It is widely remarked that nothing truly innovative has come out of Silicon Valley in the past decade. Since the iPhone in 2007, arguably, the Valley has offered minor tweaks to our digital lives, most of them as irritating as they are useful.
I may personally find the idea of reverting to 2009 buffering speeds and yellow cab service pretty unpalatable, but Rana Foroohar, a columnist and associate editor of the Financial Times, is one of those sceptical about Silicon Valley’s innovation model — not to mention about its culture, ethics, business practices, and all-powerful engineers, many of whom are “white men under forty . . . whose lack of social skills would put them ‘on the spectrum’.” They have, she argues, taken hostage our economy, our politics and our minds: “I don’t think of the tech executives as criminals,” she says. “I think of them as anti-heroes whose outsized ambitions were tinged with folly, greed and naiveté.”
In her previous book, Makers and Takers: How Wall Street Destroyed Main Street, Foroohar blamed banks and financiers for gutting the economy. The balance sheet shenanigans of the “takers” were robbing the people who ran proper businesses, the “makers”.
In Don’t Be Evil, she compares the moral void in finance that led to the financial crisis to what she now sees in Big Tech. She predicts similar doom. Banks grew without regard for consumers or society, by co-opting politicians and by becoming essentially self-regulated. Big Tech has followed suit. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is now the single largest corporate lobbyist in Washington, and collectively Big Tech is second only to Big Pharma as a lobbying group.
Foroohar reports that the industry has fought to protect interests that boost its profits but hurt society. They have made it harder to secure patents, to the detriment of small companies and individual inventors. They have defended their right to pay tax in overseas, low-tax jurisdictions, rather than in the markets where they make their money. And platforms such as Google and Facebook have shirked responsibility for the content and actions of their users.
The result of all this is that monopolies thrive, innovation is strangled, and false information and vicious content befouls the public and political spheres, while the tech groups’ founders, managers and shareholders get richer.
While today’s tech markets are vastly more evolved than they were in 2000, Foroohar warns that there are similarities. Uber’s poor IPO performance and WeWork’s disastrous attempt to go public may support her case. But the long, sustained boom in tech has created such wealth that it is hard to imagine the ecosystem crashing the way it did in 2001.
More dangerous may be a political and cultural backlash. Big Tech, Foroohar writes, echoing arguments from the likes of Senator Elizabeth Warren, threatens more jobs than it creates, and widens economic inequality. She cites AI expert Vivienne Ming, who warns that “the global professional middle class is about to be blindsided.” In a recent test, an AI and human lawyers were given non-disclosure agreements to study. The AI found 95 per cent of the loopholes in 22 seconds; the group of humans just 88 per cent in 90 minutes.
Foroohar devotes a final chapter to potential solutions to the problem of tech company evil. She proposes a bipartisan national commission on the future of data and digital technology which could report to the US Congress. These wise men and women could consider breaking up the tech groups, to separate their utility-like platforms from their commercial activities. They would try to price the personal data currently harvested for free by tech companies, and look at how they pay tax.
We are not all built to hustle and disrupt like twenty-something tech titans, and Foroohar would also like to see a Digital New Deal which considers the broad, human costs of artificial intelligence, big data and automation. The screens hurt our eyes, and the ceaseless change runs us ragged. It is time the grown-ups took charge.
Don’t Be Evil: The Case Against Big Tech, by Rana Foroohar, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 368 pages