Can Tech Ever be Good?

From Public Books:

Having thrown privacy and consumer protection overboard long ago, Google, in 2018, officially removed its best-loved maxim, “Don’t be evil,” from its code of conduct. Arguably, the company could no longer ignore the contradiction between self-declared ethics and the relentless pursuit of profit. (In only the final quarter of 2019, Google booked $46 billion in advertising dollars and third-party sales of user data.) And Google is not alone.

Recently, Slate published a list of the 30 most “evil” tech companies. Noting that these companies produced “ills that outweigh conveniences,” Slate’s list flayed the tech giants. This article—alongside recent books like Rana Foroohar’s Don’t Be Evil and Lucie Greene’s Silicon States—illustrates that the very existence of companies like Uber, 23andMe, and Airbnb relies on the exploitation of users and workers. And then there’s the rampant sexism and racism across what Emily Chang calls tech’s “brotopia.” Goodbye, tech exceptionalism; hello, “techlash.”

Skewering Google with its own maxim, Foroohar points out in Don’t Be Evil that Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google (the FAANGs), as well as Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (the BATs), don’t even innovate anymore, nor do they generate new jobs. Such justifications might have lent their profit seeking and mistreatment some social value. Instead, the BATs and FAANGs of Big Tech mostly focus on keeping people online as much as possible and monetizing their attention.

Perhaps more importantly, as Lucie Greene shows in Silicon States, the amount of money funneling between San Francisco and Washington has correspondingly increased. The top three Big Tech companies each spent around $15 million on lobbying in 2019 (to compare: Boeing spent only $13 million). No wonder a countermovement—the tech backlash—seems to grow bigger and bigger.

Tech—even though its pace of innovation and job creation has rapidly slowed down, even as it exploits people and grabs attention—is very much in power. So, clearly, tech cannot purely be seen as a force for good. At least, not anymore. But could tech still be bent toward better purposes? And if so, how?

Tech’s profits are not purely based on selling its often world-changing products and services; they are also a result of the industry’s lax morality and its political might. Like Google’s abandoned motto, this, too, is a contradiction: Big Tech leans on libertarianism, even as it built monopolies and spends immense sums on lobbying politicians and administrators. Since the Obama administrations, Silicon Valley and Capitol Hill have spun the revolving door at a furious clip.

Critics like Foroohar and Greene, along with labor and social activists and academics, have disrupted tech’s status quo—the “don’t be evil” persona, the exchange between tech companies and lawmakers—by forcing tech abuses into the national conversation. This criticism has focused on Big Tech and its involvement in politics; what hasn’t yet been discussed in depth is the role of venture-capital investors.

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG was about to go on a rant, but, uncharacteristically, he is going to restrain himself.

Three comments:

  • Anything that “labor and social activists and academics” don’t like can’t be all bad.
  • Amazon just announced it would be hiring 100,000 new workers.
  • Unlike labor unions, together with local, state and federal governments, anyone can choose not to be involved with Facebook, Google or Amazon.

3 thoughts on “Can Tech Ever be Good?”

  1. Profit was invented by the first guy who squatted on the floor of his cave and spent the afternoon sharpening a stick. He valued the sharp stick more than he valued the time spent honing it on a rock.

    Then he traded it to a guy for three fish. He valued the fish more than he valued the sharp stick. And, even more amazing, the guy with the fish valued the sharp stick more than he valued the three fish. Each profited and improved his personal welfare.

    The guy in the next cave was woke. He spent his time moving a rock ten feet, then moving it back to the original position. Repeat. He did that all day so he could avoid any profit. He valued the moving rock less than he valued the time moving it. He died. Women thought he was stupid. His woke genes never made it down the timeline.

    When the output has a greater value than the input, that’s profit. It’s not that hard.

    And national conversations? A safe space for those who have nothing to say.

  2. The whole “tech is evil” handwringing is all just hot air. Political hot air.
    The companies being lambasted? They asked for it by getting into politics. By letting tbeir staff insert their biases into their products.
    Let them burn.
    25 years ago Microsoft got dragged into court for being apolitical. They took their lumps, learned to play the DC game, but stayed carefully out of partisan politics.
    Guess which company rolls merrily along without drawing mobs with pitchforks.

    Of course, it helps that MS products are actually useful and aren’t about gossip.
    (They lucked out losing on TikTok. As Gates said, that’s a disaster in the making. Let Oracle deal with it.)
    Ditto for 99.99% of the tech world.

    Tech isn’t evil. Or virtuous, for that matter.
    Tech is inherently neutral and the only thing that matters is what it’s used for.
    Google in particular deserves what they have coming.

  3. It used to be that a question mark in the headline was a sure indicator that the answer was “no”.

    It seems we can’t even rely on this any more (though the question mark was also a “don’t bother to read” marker, and still seems to work in this case).

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