In deciding not to participate in research that may be used to harm others, Google's employees are like pacifists in World War II.
Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposed legislation to break up the big tech companies, like Google and Facebook, is only the latest in a growing political attack on the most successful players in the technology sector. Others have already showed that her proposals would be disastrous, turning technology companies into stagnant public utilities with services that are much less satisfying to consumers.
But what explains this sudden turn against the best technology companies? Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and Netflix—to name just the top six—have provided enormous benefits. Google for instance, puts virtually all of recorded human knowledge at our fingertips. Its Youtube service makes available free lectures on a huge variety of subjects. Facebook empowers all those who wish to keep up in our mobile world with a wide circle of relatives and acquaintances. Amazon makes the bazaar of the world’s goods come to us rather than force us to go out searching. Netflix streams content that we can access anytime, anywhere, and its streaming services have helped usher in a golden age of long-form television series. The companies thus do simply help people play pushpin. They facilitate new forms of art. And many of these services, like Google Search, cost no money. Others are far lower priced than the goods and services they have replaced, not to mention the convenience of home delivery they bring.
And the innovations keep coming. Google is the leader in self-driving cars, a technology that promises ultimately to end the carnage of deaths on our highways. Amazon has taken over Whole Foods, shaking up the somnolent grocery business. A few days ago, Apple announced its own move into streaming. This latter development reminds us that these companies compete fiercely, and often invade the home turf of the others. They have both the resources to innovate and the need to do so if they are not to be left behind.
Our response to living in the world these companies make possible should be one of profound gratitude. But because of their size and ubiquity, they have become scapegoats for social ills they did not create and indeed often help temper. Some see them as engines of inequality. But our social divides long preceded the digital divide. And at least for the great majority of us who have access to the internet, services like Google’s search and Facebook are great equalizers, because they provide us all the same service at the same price, and the data we give up in return are more valuable coming from the rich than from the poor.
Others regard tech as a source of polarization, but these political animosities have been growing long before the rise of big tech. In a free society, people naturally sort themselves into groups of like-minded people by choosing different neighborhoods and professions. By creating a world of hyperlinks and Twitter battles, social media allows us better to understand how others think than when we lived and worked in ideological cocoons.
Some claim that big tech has become the destroyer of privacy. But blaming tech companies for this ill is misplaced in a society where so many are willing—indeed eager—to share intimate details with the world. Tech reflects the exhibitionism of postmodernity rather than causes it.
That is not to say, of course, that targeted legislation against the overreaching by tech companies may not be warranted. Perhaps companies should be required to make more disclosure about the uses they make of your data, for instance. But the growing movement on both the left and right to take down Big Tech is one of the worst features of our populist moment. It is a classic case of killing the goose who lays the golden eggs.