A great article by Andrew Marantz in a recent issue of the New Yorker called Silicon Valley’s Crisis of Conscience details the struggle of American big tech to find its soul.
The central theme is the growing awareness of big tech CEOs and senior executives that their endeavours are causing massive societal psychological harm.
None other than Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is quoted as saying, “It’s not enough to simply connect the world. We must also work to bring the world closer together.”
Clearly he’s got a few doubts about the collective good of the corporation he was instrumental in creating. And the quote is the essence of the piece.
Hand-in-hand (literally when you consider smartphone addiction), we’re awash in data, supposedly from all ideological fronts. And yet we’re daily deep diving into dystopian Trumpism, aggressive white populism, climate crisis denials, Brexit idiocy, the fawning adulation of oligarchic kakistocracies, Facebook posts that fuel the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar and Twitter texts posing as foreign affairs diplomacy.
Where’s the human betterment in any of this?
One could argue that human nature always posits options. And you could claim that conspiratorial, nasty and divisive tactics, especially on the political scene, are normal.
The Russians even have a distinct cynical, and yet humorous, use of this word in daily conversation. ‘Normal’ in Russian means what the acronym SNAFU means in English. Over the decades of Russian communism, ‘normal’ gradually became the definitive word for citizens’ daily expectations of life.
Could it be that this underlying cultural cynicism has morphed in the era of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jingping to encapsulate tactics for destabilizing western democracies?
Have U.S. President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brazil President Jair Messias Bolsonaron, et al., entered our political lives courtesy of big tech connectivity harnessed by well-funded and organized Russian and Chinese troll-farms?
We’ve been through an era of positing this hypothesis, and yet the effort needed to fully prove the case seems to have waned. The Trump campaign wants us to believe they won the 2016 election fair and square. Brexit as an issue arose from the same ideological perspective, and a 52 per cent endorsement by those who bothered to vote has been adhered to as gospel.
Meanwhile, let’s not forget that 2016 headlines like “Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook” (New York magazine) raised an interesting perspective: that democracy was hacked by technology.
So what’s to become of citizens of the remaining western democracies?
Are we coming to our collective senses about the negative consequences of embracing big tech products designed to make our lives easier through consuming data waterfalls for hours every day? Are we increasing our societal awareness (and perhaps wariness) because of an endless supply of new apps, 5G networks and devices?
If this is so, please show us the evidence, big tech, that this is to our advantage.
If Marantz is correct, the so-called online extremists and techno-utopians have destroyed the online community we were promised. In the words of a law professor at Stanford, we have to ask ourselves: “Can democracy survive the Internet?”
And if the Internet is killing democracy, what’s the point? Is the value set of Putin, for example, giving democracy a run for its money? Should global citizens consider that the benefits of big technology are worth the abdication of western democracy?
How, we might also ask, will big tech and oligarchic kakistocracy vanquish the climate crisis? Is maximizing personal wealth the ultimate goal we should all strive for? How will a society built on oligarchic values deliver for the non-oligarchs? And does that even matter?
Where’s the enduring evidence – anywhere – that these values produce happiness, fulfilment and the well-lived life?
Nowhere, I would argue.
Is Putin happier than you are?
No, I would suggest.
Prior to 1987, when my University of Calgary office gave me the Internet, my life was in no real way hindered by its absence. I wrote in cursive script with my pen; I spent hours on the telephone; I relished face-to-face contact, argument and conclusive debate; I even ran for public office and lost.
That life was a privilege.
Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. He is currently President of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.