THE YEAR IS 2030. Jeff Bezos prepares to welcome a guest to his Blue Origin space station. It’s Elon Musk, on transfer from his Space X “Branson” moon base.
Having resolved some of their animosity issues, two of the world’s technokings will meet to discuss the continued use of Musk’s Starlink satellites to host Amazon’s orbiting internet servers.
The head of Facebook Universe, Mark Zuckerberg will then join via holographic haptic VR, along with the heads of Apple, Alphabet and three other tech behemoths.
Discussions behind closed doors will focus on promoting BigTech’s combined projects, protecting BigTech copyrights and dealing with “short-sighted” governments, democratic and otherwise. There will be no independent media presence.
BACK IN 2021, all this might sound far-fetched. It isn’t. Even wifi sounded sci-fi not that long ago.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic flight to 50 miles altitude and the edge of space proved that privately-run space tourism is both possible and exciting.
On July 20, all being well, Jeff Bezos’ flight aboard his Blue Origin rocket will take him ten miles further from the earth. He will spend about the same time in low earth orbit - roughly three minutes - but aboard a more conventional spacecraft. Its long-term purpose is not so much tourism as space exploration and commercialisation.
Bezos will not now be the first billionaire in space, but he will be the first BigTech mogul to make the trip, which is more significant than it seems.
Living as we do amidst the digital revolution, most of us accept that having cool tech means living in the shadow of BigTech corporations. Besotted with our smartphones and all things digital, we often give little thought to the future implications of BigTech’s fantastic growth.
Like ravenous beasts, these corporations roam the cultural landscape looking for feeding grounds for their latest technologies. And when a BigTech leader like Elon Musk is dubbed a “technoking” by his organisation, we simply smile at the mischievousness of it.
Yet the title might only be halfway comical. What is a king, techno- or otherwise, but the ultimate embodiment of social stratification? For all their talk about promoting equality of opportunity, aren’t the technokings who rule Facebook, Google/Alphabet, Amazon and Apple producing more than their fair share of inequality?
The spin-off effects of space travel in terms of technological innovation are well documented. Modern laptop computers are directly descended from NASA onboard computers. GPS is also a product of Apollo and other space programmes. Wireless headsets, LED lighting, freeze-dried foods and portable cordless vacuum cleaners all owe their existence to space flight.
Space exploration has opened our eyes to solutions for mineral shortages. Platinum group metals are among the rarest and most useful elements on earth. They’re important to all sorts of electronic equipment. A single 500-metre asteroid can contain more platinum group metals than have ever been mined on earth.
Meanwhile, working in space provides humans with a clearer picture of the challenges facing the earth’s environment. Doubtless, privately-owned space companies will add many new perspectives and technological innovations over time. But what will BigTech’s power, on earth and in space, eventually mean for our collective future in other ways?
BigTech is about more than new technologies, earthbound or space-facing. i
The 1969 moon landing was, in the words of President Nixon, “one priceless moment when all the people on this earth are truly one”. If past form is any guide, the technokings will use space exploration to foster new forms of social alienation.
In some respects, they already act like imperial rulers, exercising great power without ever having to worry about winning elections.
The new social strata engineered by BigTech are built on several foundations, one of which is economic.
In their book iDisrupted, Michael Baxter and John Straw analysed the economic effect of emerging technology. They found that technology companies boost inequality through the power of patents.
BigTech companies have the workforce heft to develop, process and buy patents on a huge scale. These patents may be based around quite generic ideas, but they have the effect of stifling competition from smaller groups. The latter may be better equipped to develop a new idea, but they can’t because a patent is controlled elsewhere.
Generating riches on the back of patents boosts the income of society’s wealthiest people and limits any trickle-down effect for the less well-off.
BigTech is also layering society based on political worldviews. Its leaders are not responsible for what some people think of as “culture wars”, but their technology platforms have certainly encouraged the spread of what I’ve called the hot response culture. It promotes heated over-reaction over calm and measured debate on almost every issue.
BigTech’s involvement with this cancer of over-reaction is neither benign nor passive.
Taking responsibility for content is something social media companies have often failed to do. They argue that they provide technical platforms on which users display their ideas and opinions. But they apply the argument inconsistently.
Early this year, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and his senior management evicted thousands of users from their service on largely political grounds. These users, said Technoking Dorsey and his court, had incited violence during the January 6 attacks on the US Congress. Yet users who had neither engaged in nor encouraged criminal acts were also cut off, without warning or opportunity to appeal.
What’s more, Twitter took little action against other user-activists who were involved in earlier and perhaps more violent anti-fascist demonstrations.
It seems that some Twitter contributors were evicted for nothing more than leaning more one way than the other, politically.
In fairness, maintaining impartiality isn’t a challenge for BigTech alone. The traditional media also have their problems maintaining even-handedness. Some seem to have given up trying.
In the US, some media companies unashamedly define themselves along overtly political lines; they’re best known for whom they attack.
This polarisation doesn’t always work for them. Shortly after Donald Trump left the White House, CNN’s viewing figures dropped by a staggering 54 percent.
Many of the world’s largest social media companies are, of course, based in America. The fact that they exist in this already febrile media environment might help explain why they, too, take sides in the culture wars.
Political persuasion is everyone’s right; political engagement, at some level, is everyone’s responsibility. That said, nobody elected Jack Dorsey - or Apple’s Tim Cook and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg - to act as political censors. They are primarily answerable only to their shareholders, not to the wider public.
BigTech and its technokings are also widening the chasm between tech-haves and -have-nots, by controlling the ways tools can be accessed and used.
Some 4.66 billion people worldwide are now active internet users, according to Statistica. That’s almost 60 per cent of the globe’s population. For all the growth in basic connectivity, though, access to reliable, high-speed internet access represents one of the globe’s biggest opportunity gaps.
