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The left needs to get radical on big tech – moderate solutions won't cut it

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27.02.2019

To note that the “techlash” – our rude and abrupt awakening to the mammoth powers of technology companies – is gaining force by the month is to state the obvious. Amazon’s sudden departure from New York City, where it was planning to open a second headquarters, attests to the rapidly changing political climate. The New Yorkers, apparently, have no desire to spend nearly $3bn in subsidies in order to lure Amazon – a company that, on making $11.2bn in profits in 2018, has paid no tax and even managed to book $129m in tax rebates.

  • Ignored in most accounts of the growing anti-Silicon Valley sentiment is the incongruence of the political and ideological forces behind the techlash. To paraphrase a Russian classic: while all the happy apologists of big tech are alike, all its critics are unhappy in their own way. These critics, united by their hatred of the digital giants, do make short-term tactical alliances; such arrangements, however, cannot hold in the long term.

One can distinguish three camps in today’s anti-tech landscape. They cover almost the entire political spectrum, from the pro-market neoliberal right to the pro-solidarity socialist left, even if the most prominent faces of the latter are still to take an explicit position on these issues.

The two better-known currents of the techlash represent what we might call “economism” and “technocracy”. Adherents of the former insist that the users of digital platforms are systematically shortchanged for their data and need to be compensated in some way. Such ideas are also rapidly gaining relevance in the policy world. In a major speech in mid-February, Gavin Newsom, California’s new governor, called on the tech giants to embrace the idea of a “data dividend”. “California’s consumers,” he said, “should also be able to share in the wealth that is created from their data.”

Why dub this “economism”? Well, in part because this perspective does not easily admit non-economic critiques of today’s big tech; the only power relationship it detects and scrutinizes is that between firms and consumers. There are no citizens – let alone social and public institutions – in this political universe.

This is bound to yield perverse results. By linking the size and profitability of tech companies to the........

© The Guardian