Sometime ago on the sidelines of a global event where a panel was discussing the influence of new technologies and tech giants on society and people, a critic of mainly American technology companies quipped: “These days it seems Silicon Valley is obsessed with the ‘con’ in Silicon.” She was, obviously, commenting on the myriad scandals that broke out.
Silicon Valley’s nerds have moved far away from those austere days, inventing products that changed the face of the planet and in the process have excelled in the art of what Marxists would call the primitive accumulation of capital. Just last year, Wealth-X, an agency that tracks the super wealthy of the world, found that of the 143 tech billionaires around the world, 74 — that’s over a half — live in Silicon Valley.
For sure they made money in truckloads. But what did these inventors and investors give in return? If you dare place many of the pet products of the Silicon Valley under a social audit, it is very likely that they will score very poorly on many fronts. Take Facebook — today, it stands in the dock for allowing itself to be a platform where dangerous ideas are circulated, misinformation, fake news, racism, right wing supremacists ideas and cult groups roam freely.
Also, the tech companies have undergone an eerie metamorphosis. They no longer are the nimble and harmless start-ups. They engage in activities, as collective and as individual companies, that help them concentrate wealth, expand influence and bring out products that further this vicious cycle. Fortunately, the world has taken note of this, though not necessarily in the required manner. Over the past few years, a series of books, policy drafts and academic papers have analysed the Kafkaesque changes technology companies have undergone and a clutch of brilliant writers has tried to understand these trends from sociological and economical perspectives, especially as milestones in the awkward and jerky evolution of capitalism. There are several examples; from Nick Srnicek’s Platform Capitalism (2017) to Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2019).
The two books under review here can be read as rich extensions to these books though they are written from a politically neutral standpoint. In Silicon States: The Power and Politics of Big Tech and What It Means for Our Future , Lucie Greene, tracks the evolution of Silicon Valley companies and their unending quest for control through what one can easily term primitive accumulation of data. The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity by Amy Webb, who calls herself a “quantitative futurist”, looks at one of the most crucial and critical component of the technology universe today — machine learning — to see how the explosions in artificial intelligence, powered mainly by the labs of nine tech giants — Google, Amazon, Apple, IBM, Microsoft, and Facebook in the US, and Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent in China — are really helping us build a better, altruistic world.
Greene starts with a simple premise: “What happens if they become a replacement for the State? What happens if Silicon Valley powers our hospitals, provides our education, builds our cities?” She understands the growing, overarching and inevitable influence of the Valley in the polity and processes (social, economical and cultural) but she finds a lack of general moral framework. This is important, especially given that the digital products and solutions that have come out of the Valley have been tom-tomed as the panacea for most socioeconomic woes.
In India, too digital solutions are pushed by companies, government agencies, NGOs and even educational institutions to tackle a wide spectrum of issues. But the results are not so great as evidence has suggested. For one, Aadhaar is enmeshed in controversies on data privacy, with top courts limiting its use and practice. The government’s push for digital money has disrupted the currency systems significantly, but the common citizens are yet to embrace the idea.
Why this is happening? The idea of technology or tech companies as a solution for everything is so compelling, as Greene observes, analysing the Silicon Valley’s output; but that doesn’t mean it is the right replacement for the state as many big-tech companies suggest. While it is true that governments are flawed, at least they are composed of people who are elected to serve the society, and are not just shareholders, observes Greene.
As things stand now there is no evidence that the world Big Tech is building or promising to build is going to be one where altruistic values are respected and every citizens are treated with a sense of justice, equality and compassion. Because “Silicon Valley’s agendas are set by groups of largely affluent, educated male individuals…”. This is problematic and this is not going to change any time soon as trends suggest. So, societies are best advised to take solutions pushed by Silicon Valley or its many clones around the world with pinches of salt and customise them to reflect our traditions of ethics and fairness.
That’s easier said than done, considering the clout of these companies and the lucrative incentives they throw around promoting their products. There is also the case of the psychological strategies tech companies play while marketing their products, one of which is to create a sense of indispensability around their solutions (Can you imagine a world without Facebook?). To break free of these influences is important, and the first step in that direction is to understand the underlying philosophies that power Big Tech and Green’s book are a great tool.
An ‘artificial’ problem
Amy Webb too treads similar terrains, but her focus is on AI, especially how robots are going to help tech giants control humanity tighter. According to her, the future of AI is now moving along two developmental tracks that are often at odds with what’s best for humanity. “China’s AI push is part of a coordinated attempt to create a new world order led by President Xi, while market forces and consumerism are the primary drivers in America,” writes Webb. “This dichotomy is a serious blind spot for us all. Resolving it is the crux of our looming AI problem, and it is the purpose of this book.”
Webb believes AI is a positive force, “one that will elevate the next generations of humankind and help us to achieve our most idealistic visions of the future”, but she calls herself a pragmatist. Within technology, and especially when it comes to AI, we must continually remember to plan for both intended use and unintended misuse, she warns. If you have been following the transformations of Facebook, you’d get the drift.
Webb’s book is divided in three parts. The first part tracks the history of AI and how the experiments into AI have gone wrong, while the second looks at the future, where AI is going to go from here and the third part looks at what can be done about it and how to equip ourselves to face the unintended consequences of AI mishaps.
Greene and Webb cover several crucial components of the tech debate today — from tech-enabled governance to learning to live with omnipotent technology (self-learning machines, etc.). Clearly, read together, the books offer a manifesto for our digital future, where unfortunately we are yet to find our own programme.