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The End of the Backlash to Big Tech

Only a few months ago, Silicon Valley was the subject of intense criticism in Washington and beyond. Then the pandemic struck.

Don’t trust anyone who gets rich during a pandemic. Jeff Bezos, whose world-straddling fortune was built largely on the backs of immiserated warehouse workers around the planet, has seen his net worth increase to over $140 billion since the beginning of 2020. The nominal cause is a growing societal dependence on Amazon, which, for many people stuck at home, has proven nearly indispensable as a way to score everything from basic foodstuffs to the soothing narcotic of streaming video.

As America suffers, Amazon prospers. The company is hiring 175,000 new staff and even investing in its own Covid-19 testing program. Amazon’s Web Services division faces enormous demand as housebound Americans require more technical infrastructure for shopping, gaming, Twitching, and the like. And Amazon is not alone in enjoying the strange fruits of the pandemic. Apple and Google have announced development of a contact-tracing smartphone technology that will alert users of possible exposure to the novel coronavirus. A number of facial recognition companies—including the farcically villainous Clearview AI—are now pivoting their products to track coronavirus patients, while temperature-reading drones and other forms of privacy-invading security theater are being sold to law enforcement agencies worldwide. In May, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt would lead a commission to reimagine how the state does business, focusing on remote education, telehealth—and, of course, expanded access to the internet.

Big Tech’s newfound role as all-purpose savior marks something of a turnaround for the industry, which not long ago was facing serious political scrutiny for the first time in its young life. Both Democrats and Republicans had called for investigations into issues of competition, privacy, data security, and political advertising. Members of both parties had also floated the possibility of breaking up Silicon Valley’s monopoly power, treating tech CEOs like the robber barons of the Gilded Age. At Facebook, Congress’s favorite target, Mark Zuckerberg, fretted to company insiders about the potential influence of Senator Elizabeth Warren, while, in a possible attempt to complicate a breakup, the company’s engineers worked to merge the back-end technologies powering its suite of messaging apps. Other large tech companies assembled armies of lobbyists to win favor on Capitol Hill, even as back home they saw their traditional talent pipelines begin to dry up.

In a couple of antic months, all of that has changed. The Covid-19 pandemic has rolled back the tide of congressional inquiry, as both the public and lawmakers have grown even more reliant on the technologies of Silicon Valley. From messaging to food delivery to video chats to online shopping, the dial of our tech dependency has been turned to 11. We should now be “grateful” for the presence of Big Tech in our lives, says Eric Schmidt. Critics like Warren and Republican Senator Josh Hawley will presumably continue to press the issue, but there is less incentive to aggressively investigate an industry that, despite its obvious defects, is suddenly responsible for keeping hundreds of millions of people connected, fed, working, and entertained. If, as some hope, Silicon Valley can provide important technologies and engineering and production capacity to help fight the viral epidemic, so much the better.

A recent Washington Post article summarized the political situation: Congressional antitrust inquiries have been back-burnered, as the government, in the name of contact tracing, has a new interest in Silicon Valley’s consumer surveillance technologies. The techlash is over.

If the political backlash to Big Tech has been relegated to the past tense, it’s worth considering what kind of world will emerge in its wake. Tech’s monopolist torchbearers like Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) seem not only secure but ready to extend their dominion as they respond to growing corporate and government demands for surveillance of people and goods, tracking the sick and securing supply chains. Who controls the apps that watch over and serve us? Will we allow a self-interested set of tech giants to become the dominant forces in our lives? So far, the answers seem to be as obvious as they are depressing.

It’s worth considering, too, what we would be giving up—what the techlash intended to achieve by way of creating a society that was more equal and more diverse. The wholesale reordering of the economy along lines favorable to Silicon Valley speaks to both the growing, likely unstoppable power of Big Tech and our inability to think outside a narrow technocratic mindset, in which any problem can be solved with more data, surveillance, and coercion. What we really need now is what we’ve always needed: political solutions to political problems like inequality, climate change, lack of health care access, generational warfare, and, indeed, the Covid pandemic.

Silicon Valley’s most pressing ideological blind spot is that it has never been able to think in these terms. It has always assumed its inherent beneficence and innovative thinking would make politics superfluous. Tech aspires to build frictionless systems, but the welter of human affairs, especially of governance, has never been frictionless, nor should it be. The techlash helped to declare that we have other important values, especially when people’s lives are concerned. If, for instance, a Saudi-subsidized taxi app threatens to clog cities, upend the market, and drive scores of mostly immigrant men into bankruptcy, and even some to suicide, then perhaps the cut-rate efficiencies of Uber just aren’t worth it. And, perhaps, the law and regulatory bodies should respond in kind to protect consumers and workers from this kind of economic predation.

