The utopian/dystopian problem for Big Tech billionaires

Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet’s smart city subsidiary, released its massive plan last month to transform a chunk of Toronto’s waterfront into a high-tech utopia. This is a rendering of that city in 2050. Source: Sidewalk Labs

What makes tech billionaires different – they are convinced they can run the world, universe, everything. 

Back in the first decade of this century, Big Tech appeared invincible. It possessed the answers to all our problems. So confident were we that tech had the answer to all the earth’s needs that people wrote books with titles like: “What Would Google Do?”. All those Californian T-shirted guys Jeff and Travis, Larry and Sergey (and they usually were guys) were so smart they had the answer to all the planet’s ills. 

More than any previous coterie of corporations, the tech monopolies aspire to mould humanity into their desired image of it

These supremely confident, curious minds got Google onto everyone’s turf: into mapping, autonomous cars, phones, wind farms, delivery drones, smart contact lenses, hot air balloons, robotic cheetahs, genome storage, disrupting the music and TV industries with YouTube, even “curing death”.  When I spoke a couple of years back to Matt Brittain, Google’s UK and EMEA boss he purred: “Larry is restless about the numbers of problems that have insufficient numbers of people working on them”. 

How times have changed. The technorati have been shown to have feet of clay. Many now argue that they have caused more problems than they have solved – undermining our democratic processes is one of the lesser of their sins. Opinion has turned rather more sceptical in the last few years, Actor Sacha Baron Cohen recently claiming that Facebook, had it been around in the 1930s, would have accepted ads from the Third Reich. 

The Brave New World turned out to be full of dodgy apples. Now the books are titled “The Net Delusion”,  “Chaos Monkeys” or “A World Without Mind”. UK newspaper commentator Simon Jenkins recently gave Mark Zuckerberg and Google both barrels, chiding himself for ever thinking they had the answer to all our woes.  

He said in The Guardian: “Not a day passes without apocalyptic wails against the internet. It promotes paedophilia, grooming, bullying, harassment, trolling, humiliation, intrusion, false accusation and libel. It aids terrorism, cyberwarfare, political lying, fake news, state censorship, summary injustice. It enriches a tiny few, dodges taxes, respects no borders and forces millions out of work.”

The internet companies, while pretending to be utilities, not publishers, manipulate and censor news. They see humans as algorithm factories, bundled for maximum advertising revenue. The “global village” is no village at all, just trillions of zombie customers hard-wired to a handset. Who on Earth thought it a good idea?’

Even Zuckerberg claims he’s had his eyes opened to the ills he can induce: “The past two years have shown that without sufficient safeguards, people will misuse these tools to interfere in elections, spread misinformation, and incite violence,” he said recently. “One of the most painful lessons I’ve learned is that when you connect two billion people, you will see all the beauty and ugliness of humanity.”

The billions to be made from tech have come almost exclusively from America.  The US is home to 15 of the world’s 20 most valuable tech firms. In Europe, we have one. Big Tech is unquestionably a stateside thing.  Silicon Valley is where the smart ideas find the most willing piles of money. America is also where controversy rages loudly over how to bring the tech giants to heel so that they act in the public interest.

Tech tycoons have faced roastings in Washington D.C. for their firms’ privacy lapses. Elizabeth Warren, a senator who is running for president in 2020, wants Facebook to be broken up. She wants a platform utility to be defined as any internet entity with global revenues over $25 billion. In response, Mark Zuckerberg has said he’s willing to “go to the mat” and fight Warren. That should make an interesting spectacle as Mrs Warren has recently celebrated her 70th birthday.

In Europe, the recently re-appointed competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager, a Dane with real teeth and a great wrestling style,  has said: “we’re trying to get a hold on this industrial revolution that’s happening right now…it’s very important to get up to speed quickly.”

The author and writer at The Atlantic Franklin Foer has argued that tech is different from the sort of monopolies run by the robber barons, oil tycoons and bankers of the past. These new guys are in a different league from the JP Morgans and Rockefellers when it comes to control over our lives.  

“More than any previous coterie of corporations, the tech monopolies aspire to mould humanity into their desired image of it,” Foer said in a recent column. “They believe that they have the opportunity to complete the long merger between man and machine – to redirect the trajectory of human evolution.”

This is especially true of Artificial Intelligence – just ask the Chinese politburo which makes thorough use of it from facial recognition technology – banned, incidentally, in San Francisco – and its appalling social credit system. 

When it comes to competition Big Tech likes to muscle out or acquire any threatening minnows with promising ideas. The FANGS hoovered up 436 companies in the last ten years. Google has picked up 270 rivals in the last twenty years. Where the argument was once – “It’s free! How can we be anti-competitive if customers aren’t paying for our service” is heard less frequently these days.

But there is something else going on here. The truth is that the Big Tech billionaires mind competition not only tiresome but unnecessary. So convinced are they that they have the answers to everything that going into the office to fight a rival doing the same thing is a waste of their valuable time. Tech investor Peter Thiel – estimated wealth $2.3 billion  – has dismissed competition as a “ relic of history”. 

So confident is Google in its vision and ability to execute that it even wants to build and run the cities in which we live. Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet’s smart city subsidiary, released its massive plan last month to transform a chunk of Toronto’s waterfront into a high-tech utopia. 

A year and a half in the making and clocking in at 1,524 pages, the plan represents Alphabet’s first, high-stakes effort to realize Alphabet CEO Larry Page’s long-held dream of a city within a city to test out innovations like autonomous cars, 5G Internet of Things devices, new health care delivery solutions, and other city planning advances that modern technology makes possible.

Previously, Sidewalk Labs called it “a neighborhood built from the internet up”. Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff went a step further to describe it as “the most innovative district in the world”.

Now it’s true that the Victorian era’s equivalent of tech billionaires such as the Cadburys and Lever brothers did build towns for their workers – Bournville and Port Sunlight. 

These were certainly highly paternalistic actions but did not amount to this sort of control. They want to run everything. If you need an example of the US’s Tech Billionaires extraordinary self-confidence then look no further than Bloomberg’s presidential campaign which kicked off with a $30 million spent on that oh-so-old-fashioned device of the TV ad. 

Bloomberg is also likely to spend a truckload of cash on Facebook ads and has hired that organisation’s CMO, Gary Briggs, to hone its legendary digital targeting capabilities. 

Big Tech’s promise of a utopian world is turning out to resemble more of a dystopian one. The world needs to wake up to the implications before it’s too late. 

Matthew Gwyther, the former editor of the UK based publication Management Today, writes a regular column on business for The Times of London


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