One of the great religious festivals of the modern world took place on earlier this month – the Apple product show in San Francisco. The highlight was the new new iPhone, which for a trifling four-figure sum will recognise your face for you. These days, I have trouble recognising my own face in the morning, so I very much welcome this stunning technological breakthrough. (I’m not sure how close you need to get to your iPhone for it to work, but I hear that Apple can spot a mug a mile off). Anyway, the ceremony was a great success and the faithful went away with joy, or something quite like it, in their souls.
A paradox of the current anti-capitalist mood is that the foremost practitioners of ‘late capitalism’ – i.e. the big tech companies – appear immune from the backlash (Uber excepted). Perhaps that’s because, like Apple, they give us gadgets of unprecedented gorgeousness; or, like Facebook, they provide an apparently free and extremely popular service.
Thus despite indulging in the kind of corporate malarkey that provokes anger towards other industries, big tech gets a free pass from the public – and thus a free ride from the politicians. But according to a piece by Ben Smith for Buzzfeed, the mood in America is souring:
“That turn has accelerated… Steve Bannon and Bernie Sanders both want big tech treated as, in Bannon’s words…, ‘public utilities.’ Tucker Carlson and Franklin Foer have found common ground. Even the group No Labels, an exquisitely poll-tested effort to create a safe new center, is on board. Rupert Murdoch, never shy to use his media power to advance his commercial interests, is hard at work.”
Both left and right are marching on Silicon Valley:
“Opportunists and ideologues have assembled the beginnings of a real coalition against these companies, with a policy core consisting of refugees from Google boss Eric Schmidt’s least favorite think tank unit. Nationalists, accurately, see a consolidation of power over speech and ideas by social liberals and globalists; the left, accurately, sees consolidated corporate power. Those are the ascendant wings of the Republican and Democratic parties, even before Donald Trump sends the occasional spray of bile Jeff Bezos’s way — and his spokeswoman declines, as she did in June, to defend Google against European regulators.”
Google, in particular, appears to be riling up both ends of the political spectrum:
“Google… has a Goldman Sachs problem: Its smooth image has grown tentacles. The media industry, which gets to tell the story, sees it sucking revenue out of newsrooms alongside the rest of the advertising industry. Conservatives from Matt Drudge — the one media figure who never got a Gmail account — to Tucker Carlson see it as a kind of big brother on the left. Yet it’s losing friends there too.”
Recent controversies haven’t helped. In August, a Google software engineer was fired after arguing that the company’s diversity policy ran counter to the scientific evidence on sex differences. This really annoyed conservatives and free speech advocates. Then came a reported ‘parting of the ways’ between the Google-funded New America Foundation and a team of researchers who are leading critics of big tech’s dominance. This annoyed liberals and free speech advocates.
Ben Smith believes that the tech giants will be facing a whole lot more pressure than they’ve been used to:
“This isn’t to say that the end is near for these new giants… Just that the golden age is over. The new era for them will be normal politics, normal regulation… They’ll win some and they’ll lose some, and some of their losses may be as bad as what happened to Microsoft in the 1990s when it flew too close to the sun — and then faced an antitrust lawsuit that almost broke the company up…”
Will Silicon Valley strike back? Smith acknowledges the financial and lobbying clout of the biggest companies, but believes there is even more political capital to be made in humbling the tech lords:
“People watching this from afar sometimes suggest that tech simply has too much money to stop. This is nonsense. Politics is run by politicians, and while they like money, they like attention more.”
I wonder, though. Silicon Valley lives by the motto ‘Move Fast and Break Things’. Faced with a pincer attack from left and right, the most obvious strategy is to counter-attack from the centre.
Imagine all that money and influence behind a reformist, but pro-tech, political movement. Having disrupted just about every other industry, Washington might just find itself next on the hit list.