Machine breaking for the Digital Age

Publication date: 06 March 2019
Article type: Blogs and Articles

From the dangers of the digital halo effect to our use of the term ‘tech billionaire’, Victoria University of Wellington’s Nicholas Agar, author of How to Be Human in the Digital Economy, guides us through reasons to reassess the way we see the leaders of the Digital Age.machine breaking for the digital age

Calls for a more moderate engagement with digital technologies tend to attract accusations of ‘Luddite!’ This insult is inspired by Ned Ludd, a textile apprentice whose smashing of a machine in the late 1700s made him a symbol for workers fearful for their prospects in a time of rapid technological change. The lesson from history is supposed to be straightforward. You can moan all you like, but you can’t stop progress. The prefix ‘neo’ repurposes the insult for the Digital Revolution. The Luddites didn’t stop the Industrial Revolution; Neo-Luddites won’t stop the Digital Revolution.

Some historians offer a more sympathetic way to think about the Luddites. Rather than viewing them as ill-informed fantasists who failed to stop the Industrial Revolution, we can think of them as demanding a fairer share of the bounty of technological progress than that initially offered by those who built the factories and installed the power looms. Luddite machine breaking can be placed in a context that includes other forms of worker protest that led, in the end, to worker protections and entitlements. My aim here is certainly not to stop the Digital Revolution, but rather to influence how it unfolds. Decisions that we take now set powerful precedents for the Digital Age.

I’m not suggesting that anyone show up to one of Amazon’s vast data centres with a pickaxe. What’s called for is a more genteel form of digital machine breaking that makes use of market incentives. We’ve seen how Facebook benefits from the ‘billion times anything’ principle. But even a small general decrease in enthusiasm about a company that is perceived as profiting unfairly can affect profits in ways that Facebook notices. We can communicate our displeasure to Facebook, Google, and the rest in ways that matter to them. We can take steps towards realising the ideal of a genuinely social economy. We can engage in forms of protest that may lead to a more human Digital Age with a smaller—but still considerable—share of its economic returns going to those who own the machines.

See through the digital halo effect!

We must do something about the halo effect enjoyed by some of the central actors in the corporate tech world. We treat the big tech companies differently from other corporate heavyweights. We have long experience of the kinds of moral shortcuts that oil and gas multinationals take in their accumulation of wealth. We tend to treat some of the leaders of the corporate tech world as accidental billionaires. The proclamations of tech pioneers that their purpose is to ‘make the world a better place’ were well satirised in the HBO comedy Silicon Valley.

In February 2017, Mark Zuckerberg published a 5,700-word letter addressed to the Facebook community entitled ‘Building a Global Community’. It was promptly dubbed the ‘Zuckerberg manifesto’. In it, Zuckerberg tells us ‘Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community.’ He says of Facebook’s moral mission ‘the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.’

Airbnb has rapidly acquired a market valuation greater than traditional hotel industry giants Hyatt, Marriott, and Hilton. This focus has not prevented an Airbnb insider expressing an aspiration to someday win the Nobel Peace Prize for ‘helping with cross-cultural understanding.’ We credit some digital economy billionaires who are less voluble about being moral with a selfless desire to create beautiful things. Steve Jobs faced criticism for not giving much to charity. The digital halo effect gave him a pass. The Steve Jobs legend presents him as a Digital Age Michelangelo, the iPhone as his David. Jobs was all about the exquisite design and not about the money. Beautiful objects were his way of making ‘a dent in the universe’.

What should we make of these proclamations of moral or aesthetic ambitions? Moral proclamations come with implied costs. They suggest a willingness to accept the costs of promoting their ends. It’s easy to wish for a world in which no one is hungry. But a world without hunger is a moral goal for you only insofar as you are prepared to do something to achieve it. Another possibility is that the titans of tech are operating in ways that Milton Friedman would applaud. They are using moral language to cloak their real mission to maximise shareholder value.

A good test of the commitment of the titans of tech to the goal of making the world a better place is seeing how they act when the goal of making the world a better place conflicts with the goal of making money. The Zuckerberg manifesto acknowledges the challenge of fake news in the lead-up to the 2016 US election. Fake news colonised many Facebook newsfeeds. But the money Facebook makes from targeted advertising is unaffected by whether members are reading accurate reports on the gravity of the international refugee crisis or fake news reports of Pope Francis’s endorsement of Donald Trump’s presidential bid. If the desire to make money is paramount, then expect Facebook to avoid any measure that would reduce its user engagement. If this causes complaint and threats of government regulation, then the Friedman strategy of offering moral pronouncements to cloak actual indifference is available.

