On the subject of the collapse of the tech mythology, a wonderful Slate headline succinctly conveys the significance of what is taking place: Facebook is a normal sleazy company now. As Siva Vaidhyanathan puts it, “Facebook is now just another normal sleazy American company run by normal sleazy executives, engaged in normal sleazy lobbying and corporate propaganda”. He lists the controversies which have surrounded Facebook in the last few years and the founder’s response to them:
Over the past three years, Facebook has been outed for abusing the trust of its users, sharing personal data with third parties like Cambridge Analytica, unwittingly hosting Russian-backed propaganda intended to undermine American democracy, amplifying calls for religious and ethnic violence in places like Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and promoting violent authoritarian and nationalist leaders like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Narendra Modi in India. As these stories piled up and public trust eroded, the Times reports, Zuckerberg consistently exempted himself from crucial discussions with the Facebook security team and acted generally baffled that anyone would question his baby. After all, didn’t he just want, in his words, to “bring the world closer together?”
In contrast Sandberg initiated a lobbying operation with a particularly unseemly propaganda exercise attached to it, obviously at odds with the lofty rhetoric accompanying Facebook’s public pronouncements in the face of mounting scandal. Vaidhyanathan’s case is that the transition to sleaze is a recent phenomenon, reflecting the growing panic of a company which had formerly “made too much money to care about money and had too strong a reputation to care about its reputation”. Nonetheless, the mounting controversies are created by the platform working in the way it was designed to. As Vaidhyanathan says, “The problem with Facebook is Facebook.”
However my suggestion is that we have to recognise the collapse of the tech mythology as a distinct factor, beyond the current crisis in Facebook. There is an increasing politicisation of Big Tech, as firms which positioned themselves as outside the normal rules of capitalism are increasingly recognised as what is driving a shift in capitalism itself. Their epochal rhetoric of disruptive innovation, bringing the world together through the power of their platforms, decreasingly obscures the material interests they embody. Without this broader collapse of the tech mythology, it would be easier for Facebook to make it through their present storm.
There’s a wonderful piece in the Atlantic talking about the accumulating scandals through which “the tech industry has gone from bright young star to death star”, with increasing public knowledge leading to a recognition that “Silicon Valley companies turned out to be roughly as dirty in their corporate maneuvering as any old oil company or military contractor”. It raises a crucial question: what happens if the controversies continue to accumulate while people remain inclined to use products upon which they have become profoundly dependent? How will these firms come to be seen if widespread rejection of their business practices co-exists with widespread use of their services? As Alex Madrigal puts it, “what if the news stays bad, but the people using their products can’t extract themselves from the platforms tech has built?” It’s a fascinating question for anyone interested in the politics of Silicon Valley and we could see this collapse of the tech mythology as facilitating a repoliticisation of (big) tech: things which were successfully framed as unalloyed social goods, so obviously beneficial to society as to be outside dispute, come to be contested and debated, as well as (we hope) subject to legal intervention and the construction of regulatory regimes.
Madrigal draws a fascinating parallel with the railroad network, using the work of the historian Richard White. The hyperbole with which the internet was greeted was once matched by a transcontinental rail network which opened up a seemingly infinite vista of possibilities to Americans, expanding the scope of social life and coming to define many people’s sense of the age in which they lived. However as controversies accumulated in the face of their novel practices (particularly the formation of their monopolies and the political lobbying operations used to defend them), they came to be widely recognised as detrimental to social life and this once lauded system was increasingly despised. The collapse of the mythology surrounding them “helped create an entire political ideology: the progressivism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries”. Much as the railroads generated the richest men of the time while being the object of vast political opposition, big tech increasingly finds itself the object of resistance while its founders enjoy the fruits of the “world-historic empires” they have built. The question this leaves is how we can ensure the collapse of the tech mythology goes hand-in-hand with a reining in of the apparatus that has been built and the defensive elites who have made their fortunes from it.