Now, it’s unclear if these political bodies ever will step up to exercise even the most meager oversight authorities. That augurs poorly for all of us.

It’s important not to overstate the reach of the pre-coronavirus techlash. Even when tech companies were in the klieg lights, they continued amassing immense profits and rewarding shareholders. Occasionally, they sent an executive to experience ritualistic public humiliation before one congressional panel or another. Thus the industry could expiate its sins and put off a bigger market reckoning for another day.

And how bad could that reckoning be, especially for those companies not named Facebook? Perhaps a few acquisitions would be unwound, some fines issued, promises made around vetting political advertising or empowering content moderators. Some prominent figures, like Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, offered up Facebook as a sacrificial lamb on the regulatory altar. But even Facebook had easily dealt with a $5 billion Federal Trade Commission fine, and in the absence of a potential Bernie Sanders presidency, it hardly seemed as if a major tech company would face much existential peril. By last fall, the West Coast billionaire class had even come around to Warren. (The presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has said splitting up tech companies is “something we should take a really hard look at.”)

If the atmosphere had darkened over Silicon Valley, it is now clear skies—even though the crisis has thrown into high relief the very inequities that made Silicon Valley a target in the first place.

For example, even as Amazon’s centrality to American life and commerce has deepened, the company is still regarded as a chronic abuser of its mostly blue-collar labor force. It faces complaints for denying workers appropriate protective gear, paid sick leave, hazard pay, and other concessions owed frontline laborers in dangerous, essential jobs. Amazon’s leadership has coordinated smear campaigns against worker-organizers and fired some under the pretense that they had violated company rules. Recently, Tim Bray, a vice president at the company’s Web Services division, quit in solidarity with the fired employees. Workers have staged walkouts in fulfillment centers in North America and Europe.

Despite these stirrings of organized dissent, Amazon’s rise to monopoly remains practically uncontested. Having eclipsed the market share of Target and Walmart, the company seems better positioned than it has in years, and the same might be said of Microsoft, Google, and Facebook, some of which are hiring thousands of workers as they struggle to keep up with a public ever more dependent on their products.

In the place of the techlash, we have a burgeoning alliance between industry and government that has them returning to something like a post–Patriot Act, pre-Snowden mindset: a self-reinforcing, quasi-authoritarian belief in the power of surveillance and data-crunching to solve the problem at hand. Just replace the task of tracking terrorists with the mandate to track infections. Contact tracing—the practice of mapping social networks between people infected with the disease or exposed to someone who is infected—is now widely considered a key technique in fighting the spread of the virus. And though some state governments have leaned on analog tracing, it’s presumed that Silicon Valley will be involved in digital contact tracing on a mass scale.

But faced with a broken, underfunded medical system—not to mention numerous other inadequacies in our threadbare social safety net—contact tracing in many ways is a Hail Mary effort to create a digital panacea, in defiance of far more stubborn social forces. A recent BuzzFeed headline put it well: “We Need an ‘Army’ of [Human] Contact Tracers to Safely Reopen the Country. We Might Get Apps Instead.” We’re dealing with a form of what tech critic Evgeny Morozov called “technological solutionism,” an almost superstitious faith in technology’s ameliorative power. Under this mindset, any application of information technology is, by default, a force for good, while political and social considerations tend to fade into the background. Naturally, there is plenty of opportunity to get rich—and at least an equal chance for it all to go horribly wrong.

Consider the case of Apple and Google, which, in fittingly self-congratulatory style, came together to produce a contact-tracing technology that could be used in government-sanctioned health apps. But there are numerous impediments to the wide adoption of digital contact-tracing tools. One poll found that most Americans wouldn’t download a contact-tracing app. There are additional issues with privacy, such as what data the tech giants would be collecting—and storing for potential further use. It’s also unclear whether such apps can detect asymptomatic transmission and whether they can substitute for detailed in-person interviews. As of yet, an app can’t replace a social worker or a registered nurse.

Whereas Google and Apple’s alignment may prove an ephemeral P.R. exercise, the data-mining company Palantir, which sits discreetly at the nexus between corporate, government, and intelligence concerns, is already gobbling up government and corporate contracts, with the coronavirus providing a whole new line of business. Insiders estimate that Palantir will bring in $1 billion in revenue in 2020, a 35 percent increase, year over year.

Click over to Palantir’s website and you can learn, in broad, gauzy strokes, about the company’s Covid-related efforts. From tracking shipping containers to monitoring the whereabouts of a petrochemical company’s 50,000 employees, Palantir has found wide application as a platform for organizing and sorting through data, often of a sensitive type.

“Public health agencies around the world have begun to deploy Palantir as the data foundation for Covid-19 response,” Palantir’s website said in April, linking to a British National Health Service blog post about various data efforts. The post notes that Palantir is providing key software but cautions that “Palantir is a data processor, not a data controller, and cannot pass on or use the data for any wider purpose without the permission of NHS England.”

