The Backlash Against Gig Tech is in Danger of Going Too Far by Jamie Bartlett
I’ve long believed the public has a good bullshit meter. It’s imprecise and sometimes temporarily misdirected, but people usually sense when something’s up. And they smell a problem with big tech.
Think back a few years. Remember how optimistic you were about the digital revolution and how total connectivity and limitless information would make us all wiser, freer, kinder and happier? Lots of extremely intelligent people swallowed this guff. Sure, there were sceptics who warned that the coming digital utopia wasn’t nailed on. But these miserable old farts were easy to ignore because they didn’t ‘get it’. So we galloped ahead, embracing every new gadget, phone, platform, website and app. It obviously helped that Facebook, YouTube et al cost nothing to use and were incredibly useful – Google Maps alone has saved me hundreds of lost hours – but more importantly, they were cool. They screamed progress. And who’s against progress? Silicon Valley was the future, and its cheerleaders were young, nerdy, and wore hoodies to the office. They shopped in Whole Foods and had strong takes on social justice. Not like the suit wearers in banks or venal politicians.
But something changed. 2017 is the year of the techlash: when people started to turn against Silicon Valley, and maybe even technological progress itself. All their promised ‘disruption’ was great when it offered new ways to message far flung friends, but this year we woke up to find that tech firms are far more powerful than we thought. They’re not just disrupting our economies with gadgets – but also our media, culture and politics. For several years, people have been worried about how much data the big tech firms are collecting about us – but according to a recent Information Commissioners Office survey, internet companies are now the least trusted sector when it comes to personal data. Several companies have been exposed as either being sexist, aggressively minimising tax, and playing fast and loose with regulations. In fairness, plenty of other businesses act like this too, but the tech firms always promised they were different.
A couple of years ago tech criticism like this was original and edgy, but now everyone’s at it. Complaining about how Uber drivers are treated or how much data Facebook collects is starting to sound staid and predictable. Newspapers, aggrieved at how much of the ad revenue big tech is scooping up without being held to the same legal publishing standards, smell weakness and have more or less declared war on Facebook and Twitter. (Only direct financial interest could invoke such ridiculous front page headlines as the Daily Mail’s ‘Google, The Terrorists’ Friend’). Politicians, sensing the mood rather than driving it, have leapt on to the zeitgeist with a coward’s vigour. Already this year, the European Commission fined Google £2.1bn (€2.4bn) for anti-competitive behaviour. Germany passed a law allowing fines to be imposed on social media platforms that don’t remove hate content sufficiently quickly. TfL decided not to renew Uber’s license to operate; and Facebook is getting dragged into Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 US election.