By Casey Kermes
Technological advances have been at the forefront of driving societies forward before Silicon Valley existed. Only now are these advances creating great consumer utility while at the same time eroding the very essence of what it means to be human. As tech giants become the most valuable companies to ever exist, they are also helping to destroy the countries, people, and societies that they were created by.
As technology continues to grow it seems as though our world is ever becoming more complicated. Through news feeds we can see the latest depressing clip from anywhere in the world in less than a minute. Watching California burn down, violent clashes in American cities, and the poverty being worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic, it can seem as though we are in a never ending spiral of terrible events.
Feeling as though this path is headed for disaster, it is hard to wriggle free of the grip it holds on individuals lives. Yet, this is exactly how Facebook, Google, Snapchat and others want us to feel. The more of our time and attention they can capture, the more they can use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to sell us hyper targeted ads, making their shareholders enormously wealthy.
Target marketing has been in practice as long as people have been selling goods. Only now have social media companies, Facebook and Google especially, taken target marketing to a whole new level. With the enormous data set that users have voluntarily put onto the platform, Facebook and Google know everything from your login location, everywhere you have traveled, what you talk about while their apps are open, and much more. With this data they allow marketers to not just market goods or ideas to groups of people, but rather individual people. Facebook has roughly 52,000 data points on every user. This may not be a problem if you were only being sold socks and new headphones, but this system has now been used to spread ideologies that are patently false which have started to lead to real world harm.
Fake news is propagating so quickly that the citizenry of the USA no longer operates with a shared set of facts. Each American’s news, facts, and reality are starkly different. This is not an accident. Supercomputers have now taught themselves, through algorithms, that the best way to sell advertising to humans, is to slowly drive them to more and more outrageous sources. These same algorithms have no conscience. They are simply ad selling machines. As a shared set of facts continues to melt away, finding any common ground between political parties is quickly withering too.
As corporate profits continue to rise, tech companies have created a new type of low paid worker. Gig workers are a new form of expendable resource. With a vast number of people out of work, it is easy to find someone willing to put up their own capital (cars in the case of Uber) to do menial tasks for minimum wage or less. With no real workers’ rights, health insurance, or living wage, this type of work is continuing to help increase inequality. As governments, especially California, try to impose restrictions on gig work, Silicon Valley, especially Uber, continues to fight treating human beings properly so as to protect their generous profit margins and shareholder value.
The problems Silicon Valley have created are now so large and complex they cannot buy their way out of trouble. As Mark Zuckerberg (who just ‘donated’ $300 million to help protect the US election from his own platform) tries to convince people he isn’t a character from George Orwell’s 1984, he continues to value profits over people. For reference, $300 million is only 1/136th of the wealth Zuckerberg has made during the pandemic alone. If governments continue to leave technology companies to their own devices, these issues will not eventually dissipate on their own.
Although the problems are mounting, society is not completely helpless. Collective action can overcome any obstacle. Creating a sustainable and healthy tech environment can be done. Existing American anti-trust laws can be used to break up tech giants, creating smaller organizations that would be forced to differentiate themselves from each other. Creating more individual firms has the added benefit of degrading every individual CEO’s power over the direction technology is headed. Adding seats at that table increases the chance that at-least a few of them will value society over cold hard cash. Creating an oversight board, similar to the FDA or SEC, that has the power to hold companies accountable to a shared set of standards, is long overdue.
Many ultra-rich love to think about how they will be remembered. With the Giving Pledge, there is a rise in billionaires looking to die poor. While Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos and others could all follow this same path, they also have the choice to forego excess profits today at the benefit of society. They do not need to die in order to leave a legacy. All it takes is one of them to decide to help in creating a world they are proud of, rather than destroying the very fabric that holds society together.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.