This gap will become increasingly visible in areas like education. Already, just over two billion young people lack the stable internet access they need to learn, even though Covid-19 has hastened the growth of online and blended learning.
Internet connectivity is not the responsibility of BigTech companies alone. Some of them are more interested in what is built on the internet than in providing its basic infrastructure. Yet some, like Facebook, are seeking to become major players in internet provision. Not for altruistic reasons, as they often claim, but as a way of extending their data-mining capacity.
Even smaller-scale, would-be technokings are getting in on the act. At least one US state is considering new laws that would allow technology firms to build and govern hi-tech “smart cities”. Nevada is looking to permit the formation of new local governments on land controlled by private technology firms.
The idea was first proposed by Jeffrey Berns, a cryptocurrency millionaire who has plans for his own techno-urban enclave. Under his proposal, private companies will own the tech infrastructure that drives essential public services. Residents will access services and a local cryptocurrency via apps, using blockchain database technology. All of this will boost the city corporation's powers of data-collection and, potentially, cyber-control over its citizens.
For similar reasons, many of today’s technokings are pushing the notion of cashless economies.
Every cashless transaction creates a data trail. Information about the customer is relayed to the business involved; data not just about the specific purchase but, in some cases, phone, address and account details. Big Data analytics, while a useful tool in many ways, is also a form of soft surveillance.
In contrast, the use of paper cash allows no transfer of personal data. This limits BigTech’s profits, which is why technokings vocally support cryptocurrencies.
Even when some of them, like Elon Musk, voice unease with particular currencies, they remain enthusiastic supporters of the principle of cybercurrencies.
In 2019, Mark Zuckerberg decided he’d liked to go further than supporting any of the existing 7,800 digital currencies. He set out to launch his own, called Libra.
Predictably perhaps, the idea met opposition from banks who, if cyber-currencies became widespread, would lose their place as the pre-eminent distributors of money. What surprised Mr Zuckerberg, though, was the lack of interest in Libra among his normally loyal user base.
Facebook claimed that the world needs Libra to help create a more inclusive financial system, especially for the poor. Futurists and commentators like myself were sceptical. After all, many smaller companies and social enterprises already offer similar services, at least on a localised basis. Why couldn’t Facebook simply support them?
The answer, of course, related to containment. Facebook wanted to control the flow of personal data that happens in every electronic transaction. More troubling still, it wanted to control the very nature of money, by becoming a new form of mint operating largely beyond the regulatory powers of any government. Even Bitcoin, for all its inbuilt volatility, is driven by market rather than plutocratic forces.
If technokings were primarily interested in altruism or the common good, they would work to help cash survive alongside cashless options. Today, one and a half million Brits have no bank account. Of the poor who do have an account, many have no stable internet access. They may never be able to afford it, either. In a world without cash, where would the tech have-nots go for their money?
Today’s technokings encourage new social strata built on technophilia. This carries implications for ageing.
Young and middle-aged people are often well equipped to handle digital tools. Through much of the world, though, elderly people struggle with digital techs. In 2019, virtually all British adults aged 16 to 44 years used the internet. But that compares with just 47 per cent of adults aged 75 years and over. (Office for National Statistics).
In more than a few cases, digital tools fill older people with anxiety. Technology doesn’t stand still. No sooner has one digital platform emerged to solve a problem than another arrives to offer an even better solution. Older people are not always as mentally agile as their younger counterparts; they take longer to adapt to new approaches.
People migrate quickly from one tech platform to another, often in large numbers. Older people can be left behind, as younger family members or colleagues shift allegiances. Many of them fear being cut off from others if they don’t adopt the right technology.
The same techno-anxiety will soon affect not just individuals but entire industries. Germany arguably leads the world in the promotion of Industry 4.0, where “smart” factories are maintained and products are created using self-managing, AI-driven machines.
A few years ago, German sociologists noted the emergence of new underclasses in their society. Highly skilled but retrenched workers were sitting at home, watching hours of daytime television and consuming more than their fair share of alcohol. They were listless and expressed no interest in job retraining. These workers were among the first victims of today’s speedy transition to automation.
In the age of the technokings, people who don’t learn to handle new technologies quickly will rapidly slide down the social strata.
Many of BigTech’s monarchs promote inequality when it comes to civic responsibility. The great civic power they exercise is not matched by the levels of tax they pay. This equates, in some cases, to civic plunder. To justify it, technokings like to think of nation-states as anachronisms that are out of step with today’s more enlightened, globalist approach.
In 2020, Amazon profited most from an online shopping boom linked to the pandemic. Its UK profits rose by more than a third, with an increase in revenue of £13.7 billion. Yet it paid just three per cent more in tax.
Much has been written about similarly low levels of taxes paid by Facebook, especially in regions where it generates massive profits. When it suits them, BigTech groups claim to represent the young, entrepreneurial edge of what is still a wild-west internet frontier. Yet they behave like greedy multinationals, accruing enormous power and great fortunes in data and money.
So, what can we say about the power of the technokings and their BigTech domains? The digital tools they create help us achieve mass innovation on the back of mass communication. They often provide important platforms for social enterprise, the fastest growing form of business on the planet. Social innovation breeds collaborative solutions to medical, agricultural, economic and political problems.
Even on the environmental front - where technology’s reliance on plastics, metals and electricity are a problem - BigTech will help facilitate solutions.
For all these and other benefits, though, the technokings often encourage opportunity gaps, political imbalances and economic elitism. While preaching equality, sharing and meritocracy, they often draw more and more power to themselves.
By pursuing the frontier of space, today’s technokings will doubtless learn valuable lessons. But while pursuing the stars they ought to spend at least as much time pondering what they’re creating at home. Not everything that looks like progress is progress.