Initially developed for the U.S. intelligence community, Palantir is now used by government agencies in 30 countries in anti-Covid efforts. Even the Space Force has signed a contract with the company, as has the Department of Health and Human Services (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which sits within HHS, is also a Palantir user). One of the company’s founders recently told Yahoo Finance that it was “one of our best weapons in the fight against this virus.” According to The Daily Beast, Dr. Deborah Birx, who serves as response coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, receives regular briefings based on Palantir-compiled data.

Whether Palantir’s software works is almost secondary to what it represents: A data-driven company now competes with defense giants like Raytheon. Secretive and politically connected, espousing its own omniscience in the fights against terrorism and disease, Palantir remains the emblematic tech company of our time.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The achievements of the tech industry were touted back in the 1990s as something distinctly more uplifting than the sinister web-trawling performed by a Peter Thiel–founded, CIA-funded, Donald Trump–approved data-mining firm, whose “civil liberties engineers” promise to protect your privacy. So far, the pandemic has served to remind us that the main technical achievements of Silicon Valley over the last two decades lie in more closely monitoring customers and trafficking in their personal data. For all the talk of making the world a better place, we are still waiting for that better world to appear, as we idly doom-scroll through our social media feeds.

Mass quarantine has reunited us with our laptops and desktops—Windows usage is up 75 percent versus this time last year—and accentuated the humiliating tenor of our tech dependency. For many of us, the good screen and the bad screen have merged: Zoom connects us as readily with our parents as it does with our bosses.

The viral arc of Zoom—from trendy industry favorite to privacy pariah to future trivia question—serves as a useful counterpoint to Palantir, which has the staying power of a defense contractor fattening itself on wartime contracts. While Zoom attracted millions of users in the pandemic’s early days, it’s quickly become bogged down in competition with similar products from Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. With its sketchy privacy and security reputation, Zoom excites little brand loyalty and is likely to be copied by other companies offering better integration with existing tools.

In the end, Zoom is only important because it is a relatively fresh name to break up the monotony of a tech scene that has become defined by a lack of competition, innovation, or novelty of any kind. That some of the most important tech stories of the pandemic concern a retail monopolist, a secretive data processor for discriminating clients, and an unremarkable video chat app speaks to a wider lack of imagination that has caught the attention of even some of the field’s most well-known partisans. Shopping, data-parsing, messaging—these are now the essential provinces of Silicon Valley, whose failures are embodied by a motto embraced by Palantir co-founder Thiel: We were promised flying cars, we got 140 characters.

Or as billionaire venture capitalist Marc Andreessen wrote in a recent lamentation-slash-call-to-arms, “Where are the supersonic aircraft? Where are the millions of delivery drones? Where are the high-speed trains, the soaring monorails, the hyperloops, and yes, the flying cars?” The problem, Andreessen wrote—performing the venture capital investor’s congenital trick of brushing aside politics and labor issues with a simple stroke—was a lack of “desire.” We simply don’t want to build great things, to do stuff that’s hard.

But Andreessen’s own imagination is small. Drone fleets and hyperloops are boyish dreams worthy of Elon Musk, the tightrope-walking frat boy who seems ready to tank his electric car company with a single tweet. These are technological baubles, nothing truly aspirational. What’s notable about these moguls is that they never propose a more equitable, just world—simply one that provides for their own leisure and convenience, built upon the labor of an expendable class of workers who will one day be replaced by apps and robots.

Eliminating the human is indeed Silicon Valley’s golden dream, not eliminating inequality. The problem for the prophets of the tech industry is that we are still in that pre-utopian interregnum where human labor is essential. We need people to do hard work that can’t as yet be automated, in warehouses, hospitals, taxis, grocery stores, electric car factories, and other workplaces. Now we see them organizing and fighting back—and being branded, naturally, as ungrateful troublemakers.

The congressional battle over tech, focused as it was on antitrust and data privacy, was probably never going to serve these workers. From top to bottom, from mine to factory to coder farm, the tech industry is built on exploitation and bias and inequality and sexism. That exploitation—along with a relentless faith in the utility of personal data collection, of surveillance—has fueled the furnace of tech’s spectacular growth.

Like any other big industry that occasionally tips the world on its axis—like, say, energy or finance—tech will one day have to account for what it’s done and the way it’s altered all our lives. This world-devouring industry will only accelerate the trends that have developed since the start of the pandemic—fewer small businesses, decent wages only for the lucky few—while doing nothing for those who have been left behind. But for now, tech’s day of reckoning lies in abeyance. As our society falls to pieces, tech’s power is too great, and so is our need.