One measure of relative importance Facebook places on its touted moral mission and its accumulation of profit are the measures it takes to avoid paying tax. An Observer editorial on the Zuckerberg manifesto identifies the gap between its moral proclamations and its actions: ‘Like other corporate giants, Facebook has done all in its power to minimise its tax bill, paying a fraction of what it owes the societies from which it draws its profits, undermining the very social infrastructure Zuckerberg claims to want to build.’

The motive to make money seems to explain much of what the titans of tech do. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos didn’t start out as a book lover dreaming of new ways to spread the joy of reading who made the serendipitous discovery that a platform for selling books could be used to sell other things. He approached books much as Exxon Mobil approaches oil—as a commodity. If Bezos had expected more money out of fracking oil than selling discount copies of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, then he would have done that instead.

This is no critique of capitalism. Capitalist societies need businesses whose principal purpose is to make money for their shareholders. But it is important that we recognise that when they say they want to make the world a better place, they are diverting our attention from their real focus on profit. There are many organisations—for example, the United Nations and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—that can be credited with an authentic desire to make the world a better place. You might have doubts about the effectiveness of the UN or the IPCC at making the world a better place, but they seem a better bet if we want organisations that promote our moral interests than are tech companies that seek moral interests only to the extent that they do not conflict with the maximisation of profit. When the titans of tech do as Bill Gates did and install themselves as chairs of charitable foundations we might take them at their word. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a more serious interest in alleviating global poverty than Microsoft Corporation ever could.

It’s important that we not delay in our reassessment of the motives of the leaders of the digital economy. We should expect to see a vast increase in the profits of companies that hold data as they expand the reach of machine learning. Google and Facebook are like Standard Oil before the commercialisation of the internal combustion engine. If you think that Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook are wealthy companies now, then you should expect to revise up that assessment when they begin to extend their reach into areas that Robert Gordon identifies as strongly affected by the Second Industrial Revolution: food, clothing, housing, transportation, health, medicine, and working conditions but, thus far, relatively untouched by the Digital Revolution. Now is the time for the kinds of democratically inspired intervention that in the 1910s broke up Standard Oil. We should act before Google, Facebook, and Co. consign democratic institutions to the same trash can of history that contains Netscape and AltaVista.

We shouldn’t be tormented by fears that expecting Apple and Google to pay their taxes might kill the goose that laid the golden egg. The Russian oligarchs made the most of fortuitous locations in relation to the natural resources of the Soviet Union as it disintegrated and its component republics made halting moves toward free market capitalism. Page, Brin, Bezos, Zuckerberg, and Co. found themselves in a similarly fortuitous location in relation to the wealth generated by the digital package. Amanda Schaffer writes about the influence of ‘great man’ mythology on our understanding of the Digital Revolution. She says: ‘Rather than placing tech leaders on a pedestal, we should put their successes in context, acknowledging the role of government not only as a supporter of basic science but as a partner for new ventures.’

Our current titans of tech are very intelligent and gifted individuals. But they are replaceable. They may sulk if we demand that they pay proper taxes, but they don’t have the option of taking their toys and going home.

We should also recognise that the frequency of the use of the term ‘tech billionaire’ to describe those who we see as driving the digital economy is, to some extent, normalising a very unequal distribution of the wealth generated by the digital package. There’s nothing about the digital package that requires that the founders of and early investors in technology companies become billionaires many times over and that many of the rest of us find our skills increasingly devalued.

We should expect the Digital Age to contain big technology companies headed by some very rich men and women. But we could seek to revert to a quaint and retro conception of great wealth in which the founders of Facebook and Google are mere multimillionaires and not multibillionaires. Tech multimillionaires would have millions and millions of dollars, enough money to own mansions in nice parts of town and cottages in the country, and to buy first-class air tickets to any Grand Slam tennis tournament, but they wouldn’t have enough money to compete with NASA in the space exploration business. This may seem like a fanciful vision of our collective future and perhaps it is. But the thing that makes it fanciful is a collective unwillingness to mess with our current political and fiscal arrangements, not some irresistible logic of the digital package.

This is an edited extract from How to Be Human in the Digital Economy by Nicholas Agar. Courtesy of the MIT Press. 

Agar is a Professor at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, where he currently teaches classes on the future of work, ethics and data, and bioethics.