Earlier this week, my flatmate sent me an article about how Google, a company that once shunned the practice of lobbying, has taken it up with gusto. Subject to a federal antitrust investigation into its dominance in search, Google decided sometime in 2011 it needed an active public affairs programme in order to defend its interests. It now boasts one of the largest corporate lobbying expenditures in the United States.
Google has other priorities too, not least immigration reform. It shares this concern with many Silicon Valley types, exemplified by the formation of a campaigning organisation seed funded by Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. This group, FWD.us, counts Bill Gates, Drew Houston (a co-founder of Dropbox) and Reid Hoffman (a co-founder of LinkedIn) as supporters. Headed by a Washington D.C. amateur, FWD.us, though with a laudable goal in mind, has alienated supporters through its blunt tactical ploys.
This is not, however, a blog decrying the practice of lobbying. I write this in an entirely personal capacity but, if it escaped your attention, I work in the industry. I could, and maybe will, write a separate post on what I feel about corporate lobbying and its influence (or lack thereof). More intriguing is what the interests are of the technology industry more widely and how the entry into active lobbying by the companies that are defining our world-- Apple, Google, Facebook etc. -- will affect society.
These companies value highly skilled people, no matter their country of origin. They have operations spanning the globe and often dizzyingly complex supply chains. They unapologetically set out to disrupt and supplant entire sectors. They are, along with the people and institutions that finance them, the alphas of our capitalist economies.
In political terms, this translates to support for immigration; generally immigration for all rather than just the highly skilled. After all, many founders of successful technology companies were born into first generation immigrant households without much money to their name. It means support for globalisation and liberal internationalism. It means disdain for public sector bailouts and little sympathy with economic relics, if a little for the people left unemployed by their obsolescence.
Across most of the Western world, the values the technology industry rates highly are the opposite of what most citizens want. Battered, bruised and scared by the financial crisis, political parties decrying free flowing immigration and globalisation have gained ground. In the US, an overhaul to immigration is the perennial reform that never was. Within the European Union, nationalism and anti-immigrant rhetoric are the order of the day. Whole countries, though thrilled by the innovation of technology, are tired of sweeping change and do not trust their political elites to answer the question: what next?
What happens when machines can do even more of the tasks that humans do? Look at any advanced manufacturing factory and tell me it's not a scary insight into the new world order. How do we structure an economy reliant on an ever diminishing workforce? How do we cooperate internationally but keep our countries' traditions? What about the whole question of user data, internet privacy and a host of other collected anxieties about the interaction between the citizen and the Internet?
We are, of course, a long way from any of this and we may never need answers to any of these questions. Yet you would be a fool to suggest that the best financed companies of our time, companies that are growing ever bolder in articulating their interests, won't bring some of their economic disruption to politics.
We are entering a very interesting new phase in political discourse. Technology companies will play a big and ever growing part in that conversation. It would behove politicians, but more importantly each and every citizen, to start thinking about what they'd like those answers to be.