Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto whose latest books are On Risk and The Adventurer’s Glossary.
Imagine a world of mostly willing addicts, wedded faithfully to their drug of choice but officially opposed to its effects. Imagine further that the effects of this shared addiction are both secretly resented by its docile prisoners and laughed off by the addiction-addled as a harmless, or anyway inevitable, feature of the current socio-economic-media arrangement. A population in deep denial, in other words.
Meet Big Tech: the near-monopolistic market dominance of a few providers and corporations who control the everyday devices and access to the spectral electronic wonderland we call advanced civilization. From social-media platforms to upgrade-determined phone, from shopping preferences to facial-recognition software, everyday human existence has never been more immersed in and influenced by technology controlled by a tiny minority of nearly omnipotent actors.
Canada is one of the most connected countries in the world, with 90 per cent of the population owning at least one smart device, despite the exorbitant costs associated with these services.
Providers, not users, are the driving force of this rising tech tide; those users are commodities here, complicit exchange-tokens of the system. We may speak of influencers on this or that social medium, for example, but everyone knows – even if they choose to forget – that the medium is the real message. Or, to be even more precise: The purveyors of the medium, in search of attention-economy technocapitalist profit, offer the deeper message still.
As always under the banner of inevitability, the obscene profit parade marches on. The statistics are mind-boggling, unprecedented, otherworldly. In 2021, the five largest tech companies (Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon) boasted a stock market value of US$9.3-trillion, more than the combined value of the next 27 most valuable American companies, including Tesla, Walmart and JPMorgan Chase. Apple’s profit for one quarter of 2021 clocked in at US$21.7-billion, nearly double the total profits of the five largest U.S. airline companies before the pandemic of 2020 and beyond. Google’s recorded US$50-billion in revenue from advertisements in the second quarter of 2021 was equal to what the entire American population spent on gasoline and gas station purchases in one month of the same period.
These figures, driven by literally fantastic profit margins (upward of 44 per cent in some cases), have led analysts to insist that Big Tech is no longer just a quirky success story, or a case of limited competition easily matched by existing regulatory measures, but something wholly new and untrammelled. As a recent New York Times headline put it, surveying the statistical evidence, “Big Tech has outgrown this planet.”
Importantly, the vast profits here are generated by what might be termed post-capitalist mechanisms, attention and advertisements and apps, rather than consumer durables. Users now devour themselves under the sign of their own contentment and ease, becoming the product that is in play. This is a species of posthuman evolution that has the less frightening, more soothing features of simply giving us what we think we want, even as we surrender autonomy and peace of mind in pursuit of comfort and happiness, a condition forever obliterated by new models, systems and generations of personal technology.
More significantly in political terms are the structural costs to labour and the environment entailed by this massive concentration of wealth. These costs have not been fully measured or appreciated – even as each one of us with a smartphone, some 85 per cent of populations in Asia, Europe and North America, is part of the rising tide of technocapitalist domination.
Until we sort out the lines of complicity and self-concealment operating here, our resistance will be futile because it will be aimed in the wrong direction. Big Tech may prompt, then briefly satisfy, our desires for convenience and connection; but the desires themselves come from within the human psyche.
The anti-profiteering arguments are so familiar precisely because they are a staple of the current left politics – even, or especially, when communicated on social media. But writer David Brooks, visiting the National Conservatism Convention for The Atlantic late last year, noticed two recurrent rhetorical features in the general air of apocalyptic speechifying. The first is what must be judged the ideological equivalent of the Kyle Rittenhouse self-defence plea, namely that the American right has been forced to become provocative, uncivil and downright crazy just because the left has become so woke-wacky – a neat trick most often borrowed, in my experience, from the middle-school playground: You started it! This is no dialectical moment, as apologists for right-wing extremism claim; it is reactionary politics born of an impasse, offering a handy justification for bad behaviour. Any other account is just special pleading in ideological service, stooge language offered by political management.
But the second, more intriguing repeated keynote was that the right hates Big Tech just as much as the social justice brigade does. For fringey conservatives, this is not so because of runaway profit-taking and concentration of wealth – which one might expect to be badges of ideological heroism – but because of liberal bias. “At the heart of this blue oligarchy,” Mr. Brooks reported, “are the great masters of surveillance capitalism, the Big Tech czars who decide in secret what ideas get promoted, what stories get suppressed.” Ted Cruz: “Big Tech is malevolent. Big Tech is corrupt. Big Tech is omnipresent.” “Big Business is not our ally,” Marco Rubio argued. “They are eager culture warriors who use the language of wokeness to cover free-market capitalism.” The “entire phalanx of Big Business has gone hard left,” Mr. Cruz said. “We’ve seen Big Business, the Fortune 500, becoming the economic enforcers of the hard left. Name five Fortune 500 CEOs who are even remotely right of centre.”
Blue oligarchy! Surveillance capitalism! We all know that the goalposts of ideological insult keep shifting lately, but this hard-right denunciation of the world’s leading billionaires will strike some as unlikely, if not bizarre. Nevertheless, the shared conviction that Big Business, and especially shadowy Big Tech, is part of a vast liberal conspiracy is rapidly becoming bread-and-butter to some right-wingers. Mr. Brooks again: “In the NatCon world view, the profiteers of surveillance capitalism see all and control all. Its workers, indoctrinated at elite universities, use wokeness to buy off the left and to create a subservient, atomized, defenceless labour pool.”
