Bokhari has noted in his chilling 2020 book Deleted, it is not only the case that Big Tech wishes to refashion the world in its own ideological image. It is also open, indeed prey, to the influence of liberal elites and politicians – with whom tech moguls mostly agree – to have conservative political opponents censored, silenced, shut down. Politically cancelled. Not only does Bokhari argue that the main target for this campaign was Donald Trump, himself a disruptor who was determined to haul in the social power of Silicon Valley and to challenge the globalist agenda. Senior Google executives wept uncontrollably on-stage at staff events following the Trump victory in 2016. They and others in Silicon Valley openly declared their intent to bring him down. Drawing on whistleblowers and Silicon Valley employees unknowingly spilling the beans to undercover journalists, Bokhari also charts the gradual abandonment by the Big Techs of their initial championing of a free, decentralised internet and their evolution towards monopoly, censorship and control. Towards what Bokhari terms the age of “digital tyranny”.
The Trump victory was a turning point. By 2018, Google was (privately) happy to call itself “the good censor”. So much for Facebook’s initial mantra of “making the world more open and connected”.
How does Google execute its mission to be the good censor? By removal of content? By shadow banning members with whom it corporately and ideologically disagrees? By employing biased “fact checkers” to remove what they term “misinformation”, “fake news” and “hate speech”, terms only invented after the Trump victory and deployed to defeat him and silence his supporters? Yes, all of these.
Blocking. Filtering. Removing. On and on, the increasingly aggressive censorship goes. Google is described by Bokhari as “the world’s most dangerous company”.
YouTube is proud to boast of the tens of thousands of videos that it removes. Google manipulates political and social discourse and activism by algorithmically tweaking online search. The news platform Reddit is notorious, having banned two thousand of its sub communities in mid-2020. Twitter is run by a mad leftist (Jack Dorsey). They cut off channels to finance (online transaction handlers, crowdfunding sites) for those who have offended the great gods of woke leftism. Just mention GoFundMe to Israel Folau. Just ask Lauren Southern about Patreon. Demonetise your enemies. The new tools of technology have morphed into tools of political oppression.
And Wikipedia? Its bias is legendary. Bokhari calls it a “defamation engine”.
Big Tech companies don’t just stop at silencing their users. They sack their own people who do not toe the party line. The James Damore case of 2017 was infamous, and has led to class actions against Google. (Damore was fired for pinning a post on the company’s bulletin board challenging the woke ethos, in particular the issue of gender inequality).
The Covid hysteria of 2020-21 has not only confirmed the power of Big Tech. The great viral scare has turbo-charged its totalitarian dominance and allowed it new worlds to conquer. Now the censors silence world-renowned scientists who do not conform to the accepted narrative.
Silicon Valley is totally on board with the Great Reset, and “building back better”. With Biden entrenched in the White House – at least while he clings to his remaining lucidity – and Big Pharma and China profiting immeasurably from the virus, the crony capitalists and censors of the Valley now merely have to engage in mopping up operations, and the world we all once knew and cherished will be no more.
In a world where almost everyone relies on the internet for information and news, the degree of control acquired by for-profit companies is staggering. All with the dumb acquiescence of low-information customers who do not value their own freedom, let alone anyone else’s.
There was, once, a clearly defined gap between private and public power. Yes, there were connections. There was, indeed, corruption, sometimes on a grand scale. Robber barons sought to influence the political process, but it was done in order to gain commercial favour and preferment in the marketplace. They didn’t seek to control every aspect of our lives, nor did they have the technological power to achieve it.
The hippy-entrepreneurs who grabbed commercial opportunities in a younger, more innocent Silicon Valley on the back of new, revolutionary technologies didn’t have any idea what they were doing, back in the day. They were nerds with entrepreneurial flair who were playing around with gadgets. They challenged and overthrew the old, monopolistic order of business. The order that we all despised, for its sheer boring control.
Now the once-loved disruptors run the world. They run our lives, in much more insidious ways than their corporate predecessors did. Bokhari calls them “rabid activists”.
They have achieved this with the connivance of our elected governments. The state has been in awe of the newly emerged tech platform companies, and has never quite known what to do with them. They have bought into the innovation narrative. They have embraced the Silicon Valley hype. They have sought to re-create Silicon-somewheres all over the world. They have felt the vibe, the love. The logic of the new, high-tech world has utterly mesmerised governments at every spatial scale. Local and regional authorities have been especially prone to producing strategies and plans built on innovation and entrepreneurship. Governments of all stripes have bought the big sell – lock, stock and tech-smoking barrel. And we all drank the Kool-Aid.
Even the internet censorship outlined above has its defenders. Not all recall with affection the halcyon days of the Tim Berners-Lee-invented internet of the early 1990s. This was the internet as anarchy-on-steroids. The leftist geeks at Wired magazine, for example, regard the actions of the good censors as “accountability” rather than a stifling of freedom of speech. The problem, as always, is – who gets to decide who and what should be taken down? In the case of tech titans, the umpire is anything but neutral.
The big sell of tech firms has been seductive beyond belief. The sight of Steve Jobs launching the original IPhone in January 2007 transfixed us all. The conference circuit became a paean to high-tech. Apple isn’t just a global business. It has become a cult. A world not known for its adulation of capitalists has been drawn into worship of Big Tech monopolists. It is a cult based on consumers’ worship of instant gratification.
So, high-tech morphed into Big Tech, under our noses. Now, not so benign. Not just disruptive of existing business models, but disruptive of our way of life and our system of government. Big Tech has become a revolutionary movement, suddenly out of control and infecting everything. No one intended this, not even the perpetrators.
All this has occurred because we all bought into the tech dream. We-the-consumers bought the pitch. We would be released from the old restrictions on our freedom. We bought the utopian dream, the false promise, of liberation through technology.
Now, we pay the price. The dream has become a nightmare.