As a new year dawns expect a fresh assault on big tech | John Naughton

As a new year dawns expect a fresh assault on big tech | John Naughton thumbnail

The thing about history is that it sometimes repeats itself. As far as the tech industry is concerned, we saw that in the year just ended and it looks as though we’re about to see it again in the year that’s just begun.

First things first, though: 2021 was the year in which it finally became clear that the free ride that Google and co have enjoyed for two decades was coming to an end – that tech was going to become a regulated industry. Exactly how that was going to pan out was unclear, but the direction of travel was unmistakable.

In the US, for example, the incoming Biden administration began appointing to government smart people who understood the societal dangers of unrestrained corporate power. People such as Lina Khan, who now chairs the Federal Trade Commission, the country’s main regulatory body; or Tim Wu, now on the White House’s National Economic Council with responsibility for antitrust and competition; or Jonathan Kanter, a leading antitrust advocate, now assistant attorney general. And so on. Given that all the leading tech companies are US-based, these were the most significant moves, but there were indications in other parts of the world too (including the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority) that democracies were emerging from the long slumber during which tech companies had prospered obscenely.

The tech companies saw this coming, of course, and it was eerie to see how their responses echoed the playbooks of the tobacco and energy companies of an earlier period, as chronicled, for example, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. The other day, Andrew Bosworth, the incoming chief technology officer of Meta (nee Facebook) was asked whether he thought “vaccine hesitancy would be the same with or without social media”. His reply, verbatim, reads: “I think Facebook ran probably the biggest Covid vaccine campaign in the world. What more can you do if some people who can get that real information from a real source choose not to get it? That’s their choice. They’re allowed to do that. You have an issue with those people. You don’t have an issue with Facebook. You can’t put that on me.”

Sounds familiar? It’s what oil companies came up with when they invented the idea of the “carbon footprint” – ie your footprint on the biosphere, not theirs. It’s the displacement of responsibility strategy: since it’s a free country, nobody’s forcing you to do the thing that’s bad for you. Childhood obesity is the responsibility of the child or of his or her parents. Alcoholism happens because you don’t “drink responsibly”. Radicalisation of the mass shooter is not YouTube’s responsibility. It’s always your fault, not that of the manufacturer of the addictive product.

Next. Looking forward to 2022, what we can anticipate is a repeat performance of that perennial staple of capitalism: irrational exuberance – the phenomenon by which, in the words of the economist Robert Shiller, “news of price increases spurs investor enthusiasm, which spreads by psychological contagion from person to person and, in the process, amplifies stories that might justify the price increase and brings in a larger and larger class of investors, who, despite doubts about the real value of the investment, are drawn to it partly through envy of others’ successes and partly through a gambler’s excitement”.

This tulip-mania de nos jours has been happening with cryptocurrencies for a while, but is about to become more frenzied as the notion that blockchain – the cryptographic technology that underpins bitcoin, Ethereum et al – can become the basis for something called Web3: a new, properly decentralised version of the world wide web (as compared with the current version in which control has become effectively centralised in a small number of giant corporations).

In principle, this is an interesting idea – to create what in effect would be an alternative world of finance, commerce, communications and entertainment that could radically transform significant elements of the global economy – and not be controlled by banks and governments. But for those of us cursed with memories of the past, this has a feeling of deja vu. It reminds us of the early days of the internet in the 1980s, when it evoked utopian dreams; here at last, we believed, was an invention that had the potential to dissolve the sclerotic power structures of the old world and become a force for democratisation and human empowerment.

It didn’t work out like that, of course. We underestimated the cunning and ruthlessness of corporations, the feebleness of governments and the fact that many of our fellow humans were content to be passive couch potatoes, albeit with streamed box sets.

Faced with the dream of Web3, then, the obvious question is: will history repeat itself? Only time will tell. In the meantime, from this recovering utopian: happy new year!

What I’ve been reading

Free speech?

The Liberty of Local Bullies is a nice 2011 essay by Noah Smith on the limits of libertarianism.

Lucky dip

Moderation or Death is Christopher Hitchens’s masterful LRB review of a biography of Isaiah Berlin by Michael Ignatieff.

Daring visionaries

In the Beginning Was the Command Line is a memorable essay by Neal Stephenson on PCs, programming and operating systems.

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