Not long ago, in our very same galaxy, the high-tech elite seemed somewhat like the Jedis of the modern era. Sure, they were making gobs of money, but they were also “changing the world” for the better.
Even demonstrators against capitalism revered them; when Steve Jobs died in 2011, the protesters at Occupied Wall Street mourned his passing.
Increasingly, Americans no longer regard our tech oligarchs as modern folk heroes; today companies including Google, Apple and Facebook are suffering huge drops in their reputations among the public.
Social justice, for some
The tech oligarchs make a big show of their social “wokeness.” They play up on gender issues, despite a wicked record of sexual harassment at companies like Google and across the “bro culture” of the male-dominated valley.
Worse still are issues of class. The Bay Area, as CityLab put it, has devolved into “a region of segregated innovation” where the rich wax, the middle class declines and the poor suffer increasingly unshakeable poverty. Over the past decades wages for African Americans and Latinos in Silicon Valley have fallen during the boom while much of the work, up to 40 percent, has gone to temporary immigrant workers, the modern-day equivalent of indentured servants.
Of course, the oligarchs rely on immigrants to work as low-wage janitors, dog walkers and restaurant workers essential to their high-amenity economy. Not surprisingly they have been among the fiercest critics of President Trump’s immigration policies. This fits into their image, cultivated, for example, by Jeff Bezos mouthpiece The Washington Post, as principled defenders of democracy and human rights against the would-be dictator in the White House.
Yet these pronouncements obscure remarkable hypocrisy. Time, owned by oligarch Marc Benioff, rejected its own readers’ poll, which favored making the Hong Kong protesters “person of the year,” and instead gave the honor to Greta Thunberg. This will bolster the Salesforce.com founder’s green bona fides but also protects the company’s growing presence in China. It seems there’s no conflict between advocating wokeness in America while supporting repression in China. If tech-rich Taiwan, which just voted strongly against pro-mainland candidates, ever thought it could look to Silicon Valley for support, they should look again.
Masters of surveillance
Kowtowing to Beijing has its advantages. Some of some of America’s most dominant tech firms, including Apple, Google and IBM make money helping China’s systematic use of digital technology to impose ever-greater control over its citizens. Aided by this collaboration, China’s unrestrained surveillance state, openly hostile to free thought, is likely to become a prototype for developing countries.
These companies are also helping construct an American surveillance state here at home. Privacy violations have been commonplace for companies like Google, Facebook and Apple, often with little warning to the customers. In 2018, Amazon’s in-home device Alexa was found to be eavesdropping on people’s conversations. Google now seeks to access our most intimate medical details. Despite fervent denials, privacy per se ranks remains only a low priority, something firms resist as much as possible. As Google’s former executive Chairman Eric Schmidt once told CNBC: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
By assembling personal data and then selling it, our daily lives no longer belongs to us alone but are relentlessly commodified. This is, of course, the natural goal of all the major tech firms which, suggests Jaron Lanier, helping create an atmosphere that serves to foster “creepiness and inspire justified paranoias.” As the leftist Guardian put it: “If ExxonMobil attempted to insert itself into every element of our lives like this, there might be a concerted grassroots movement to curb its influence.”
What goes around …
Despite an increasingly large lobbying and public relations effort, the oligarchs are in danger of squandering their once near universal political support. Some 70 percent of Americans, notes a recent Pew study, believe social media platforms “censor political views.” In California, just over the past year, the percentage of voters thinking tech firms need to be more heavily regulated has been rising to over 70 percent in both the Bay Area and Southern California.
Progressive clothing no longer protects them from populist fire. Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have spoken against the oligarchs’ quasi-monopoly status as well as the poor treatment of low-end workers in Apple’s Chinese sweatshops, something referenced by Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes, or Amazon’s warehouses here at home.
The yawning gap between the tech elite and the worker bees has helped foster growing socialist and union movements within these companies, and not just at warehouses.
Tech workers may be well paid, but they have no bargaining power, and their higher salaries are largely swallowed by high housing prices and taxes. They act increasingly as high-tech proletarians, anxious to throw down their own bosses by contributing most to populists like Sanders and Warren.
Given these pressures, the tech firms may just dig in their heels. After all, they are well on their way to buying most of the major publications in the country, and gaining control of the culture industries as well. Ultimately the oligarchs must hope that the masses do not defect to the rebel alliance before their rule becomes so entrenched it cannot be reasonably challenged.
This piece previously appeared in The Orange County Register.
Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017). His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, is now available to preorder. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin