The material interests of Big Tech

In recent years, we have seen a renewed focus on the political ideologies which are currently emerging within Silicon Valley. Such considerations are not new and contemporary accounts are influenced, implicitly and explicitly, by earlier notions such as the Californian ideology. But the dominant approach appears to be a cultural one, treating these emerging political forms in terms of their distinctiveness relative to more established positions. The overarching project of analysing the politics of big tech is at an early stage, not least of all because the consolidation of established interests which would justify such a distinction is still relatively recently. For this reason, it would be a mistake to make conclusive judgements about factors which are missing from such analysis or mistakes into which it is falling.

Nonetheless, I increasingly wonder if we are losing sight of the material interests at work within the emerging cultural forms of big tech. This is something which applies at the level of particular groups, such as the emerging categories of higher level engineers and data scientists, as well as their relative position within a California boom driven in part by this very affluence, which ensures ensures that even those who are very wealthy in national terms are unlikely to feel this way when they live in the Bay Area. Furthermore there are the emerging cohorts of tech billionaires, as well as the more prosaic reality of the millionaires who inevitably accompany any successful flotation or sale.

However it’s also a matter of the companies themselves, as the character of their production processes leave them with vested interests in sustaining regulatory, fiscal and trade relationships. There’s an interesting example of this in Machine, Platform, Crowd by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson. From pg 97:

Chris Anderson, CEO of drone maker 3D Robotics, gave us a vivid illustration of what’s going on in the drone industry and, by extension, in many others. He showed us a metal cylinder about 1 inch in diameter and 3 inches long and said, “This is a gyro sensor. It is mechanical, it cost $ 10,000, it was made in the nineties by some very talented ladies in an aerospace factory and hand-wound, et cetera. And it takes care of one axis of motion. On our drones we have twenty-four sensors like this. That would have been $ 10,000 each. That would have been $ 240,000 of sensors, and by the way, it would be the size of a refrigerator. Instead, we have a tiny little chip or a few tiny little chips that cost three dollars and are almost invisible.” Anderson’s point is that the combination of cheap raw materials, mass global markets, intense competition, and large manufacturing scale economies is essentially a guarantee of sustained steep price declines and performance improvements. He calls personal drones the “peace dividend of the smartphone wars, which is to say that the components in a smartphone—the sensors, the GPS, the camera, the ARM core processors, the wireless, the memory, the battery—all that stuff, which is being driven by the incredible economies of scale and innovation machines at Apple, Google, and others, is available for a few dollars. They were essentially ‘unobtainium’ 10 years ago. This is stuff that used to be military industrial technology; you can buy it at RadioShack now.”

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