As the digital age evolved, the techno-purists envisioned that this brave new world would be one to make our lives easier. Having unbridled access to information and online activities would create an ecosystem where simple clicks of a mouse or taps of a payment app would greatly enhance our everyday work and leisure.
Certainly, the digital revolution has enhanced our lives. Everything from work to dating has benefited from technology. But there also evolved a darker side. And part of that darker side has nothing to do with technology. It is the political and economic fallout that is looming in the upcoming years. Today, internet giants are moving as fast as they can to define this digital space to their benefit.
It has been a good 40 years and a much different world than the visionaries, geeks and forward thinkers of the early years predicted. Although they saw the march of technology, few saw the emergence of an economic ecosystem where digital giants such as Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook, and players like Elon Musk, would wield the type of power they have.
Even fewer foresaw the present face-off between big tech and governments.
For a few years now, governments — and although this is global, this missive refers mostly to our and other western governments — have been trying to rein in the power that these organizations have amassed; so far, with little success. Therefore, the question arises, “Does the government have now, or will it have in the future, the ability to continue this governance of today?” I believe that is questionable.
Capitalistic societies, such as ours, lack what countries with autocratic governments have: the ability to use extraordinary means to control organizations – period. We must exercise control via a complex and often clumsy legal process — even if the organizations act on the fringe of lawfulness. Countries such as China, Russia, Korea, the Middle East and other nations can simply take over the company, throw people in jail and force the company to comply.
Simply put, autocratic countries can deal with the Amazons and Googles any way they wish. We cannot. And thus, we begin the long slog to attempt to control how these mega-monopolies operate.
Some believe our government is unlikely to succeed, for a number of reasons. First, these organizations have huge war chests. They can hire the best and brightest legal eagles to go against often much less experienced government lawyers — even if legislation is passed to manage them.
Next, they have a huge economic effect on society and a global presence, not just national. One can only imagine the chaos and rebellion that would occur if suddenly Facebook were cut off at the knees, not to mention the financial crisis that would develop.
Third, technology would take a hit. These organizations are at the forefront of so many platforms and technologies — AI, applications and algorithms, virtual reality and so much more. In addition, they can go where the government stumbles, nowadays. A grand example of that is the privatization of the space program.
Truth be told, trying to bind these companies may do some good in certain areas, but the collateral damage would be significant.
On the other hand, having control and power over information has some upsides. Take the insurrection of the Capitol last spring. None of their actions in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection came at the behest of the government or law enforcement. These were private decisions made by for-profit companies exercising power over code, servers and regulations under their control.
They were the ones that went to work mitigating the information by doing things such as shutting down former President Donald Trump on social media, removing inciteful messages and information for quislings. They succeeded where governments failed.
Although big tech certainly serves itself, unlike the government, that self survives on satisfying the masses. They need to behave in such a way that their customers and users are not alienated. They have an internal mechanism that applies constraints on their power to act. They maintain global foreign relations and answer to constituencies, including shareholders, employees, users and advertisers.
So, perhaps the government’s sledgehammer approach to breaking up these corporate behemoths may not be the best vector to pursue. Perhaps it is more of a time for collaboration.
While it may seem absurd to some, I believe there is the possibility that big tech may become bigger than the government. It has already wrested control of digital space from governments, freeing itself from national boundaries and emerging as a truly global force. Is it possible that elite nation-state dominance is coming to an end, supplanted by an elite techno circle of organizations that assumes responsibility for offering the public goods once provided by governments? Certainly, that is a ponderable precognition.
We no longer live in an era where smoke-filled rooms of political power brokers decide the fates of companies, as was the case with the breakup of the old Bell Telephone, Standard Oil, U.S. Steel and others. Today’s mega-technology firms have two critical advantages that have allowed them to carve out independent geopolitical influence. First, they operate and wield power almost exclusively in the digital space. Second, their influence in the digital space is global and difficult to corral. They exercise primary influence in a vast territory, which governments do not and cannot fully control — as well as fully understand.
This brave new world is rapidly outpacing governments’ abilities to manage global prosperity and has created a digital economy that disintermediates the political ecosystem of services. The rise of digital currency is proof of that. Cryptocurrencies are proving too much for regulators to control, and they are gaining wide acceptance, undermining governments’ sway over the financial world.
The single most enabling force of these digital organizations’ rise to power is location irrelevance. Governments exercise power over physical assets. Digital companies have no such impediment. Facebook substitutes for the public square, civil society and the social safety net, creating a blockchain-based currency that gains widespread use. Musk plays an ever-greater role in deciding how space is explored. The signs are certainly there.
Does this sound like the antithesis of Orwell’s 1984? Or did I just smoke a little too much pot? Already there are signs of the techno-elite’s power as attempts by governments to reel them in have largely failed.
Perhaps it is time for all sides to sit down at the table and find a solution that does not pit one side against the other. The digital society is here to stay. Governments better figure that one out.
Ernest Worthman is the executive editor of AGL’s Media Group.