As the New Year dawns, expect another assault on big tech | John naughton
The particularity of history is that it sometimes repeats itself. As far as the tech industry goes, we’ve seen it in the past year that has just ended and it looks like we’re set to review it in the year that just started.
First of all, though: 2021 was the year in which it finally became clear that the free ride that Google and its colleagues enjoyed for two decades was drawing to a close – this technology was to become a regulated industry. It was not clear how it was going to turn out, but the direction of the trip was unmistakable.
In the United States, for example, the new Biden administration began to appoint smart people to government who understood the societal dangers of unrestrained corporate power. People like Lina khan, who now chairs the Federal Trade Commission, the country’s main regulator; Where Tim wu, now a member of the White House National Economic Council with responsibility for antitrust and competition; Where Jonathan kanter, a leading proponent of antitrust laws, now Deputy Attorney General. Etc. Since all the big tech companies are based in the United States, these were the most important measures, but there were indications in other parts of the world as well (including the UK Competition and Markets Authority. Uni) that democracies were emerging from the long slumber during which technology companies had obscenely prospered.
Tech companies of course saw it coming, and it was strange how their responses echoed the tobacco and energy companies’ playbooks from an earlier period, as reported, for example, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists have Clouded the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. The other day Andrew Bosworth, Meta’s new CTO (née Facebook) has been requested if he thought that “the reluctance to vaccinate would be the same with or without social networks”. His response, verbatim, reads: “I think Facebook has probably run the biggest Covid vaccination campaign in the world. What more can you do if some people who can get this real information from a real source choose not to get it? It is their choice. They are allowed to do this. You have a problem with these people. You don’t have a problem with Facebook. You can’t put this on me.
Sounds familiar? This is what the oil companies proposed when they invented the idea of the “carbon footprint” – that is, your imprint on the biosphere, not theirs. This is the strategy of shifting responsibility: since it is a free country, no one is forcing you to do what is bad for you. Childhood obesity is the responsibility of the child or his parents. Alcoholism occurs because you do not ‘drink responsibly’. The radicalization of the mass shooter is not YouTube’s responsibility. It is always your fault, not the manufacturer of the addicting product.
Following. Looking ahead to 2022, what we can anticipate is a repeat performance of that eternal staple of capitalism: irrational exuberance – the phenomenon by which, in the words of economist Robert Shiller, “News of price increases sparks investor enthusiasm, which spreads by psychological contagion from person to person and in so doing amplifies stories that could justify the increase in prices and bring in a growing class. investors who, despite doubts about the real value of the investment, are attracted in part by the envy of others’ successes and in part by the excitement of a player ”.
This tulip-mania these days has been happening with cryptocurrencies for some time, but is about to get more frenzied as the idea that blockchain – the crypto technology behind bitcoin, Ethereum et al – can become the basis of something called Web3: a new, properly decentralized version of the World Wide Web (compared to the current version in which control has effectively become centralized in a small number of giant corporations).
In principle, this is an interesting idea – to create what would actually be an alternative world finance, commerce, communications and entertainment that could radically transform important parts of the global economy – and not be controlled by banks and governments. But for those of us cursed by memories of the past, it has a feeling of déjà vu. It reminds us of the beginnings of the Internet in the 1980s, when it evoked utopian dreams; we finally thought it was an invention that had the potential to dissolve the old world sclerotic power structures and become a force for democratization and human empowerment.
It didn’t work like that, of course. We underestimated corporate cunning and cruelty, government weakness, and the fact that many of our fellow human beings were content to be passive couch potatoes, albeit with streaming sets.
Faced with the dream of Web3, then, the question that arises is: will history repeat itself? Only time will tell. In the meantime, from this utopia in recovery: happy new year!
What i read
Freedom of speech?
The freedom of local bullies is a beautiful essay from 2011 by Noah Smith on the limits of libertarianism.
In the beginning was the command line a memorable essay by Neal Stephenson on PCs, Programming and Operating Systems.