If there’s one thing to be said for the tech giants of Silicon Valley, they’re not afraid of a contradiction.
Companies like Facebook and Google endlessly reassure us that they don’t ‘do politics’, while simultaneously spending millions of pounds on lobbying and international tax avoidance. They promise that their impartial algorithms will come to replace biased human decision making, despite these same algorithms showing increasing evidence of stereotyping, partisanship and, in some cases, racial prejudice. They’ve even tried to convince us that their products will help to fix democracy, despite the evidence that these technologies can in fact embolden censorship, improve surveillance and increase the power of totalitarian regimes.
So just how can Silicon Valley justify this contradictory mindset? And what has allowed the world’s largest tech companies to plough ahead in the face of such glaring contradictions?
For those in Silicon Valley, what drives these contradictions is not dishonesty or malice – but optimism. Nowhere on earth will you find a group of individuals that have achieved such power and unprecedented wealth off the back of pure utopian rhetoric. These are people who truly believe that one man – and I purposefully use the word man – in his garage can change the world. And they’re not necessarily wrong.
Such unfaltering optimism has not only allowed Silicon Valley to change the world, it has also helped to shield these companies from the type of criticism that typically plagues multinational corporations. Somehow, despite their lobbying, their data harvesting and their negative social implications, the world’s largest tech firms are hard to criticise precisely because they genuinely seem to believe in what they are saying. They genuinely seem to be trying to make the world a better place. They have been protected by their own utopianism.
At least, so we thought.
Following the rise of Trump and Brexit, the era of fake news and the fall of Cambridge Analytica, it appears that the tides are finally turning. Optimism alone is no longer enough to protect the Silicon Valley elites.
In 2018, the technoutopian bubble finally burst. Now, the optimists of Silicon Valley are being forced to live in a whole new – and more complicated – world.
Uber has been banned from major cities around the globe, the self-driving cars of Silicon Valley have claimed their first human life, open information has given way to an endless stream of fake news, while online advertising has not only come to jeopardise the integrity of the media, but is now undermining democracy itself.
The utopianism that came to inform the previous five years is dead, but the optimistic thought processes that allowed it to arise are still very much alive within the technology community.
Following the string of scandals that have engulfed many of the world’s largest tech companies in 2018, Silicon Valley has been keen to prove that it is taking issues of privacy, information control and democratised technology seriously. To achieve this however, these businesses have turned to the only solution they understand – more technology.
Rather than accepting the reality that vastly complex political and social issues require time, thought and cross-society collaboration to address, the technology giants have been keen to prove that these issues can be solved almost overnight – and without the need for time-consuming academic research or costly government intervention.
With the exception of clearer privacy settings – which have been long overdue – almost all of the ‘quick-fix’ technological solutions provided have either proved disastrous, or have simply opened up a whole host of new and unexplored ethical concerns.
Facebook’s suggestion that it could combat Fake News through artificial intelligence was roundly mocked, with even the most basic trials proving that AI is simply incapable of the nuanced decision making needed to distinguish reality from fiction.
While it’s clear that artificial intelligence will one day reach a point where it can differentiate between the two, the feasibility of such technology is not the issue. The real issue is whether we really want a society where a piece of code decides which information sources we do and do not see? An even better question might be, do we really want to live in a society where that piece of code is owned, built and operated by a private corporation?
This is the thought pattern that Silicon Valley simply doesn’t seem capable of overcoming, that the solutions to these problems may not come from them, and that not all of society’s ills can be solved by a greater investment in internet technologies, social media and mobile apps.
Instead of realising this however, the “we’ll fix it” utopianism of Silicon Valley means that we continue to see blunt, technological solutions applied to problems that arose as a result of blunt and ill-planned technological adoption.
Despite everything that has happened in 2018, technology remains the answer to all our woes. And those organisations that control this technology, are now attempting to solve the problems they created – and have since confessed to – without actually relinquishing any control. If anything, they are increasing their control in the process.
The updated second edition of ‘Technoutopia: How optimism ruined the internet’ is now available in paperback and on Amazon Kindle.