The following article is an extract from Don't Be Evil: How Big Tech Betrayed Its Founding Principles – and All of Us by Rana Foroohar. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
It’s no secret that the concentration of market power has been rising in numerous industries over the past few decades, a trend that has been linked to everything from growing income inequality to slower economic growth to a surge in political populism.
[Over] 80 percent of corporate wealth [is] now being held by just about 10 percent of companies. And these [aren’t] the firms that [own] the most physical assets or commodities [...]. Rather, they [are] those that [have] figured out how to leverage the new “oil” of our economy – information and networks. Many of these new superstars [are] technology companies. The tech industry provides the starkest illustration of the rise in monopolistic power in the world today.
[This] raises the question: How did we get here? How did an industry that had once been scrappy, innovative, and optimistic become, in the span of just a few decades insular, and out of touch with society? How did we get from a world where “information wants to be free” to one in which data exists to be monetized? How did a movement built on the goal of democratising information come to be such a threat to the very fabric of our democracy? And how did its leaders go from tinkering with motherboards in their basements to dominating our political economy?
We hold today in our pockets more computing intelligence than entire companies had access to just a generation ago. Yet, these modern conveniences have come at a steep price.
The answer, as I [have come] to believe, is that we [have] reached a tipping point in which the interests of the largest tech firms and the customers and citizens they supposedly [serve] [are] no longer aligned. Over the past twenty years, Silicon Valley has given us amazing things, from search to social media to portable devices with astounding computing power. We hold today in our pockets more computing intelligence than entire companies had access to just a generation ago. Yet, these modern conveniences have come at a steep price: twitchy technology addiction that saps our time and productivity, the spread of misinformation and hate speech, predatory algorithms targeting the weak and vulnerable, a total loss of personal privacy, and the accumulation of more and more of the country’s wealth by a smaller and smaller subset of society. What’s more, all of these problems – while often spoken about in isolation – are intertwined.
Big Tech is forever, transforming our existence a little more every day, as the technology itself spreads more deeply into our economy, politics, and culture. It’s an alchemy that is just beginning. As amazing as the changes of the past twenty years have been, they are only the first stages of a multi-decade transition to a digital economy that will rival the industrial revolution in terms of transformative power. By the time it is complete, the consequences are likely to be even more sweeping, changing the nature of liberal democracy, of capitalism, and even of humanity itself.
What Big Tech is doing is, in a word, big. While I’ve been critical of many aspects of this digital transformation, there is no denying the tremendous upside as well. Silicon Valley has been the single greatest creator of corporate wealth in history. It has connected the world, helped spark revolutions against oppressive governments (even as it has also facilitated repression), and created entirely new paradigms for invention and innovation. Platform technologies allow many of us to work remotely, maintain distant relationships, develop new talents, market our businesses, and share our views, our creative expression, and/or our products with a global audience. Big Tech has given us the tools to call up a variety of goods and services – from transportation to food to medical treatment – on demand, and generally live in a way that is more convenient and efficient than ever before. In these and many other senses, the digital revolution is a miraculous and welcome development.
The issue is that periods of great technological change are also characterised by great disruption, which needs to be managed for the sake of society as a whole. Otherwise, you end up with events like the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which, as historian Niall Ferguson has outlined, might not have happened without the advent of major new technologies like the printing press, which eventually brought with it the Age of Enlightenment, but not before it upset old orders in the same way that the Internet and social media have upended society today.
No one can hold back technology – nor should they. But disruption can and should be better managed than it has been in the past.
No one can hold back technology – nor should they. But disruption can and should be better managed than it has been in the past. We have the tools to do so. The challenge for us today is figuring out how to put boundaries around a technology industry that has become more powerful than many individual countries.
The structural shift from a tangible to an intangible economy – one that makes the industrial revolution look relatively minor by comparison – should trigger deep thinking about a host of big topics: digital property rights, trade regulations, privacy laws, antitrust rules, liability rules, free speech, the legality of surveillance, the implications of data for economic competitiveness and national security, the impact of the algorithmic disruption of work on labour markets, the ethics of artificial intelligence, and the health and well-being of users of digital technology. Even taken individually, these are deep and complex issues. But they need to be taken together, because each one impacts the others. This challenge is one that requires policy makers to have robust conversations with experts from a broad range of disciplines about what the new framework for economic growth, political stability, personal liberty, and health and safety in our complex new digital world should be.
If we can create a framework for fostering innovation and sharing the prosperity in a much broader way, while also protecting people from the dark side of digital technologies, the next few decades could be a golden era of global growth.
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