How Big Tech Subverts Capitalism

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There’s a backlash against the Silicon Valley brand of capitalism, according to the Guardian. It’s deserved, and it isn’t enough.

Evgeny Morzov’s thoughtful essay noted that the world’s most admired brands and most profitable companies are now getting grief for everything from enabling terrorism and tolerating sexual harassment, to pushing incomes down while making housing more expensive.

There’s much more to his story, but I think Morzov makes his real point when explaining the fundamental disconnect between Big Tech’s capitalist dream, and what it actually delivers:

“…how could one possibly expect a bunch of rent-extracting enterprises with business models that are reminiscent of feudalism to resuscitate global capitalism and to establish a new New Deal that would constrain the greed of capitalists, many of whom also happen to be the investors behind these firms?”

Exactly, only they’re not just failing to revive capitalism. They’re destroying it.

Capitalism relies on the efficiency of free and open markets in which ideas can be vetted and valued, whether as products, services, policies, and laws. Adam Smith envisioned places where people could interact in ways that were mutually beneficial — i.e. good for them individually, and for society collectively — and not where one person or group could exploit another.

The quality of information would define how well a market functioned, and the function of a market was to make that information available to all participants. When it comes to Big Tech, the market doesn’t function at all.

There are many costs to consider when it comes to buying and using digital tech:

  • Behavioral costs, such as increased personal isolation, and a rising inability to control anger and even converse;
  • Social costs, from kids accessing inappropriate content, to terrorists and other nut job groups using it to operate;
  • Political costs, such as our growing inability to compromise (or even discern fact from fiction; and
  • Economic costs, the least of which is trading regular work/benefits with the vagaries of the gig economy.

Then there’s the even bigger cost of giving Big Tech so much data about who we are, and what we do, that we find out we’ve not only sacrificed our privacy, but lost our ability to truly control our own fates.

Only the market doesn’t recognize these costs, let alone assess them. Instead, they’re obscured by the benefits of consumer convenience, which are offered with no overt price tag attached. A very capable and vocal Greek Chorus of propagandists adds to the confusion by hyping the lack of said disclosures as transparency, and calling the use of data to channel what, when, and how people experience the Internet as empowerment.

Not only is it Orwellian, but it’s the antithesis of capitalist competition, since Big Tech’s motives and effects are utterly opaque, whether by design or a genuine inability to calculate the costs; the market will eventually recognize these costs, and likely many others that we can’t even imagine yet, but it could take years, and the actions that caused them may be irreversible by then.

That’s the bet Big Tech is making, and in the meantime, they’re not inventing a new form of capitalism; rather, they’re becoming a small group of rich aristocrats who control the information necessary for the economy to function and, in doing so, extract its value. Everyone else is relegated to serve that activity (at whim).

They’re reinventing feudalism.

Now, I don’t mean to ignore all of the amazing things that technology gives us; the health diagnostics alone are priceless, as are all of the services that GPS enables. Cars that drive themselves will save many, many lives. The list of good things technology enables/will enable is for all practical purposes endless.

But that’s nothing new. We’ve been enjoying the benefits of technology ever since a caveman figured out how to roll something on a wheel, or planted a seed.

What’s different now is that there’s a loosely organized effort to subvert the marketplace in which such innovations are vetted and valued.

Capitalism isn’t about taking from one person to give to another, but rather the creation of value for all. The balance of power in today’s technology transactions is overwhelmingly skewed to Big Tech and its evangelists, so the transfer of value is all but one way.

Taking advantage of people isn’t capitalism. It’s theft.