That would be some impressive long-game indoctrination, one must admit, equal to the market mastery these same companies actually exhibit. Might it not be the case that the tech labour pool is just a reflection of current realities, whereby the ambitious are sometimes also socially conscious, their justice-driven convictions sincere rather than delusional, marshalled by genius-level exploitation overlords?
Not for the beleaguered right. And so, as if needing more fuel to light the barbecue of self-congratulatory resentment and hostility, the terms of discussion now become end-of-the-world urgent. “The left’s ambition is to create a world beyond belonging,” intoned one speaker. “Their grand ambition is to deconstruct the United States of America.” Mr. Cruz: “The left’s attack is on America. The left hates America. It is the left that is trying to use culture as a tool to destroy America.” Mr. Rubio: “We are confronted now by a systematic effort to dismantle our society, our traditions, our economy, and our way of life.”
As Mr. Brooks points out, the demonization of Big Tech did not alter the phone-zombie habits of the delegates, whose eyes were mostly glued to their screens during these energetic tirades, and whose basis of evidence for this nefarious left-wing plot against America was largely derived from tweets. If you can triangulate three social-media mentions, call them data points, then their content becomes fact. Sure, why not. For what it’s worth, meanwhile, I’m sure there are many left-wing critics who see the right as the end-times enemy of America, the promise-breakers bent on arming to the teeth and then trashing on fire the City on a Hill. Oh right, they already did that on Jan. 6, 2021.
This is confusing, if predictable, but it may be potentially more than that. The emergent structural irony is that Big Tech – like Big Media, but with the off-world profit margins added – has become the preferred political bugbear of both the radical left and the radical right. This even as sales of gadgets, mostly online, were brisk through the recent Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Boxing Day bounceback Christmas season.
That familiar tension notwithstanding – denouncing what you cannot do without is a pervasive truth of our complacent, happily hypocritical attitude to technology – optimists wonder whether this odd conjunction offers a bridge issue waiting for its moment in the current scarred landscape of political rhetoric. I mean, even the dysfunctional Roy family on Succession is going after Big Tech. Could the enemy of my enemy be my friend?
Well, if only. The divergence in motives for the fear of tech are likely an insuperable barrier here. If one person thinks the mega-billionaires of the Big Five are secret indoctrinators bent on creating a liberal wasteland of happy consumers, while another thinks they are desire-surfing maniacs preying on people’s lack of impulse control to the tune of 44-per-cent return on investment, the potential convergence is going to start and stop at “evil bastards.” Nothing else will, or can, shift.
The same is true of the closely related Big Media impasse: One side sees only hyper-biased platforms disguised as journalism, while the other finds newsrooms and front pages devoid of anything resembling ethnic, gender and cultural diversity. Same conclusion – evil bastards again – but incompatible routes thereto.
Big Media, like Big Tech, cannot lose for winning. Its elite pundits simply do not strive to understand what motivates an angry COVID-19 anti-vaxxer or dedicated Trump supporter.
Alas, extending understanding to ideological foes has unfortunately become a dead-letter issue. In the era of alternative facts and social-media free-for-alls, attempts to comprehend the mind games of “the other side” are draining, frustrating and self-defeating. That is, unless that side’s alleged antics provide handy justification for your own burn-down-the-house politics.
We might all be better off if we tried to understand ourselves, especially two years into the most significant public-health crisis any of us is likely to witness. Our addictions to the novelty of new tech, the upgrade imperatives and sense of inevitability in everything from online shopping to social-media feeds, might be considered welcome distractions in this time, even as boons to connection and productivity amid systemwide disruption. But relentless production and consumption of self only reinforces patterns of cultural and ideological reproduction.
Big Tech is just a reflection of our own wants and preferences, nothing more and nothing less. As Walt Kelly said in the comic strip Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” If there is manipulation here, it is offered in forms that we willingly embrace: sly terms and conditions agreements, negative billing schemes, free-shipping incentives, and the constant mining of data. Short of widespread enforced therapy, none of this is likely to change.
But could there be, lurking in this boggy terrain, a shared political movement that bypasses the stalled and endless debates between ideological factions? Actually it would be a new version of an old movement. Let’s all become green-Earth neo-Luddites: dedicated to preserving the human-scarred environment, suspicious of power concentration, ironic and critical about but not necessarily hostile to technology. The twinned but incompatible critiques of Big Tech hint at the possibilities.
This isn’t just temporary detox or a short-term media fast. It is a fundamental change in life’s direction and priorities. Of course, to advocate this is even more optimistic than the prospect of political factions joining hands. But current public discourse is a tire fire of escalating incivility and hollow victories, as if rising vehemence could substitute for reason. Then there is the blatant deceit and hypocrisy, corrosive of the soul. The hard truth is that, as with all addictive and self-destructive conditions, nobody can heal our sickness but ourselves.
Have the courage to free yourself. Drop your smartphone down a sewer grate, and live again. Plus, Amazon makes returns extremely easy. Let’s get started, you and I.
We’re using mobile devices in unhealthy ways, but they’re so indispensable that we can’t just prohibit them. The real target is distraction. Toronto entrepreneur Benjamin Leszcz offers three rules to follow.