Renowned futurist and global think-tank leader Lucie Greene has spent years honing her expertise on the tech industry. In Silicon States, she examines the players, promises and potential problems of Big Tech, speaking to a host of corporate leaders, VCs, entrepreneurs, journalists, activists and many more. Here Greene introduces a world in which business is overtaking the state in addressing people’s needs – and asks how our world will look when CEOs, not politicians, decide our future.
Silicon Valley companies have done a good job presenting themselves as friendly, egalitarian democratizers. The projected value system of this group is largely positive. They’re pro-LGBT, pro-sustainability, pro–social good. But it’s on their own terms, and self-regulated. (Evidenced by their famously hostile work environments, gender inequality, and seeming disinterest in the very real homeless problem in their hometown of San Francisco.)
All of this is significant as Big Tech’s reach extends. It is one thing if a company monopolizes a service—don’t subscribe to it. Or a product—don’t buy it. But what happens when that company is providing everything? And all those things are interconnected and controlling the way you live, the loans you get, the insurance you can buy, and the prices you pay for them. When your health data defines whether you get access to credit. When your productivity declines and is connected directly to your salary. The veneer of control quickly vanishes, and you’re left with monopoly not just of what you buy, but how you live. It’s a consumerist police state.
Right now, Silicon Valley companies’ most outrageous activities have been regulated by public shaming and newspaper headlines. As consumer brands who need to maintain a good reputation, they cease and desist certain behaviors if there’s enough public outcry. But as Silicon Valley eats all consumerism, not to mention media—which reports on these scandals—control quickly vanishes.
The steady creep of their expanded societal role is being facilitated by a power vacuum. According to a J. Walter Thompson consumer poll, a majority of Americans feel that government and democracy are broken. Trust is gone. Among millennials, staggeringly, there is also a unilateral enthusiasm for Silicon Valley to take more of a governmental role.
Rightly or wrongly, there is also a loss of faith in government to build our future. Like traditional travel agents surpassed by internet services offering peer-to-peer reviews and cheaper prices, government is at risk of being surpassed by cooler, more efficient tech-savvy companies.
President Barack Obama and former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan J. Smith recognized government’s image problem and embarked on a campaign in Obama’s second term to connect his administration with the glamour of the tech world. But the president could also see the Valley’s limitations in fulfilling all its bold promises. At the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh in 2016, Obama poured scorn on Silicon Valley’s hubris in blowing up all existing, outdated systems. “Government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.”
In bringing up these problems, Obama was reminding the audience of our era’s recent significant turn inward—its insatiable self-regard and dying communitarian spirit. Silicon Valley, after all, has been exceptionally good at catering to our individual needs (selfies and overnight doorstep delivery). It has also been exceptionally good at making services and products affordable, accessible, and easy to get on a day-to-day basis. Hotels, taxis, all can be cheaper. Or even free, if you consider Google Maps free, and not something you are paying for when access to your personal data and online behavior is leveraged to sell highly targeted advertising. But these applications have been driven by scale, profit, and market forces, often without accountability. Or self-mediating accountability in the form of reviews. And while they’re affordable to many, they’re not affordable to all.
So, what happens if they become a replacement for the state? What happens if Silicon Valley powers our hospitals, provides our education, builds our cities?
These questions sent me on a journey to explore the tension between Silicon Valley’s wild ambition and limitless resources, and the reality of what a Silicon world built in their image (free from the irritation of government constraint) might look like. I wanted to make sense of the changes happening now and to understand what they might mean. Before it’s too late.
Excerpted from Silicon States: The Power and Politics of Big Tech and What It Means for Our Future, copyright © 2018 by Lucie Greene. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.