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Big Tech Is a Scapegoat for Our Social Ills

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.

Reader Discussion

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on March 29, 2019 at 12:15:22 pm

About right.
No clear alternatives given to fight this though, except some good explanations of just what is being attacked.
But a stronger attack of the attacking mentality and interests is needed.

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Patrick T Peterson
on March 29, 2019 at 12:46:46 pm

"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"

Really?

It would appear that self-driving cars have a lot to "learn" before they are ready to usher in this golden and accident free millennium.

Define "somnolent". Or do you not do the grocery shopping? Is it somnolent because profit margins are extremely thin? Or is it somnolent because the industry is rather quiet - quiet in the sense that there are no "ups and downs" in the supply of a veritable cornucopia of products available at very reasonable prices on well stocked shelves?

I suppose to some who are so enamored of "creative destruction" that a steady, uninterrupted provision of goods and services is to be characterized as "somnolent."

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gabe
on March 29, 2019 at 16:21:22 pm

This is a great reminder of the good many companies provide. Amazon is the largest provider of cloud services and most people don't know that.

However, with any action comes responsibility. When various business owners we remember in history have provided 'everything' for their employees they have been surprised when those individuals have desired something else. Just because you provided the store and possibly even subsidized prices doesn't mean I don't desire the Fruit Loops that aren't on your shelf.

Google has an interesting business model in that they don't claim to provide information they claim to provide the information that they think you want. Facebook joins this idea by segregating people into ever smaller groups so they have confirmation rather than education. Now they desire to control even what they want to allow you to confirm.

This being a Law-based site lets look at law as an example. There are those in the legal profession who believe in CLS. In short, they feel that the law should get in the way of accomplishing what they want. Justice Ginsburg and Stevens are examples of trying to make the law fit their pre-desired outcome. So what does the law mean? If it has no backbone and can bend in the wind then the law is useless.

Should Google, and others, only allow access to legal information supported by the CLS crowd? This would undermine the rule of law, disparage anyone who felt that a legal system is a framework within which freedom of actions can prevail, and support chaos.

Any business needs to be responsive to its customers. Our big tech companies have failed in this area and many customers are looking for alternatives.

Years ago Microsoft was being sued across the world because they were successful. Mr Gates repeatedly stated that they might be big today but they had to keep innovating or they would fall on their own sword. He was laughed out of court. Then came Google and no one even thinks about Bing or AOL or Yahoo, or web-crawler, etc. This too can pass.

We do need to honor the innovations that constantly come into the marketplace and make our lives somewhat better. However, we can never allow companies to abrogate their responsibility to the customer simply because they did some good.

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Arthur
on March 31, 2019 at 01:02:22 am

"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. "

Such has been my frustration in trying to encourage my friends to delete their fb accounts and go to the newer sites that vow to honor privacy and free speech (like Minds and MeWe). Their apathy and laziness keeps them affixed to the teat of Zuck. I don't know what else to attribute it to but as a collective case of Stockholm Syndrome. Tell them that they have become pathetic serfs to be surveilled, analyzed, manipulated, and milked for content like chattel in an Orwellian animal farm and they go "meh".

It is the tapeworm dynamic that kills any notion of consumer sovereignty (to use Catherine Austin Fitts's favorite metaphor) -the parasitic worm exudes a neurotransmitter that makes the host desire foodstuffs that nourish the worm, but not the host, and in fact can be quite toxic to the host. Such is the manipulative nature of fb and power of the "like" -oh look at all the "likes" I got! Dopamine fires away into the nucleus accumbens (neuro reward center) and so you are hooked.... and the brain is cooked...

I could go on and on with its techniques, but in short, fb became a massive cyber fiefdom with a population of 2 billion+ by mastering these psychological manipulations. In doing so, it is in the nature of the beast of social networks that it would become the only game in town. When everyone you know or might want to know is on fb, why bother trying out those other sites? It then is not exemplary as a success of the free market, but is anathema to any innovation we might hope for from free market dynamics. It has effectively become a public space, while remaining a private corporation (its public stock notwithstanding) that may violate every principle of liberty and due process that we as public individuals hold dear.

Facebook as such must be destroyed. Break it up and auction off the assets to a new generation of entrepreneurs... And when eventually one of those come to dominate, repeat again the cycle of "creative destruction".

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Ron O
on March 31, 2019 at 15:56:33 pm

Well, McGinnis, what happens when Big Tech is NUDGED by Utopian Statist Bureaucrats, such as in the EU, to implement one of the Statists latest efforts to control the populace.

https://spectator.org/the-tsunami-approaches/

wherein we find that the EU technocrats have mandated that ALL CARS beginning in 2022 will be speed controlled to OBEY ALL SPEED LIMITS.

Gee, I wonder if we may see "errors' with this amazing software akin to boeings current problems with MCAS.
Of course, in this case, it will be excused because, well because our political masters mean well, right?

McGinnis love infatuated paeans to Big Tech are something to behold.

Here is another one ( I dropped the "https" in order to get this comment posted:

foxnews.com/tech/crypto-promoter-unmasked-accused-of-fraud-to-lure-investors-via-youtube

wherein we find just how *reliable* Big Tech in the guise of cryptocurrency really is.

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gabe
on August 21, 2019 at 06:02:43 am

op-ed to blame tech companies for the recent drastic uptick in political polarization. “All too often, tribalism based on race, religion, sexual identity, and place of birth has replaced inclusive nationalism, in which you can be proud of your tribe and still embrace the larger American community,” he writes. “These trends are fueled by our Snapchat, Twitter, and Facebook worlds, in which the attention span for issues on television news is only a few seconds, and the very survival of newspapers depends upon re-tweets of headlines from their online editions.” Clinton goes on to denigrate social-media platforms as “fever swamps of extremist foreign and domestic invaders,” adding that the influx of fake news, for which they have taken partial responsibility, puts our very democratic system in danger.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.