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Are Tech Companies Too Powerful?

In literature, ‘hubris’ signals a burgeoning pride that inspires characters to believe themselves equal to or even more powerful than deities, often to their ultimate detriment. But are there echoes of Oedipus and Victor Frankenstein in the behaviour and attitudes of today’s silicon sovereigns? What are the implications if the juggernaut that is the Digital Revolution tows us into a realm in which the likes of Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook take over functions traditionally provided by the state?

Lucie Greene

Author and futurist Lucie Greene.

Futurist and international think tank leader Lucie Greene thinks the untrammelled might of the technological giants could become problematic. The catalyst for her was the Web Summit 2014, which she was attending in her capacity as worldwide director of The Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson. 

“Peter Thiel [PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist] was there talking about actually hacking ageing,” she explains. “There was lots of talk about the right to innovate and then just apologise if things go wrong. About the government not having a right to interfere with innovation.”

Combined with various goings-on in the broader digital ecology, these comments created a perfect storm from Greene’s perspective. “Facebook and Google were talking about using air balloons and airships to bring the internet to developing markets. You had Google investing in Calico life sciences and Hyperloop, which was going to redraw the world map. And I started to think: ‘Isn’t it interesting that it’s brands that are doing this?’”

Loon Balloon

Loon’s balloons, initially developed by Google, are designed to bring Internet connectivity to rural and remote communities around the world.

An expanding societal role

“I’ve always looked at these companies through the lens of how they were transforming the way people shopped and communicated. Suddenly, they were stepping into a much more ambitious territory, and taking on a more civic tone as world-builders and architects of the future, not just suppliers of phones and shopping information.”

Published earlier this year, Greene’s book, Silicon States: The Power and Politics of Big Tech and What It Means for Our Future, is the fruit of her investigations since this epiphany. Neither partisan nor sanctimonious, and meticulously researched (“I spoke to a really diverse range of people in terms of age and gender,” she says), it also crackles with wit. Most impressiveperhaps, is how Greene has come up with a persuasive treatise when the subject is such a rapidly moving target  and with her own feelings on the subject also continually maturing.  

“Over the course of a few years after that tech summit, not only did I start to become a bit more radicalised and opinionated, but the phenomenon only got more pronounced. Silicon Valley’s power and interest in Washington and London had become bigger and bigger; they’d become more global and were transcending regional government.

“I’ve always looked at these companies through the lens of how they were transforming the way people shopped and communicated. Suddenly, they were stepping into a much more ambitious territory.”

“These companies were becoming more ideologically influential than government – and with more in their reserve funds. They were also commissioning these massive headquarters by major architects that felt very much like the actions of Victorian-era industrialists. Then they were starting to look at new sectors like education, health and infrastructure as their new areas to ‘disrupt’ and that needed fixing. You had Mark Zuckerberg and others claiming that philanthropy as it stood was broken because it wasn’t entrepreneurial enough.”

Commercialising ideology

At the same time, Greene noticed, Silicon Valley began attaching a new type of marketing spin to the power of technology – the same spin that has made Coca-Cola and Nike into lifestyles rather than, respectively, a drink and a sportswear brand.

“An ideological layer was added,” Greene says. “Facebook became about creating global communities; Airbnb became all about helping middle-class people gain much-needed income and democratising travel. They’ve talked about the sharing economy being the new guild, which is clever but also dangerous, because as these things become more pervasive, they can replace state services.  

“There was a report recently about how lots of young people in New York are, effectively, using Uber and Via as public transport, instead of the subway. That displaces huge amounts of revenue from the subway, which, taking it to its logical conclusion, would end up ghetto-ising public transport.”

A wider civic disconnect is a danger, adds Greene. “Public spaces could become privatised or less porous; they won’t welcome homeless people because they’re not pretty or ‘on-brand’. It could make millennials who are really high users less able to deal with reality and less civically engaged. It’s subtle things that reinforce the social contract.”

For Greene, the signalling of altruism is linked to the increasing deification of Silicon Valley’s leading protagonists. “There’s a hubris to it,” she says. “If Google and Facebook introduce the internet to Sub-Saharan Africa or Myanmar, the message ‘We’re bringing the internet to remote areas; we’re unlocking emerging markets, giving them access to information’ has kind of a civilising, imperialising undertone, while it’s actually being done within very set boundaries with a commercial intent.”

Google Silicon Valley

Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters.

Instant ‘solutions’

An emphasis on marketable causes is one inevitable result. “It’s all about glamorous problems,” says Greene. “I don’t see any of the big tech companies looking at the opioid crisis or homelessness.

“The kind of causes that used to be backed by, say, the Rockefellers or government foundations or regular charities are going to get increasingly less money. But consumers can still pat themselves on the back. And there’s nothing about alleviating problems, just ‘solving’. Alleviation isn’t sexy enough. And it is all about solving it immediately. There’s no subtlety, just ‘We did it!’”

There will always be problems that aren’t profitable to address, Greene notes. This is where charities and governments need to be involved. “There’s a real danger that the perception will arise that technology can solve everything.” And as corporate entities, the tech companies in question tend to lack transparency. “They’re private. They don’t need to disclose things; it’s self-mediated.”

But let’s be clear: Greene is accusing no one of being evil. There’s no cat-stroking villain in an underground lair here. “All these companies started off with quite lofty and idealistic ambitions,” she says. “They were started by dreamers, often immigrants – visionaries who wanted to do something really great. But once they become publicly traded, the focus just changes.”

Greene, it should also be pointed out, is no pessimist. She posits potential solutions alongside the problems – for example marketing the state to young people so it’s perceived to be more dynamic, and measures to improve transparency.

“What’s happening now is that it’s relatively opaque, with little clear oversight by government,” she says. “I don’t doubt that this group can create tremendous efficiencies, but as we’ve seen with the building of the new Google city in Canada, it’s not often clear where civic data protections end and commercial data collection begins.”  

She also suspects a power shift may happen when digital natives become political leaders and start flocking to the polls.

In the meantime, Greene has raised some extremely ominous questions. After all, while hubris has proved the downfall of so many characters, there’s no sign of the tech empires falling any time soon.

Related: PwC’s Leo Johnson on the Megatrends Reshaping our World: http://thestand/business-leo-johnson/

Nick Scott is editor-in-chief of the UK edition of Robb Report, and a regular contributor to FT How To Spend It, The Rake and Director magazine.