“Our greatest opportunities are now global (…) like spreading prosperity and freedom, promoting peace and understanding, lifting people out of poverty, and accelerating science. Our greatest challenges also need global responses (…) like ending terrorism, fighting climate change, and preventing pandemics”
This is not an extract of a political manifesto written by an overly ambitious politician, but by someone almost as powerful as the US President, none other than Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in his company’s manifesto.
The services provided by the Silicon Valley giants—now called GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon)—are so diverse that our lifestyle is very dependent on them. The 21st century robber barons deemed silicon sultans by The Economist have, like their predecessors, escaped competition in their respective markets and reaped unimaginable amounts of money out of their monopoly positions. But the great resemblance does not end there, as their financial clout allows them to have grand dreams about themselves and society.
So it is difficult to envision how their sway on society could increase. Well this might happen, as the US federal government is as busy as ever trying to find budgets to cut in order to not have to increase the budget ceiling every two years, while European countries are juggling with debt. The times of the all-powerful state who is the only one to be able to have grand dreams is over.
The times of corporate utopia.
The last Apple keynote presenting the new iPhone was made in the shiny new Apple park in Cupertino, the cost of which is estimated to be in the neighbourhood of 5 billion dollars, and Google is planning a massive extension of their Mountain View headquarters. These campuses actually provide a snapshot of the much larger ambitions of Google and the like. Everything is provided to the employees short of accommodation, from day care, to fitness equipment and private shuttle services that are closer to the mission of a town council. In the opening line of their original 2004 founders letter, Sergei Brin and Larry Page said “Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.” This is key to understanding the impact these companies want to have on the world and society as a whole.
A good illustration of the global reach of these companies is Alphabet, which is the new face of Google in this quest for diversification where the latter is just one subsidiary. This new structure, through its collection of companies, is tackling issues spanning education, urban infrastructure, autonomous vehicles, and even increasing human lifespans through its Calico company. Yet it is still very much in line with the original idea that they would make “smaller bets in areas that might seem very speculative or even strange when compared to our current businesses.”
Committed not to stick to their traditional business lines, these companies are now dreaming about projects that even states had given up on. Facebook is planning on bringing internet access to 4 billion people in Africa, South America, and Asia through a solar powered global fleet of drones. Here too the competition of Alphabet is present, through X, its R&D subsidiary, which intends to provide internet through a network of helium balloons around the world.
This transition between states and companies is best illustrated by the fact that Google will be the one providing internet access to hurricane-destroyed Puerto Rico, making up for the shortcomings of the federal government. These companies are more flexible and less financially constrained than state institutions to start speculative projects and implement them.
While most of the states have to deal with a very limited latitude to make a difference, great projects are now carried out by Google, Facebook and the like. Rarely before in history companies had such a will to have an impact on society but it really brings up questions about the ethical consequences of such a large influence.
Brave new world politics
Last October the Senate announced that it would conduct hearings of top executives of Silicon Valley star companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter, among others. The reason behind this unusual occurrence? The influence of these companies on the 2016 presidential election and the mechanics behind the Russian misinformation campaigns brought to the American voter through Twitter and ad space on Facebook. Some thought of politics as the last domain that seemed to not be influenced too much by this groundswell, but the last American election proved once again that no part of society is immune from influence by these giants.
Google, Twitter and Facebook are now the main source of news for most of the people. Millennials are now mostly finding their information through social networks, which are prone to viral content, and whose link to reality is tenuous at best. And even traditional media outlets are now increasingly relying on their social media presence to bring the reader to their site. Google News screens for you the content you should read. Amazon, although not able to directly influence the information networks through its products, is still in the race; its CEO, Jeff Bezos is the main shareholder of the Washington Post national newspaper. With such a large impact on public stage and information channels, one should ask if this is endangering democracy.
These companies are also taking a more proactive role in politics, Alphabet recently entered the very select club of top spenders on public relations campaigns and lobbying in the US, edging in front of the traditional big spenders Dow Chemicals, Exxon Mobile, and Comcast for the first time. And Europe is no exception to the rule, where Lobbyfacts deems Google as the most active lobbyist.
At every election, Facebook reminds its users to go cast their vote and anyone can tell their friends with the ‘I voted’ button that they have performed their civic duty. In a 2010 experiment it was proven that people who saw the message were more likely to vote. This encourages more of us to vote, making the social network a promoter of the democratic process. But as Jonathan Zittrain pointed out with respect to the 2010 election experiment, there is nothing to stop Facebook deliberately prompting only certain voters and thereby skewing the result.
This might sound like a distant threat but the conflict of interest might happen sooner than we think, the word on the hill was that the next presidential election might well see Donald Trump facing Mark Zuckerberg. Although a very low profile operation, a few media outlets, including the very well informed Politico, have noticed that he and his wife Pricilla Chan started to set up a team of counsellors for their joint philanthropic project, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Among them are Joel Benenson, a Democratic pollster, adviser to former President Barack Obama, and chief strategist of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager. Although he denied any such intent, the constitution of such an all-star team would sound like a waste for a charity project.
In his annual new year’s resolution post, Zuckerberg announced his decision to go on a “listening tour” through all the US states to listen to what people had to say, meet the local officials. The tour will start in Iowa, the first state to caucus in the primaries, and continue through the Detroit area in the rustbelt and Ohio, all of the key swing states that were turning points in Hillary Clinton losing the 2016 campaign. This “listening tour” sounds very much like what a candidate would do.
Would such a scenario come true, the ethical considerations about the viability of democracy raised here would become tragically true. As these tech giants bring us unprecedented tools for building a better society, we have a responsibility to think more carefully about how to ensure they “don’t be evil.”
By Arthur Hill