Silicon States: The Power and Politics of Big Tech and What It Means for Our Future
August 27, 2018
Lucie Greene's new book looks at the transfer of power and civil services from government to today's tech giants, and its implications for our future.
Silicon States: The Power and Politics of Big Tech and What It Means for Our Future by Lucie Greene, Counterpoint, 288 pages, Hardcover, August 2018, ISBN 9781640090712
A recent wave of corporate litter started showing up on the sidewalks of Milwaukee recently. It is called Bird scooters. No one asked if they could begin dumping them on our streets, or applied for proper permits to operate legally here. The machines just started appearing in the posher, wealthier, whiter parts of town.
When the city's common council scheduled a hearing on whether to ban the scooters, the Santa Monica-based company that dropped them upon us attempted to foment a protest outside the hearing with an email and Facebook ad campaign. “Taking away this new, innovative transportation option will hurt Riders. Whether you rely on Bird to help you get around town, to get to work, or to explore local businesses in your neighborhood,” the company implored, “let’s tell the Council that we want them to say, ‘NO,’ to the proposed ban.” Only about a dozen people showed up to support them, which tracks with the general opinion I heard around town. To a person, everyone I spoke to about the scooters—and it was a popular topic for a few weeks—hated them. Matt Wild of the Milwaukee Record called them out on their (perhaps not) unique blend of arrogance and cluelessness with a simple, sardonic statement: without them, “[s]adly, there is now no way to get around town, get to work, or explore local businesses in your neighborhood.”
Apparently, solving the city’s transportation needs doesn’t include providing adequate public transportation for city residents to get to the manufacturing jobs that have largely relocated to the suburbs over the past two generations, or to giving the elderly and other underserved populations living here in the city access to better transportation options. But by all means, give scooters to young urban professionals and tourists along our (admittedly beautiful) lakefront. It wasn't so much the scooters themselves that people objected to, but the hubris with which they arrived and operated. And it wasn’t just here in Milwaukee. A similar rollout and backlash has occurred across America.
This rather annoying little episode is more concerning when considered as emblematic of a larger trend in society of tech companies competing to take over or “disrupt” more and more of the civil services that government has long provided. Once reliant on government contracts and providing business-to-business technology solutions, the latest generation of Silicon Valley has mastered the consumer attention and product business, upending many of the industries it used to serve in the process, and increasingly turning its eye toward larger aspirations. As Lucie Greene writes in her new book, Silicon States:
Now, as they mature and start to take themselves more seriously, they’re moving into key civic areas and co-opting new power centers. Their cultural influence surpasses government, academic institutions, and even Hollywood. Having taken over our lifestyles, they are vying for our healthcare, infrastructure, energy, space travel, education, and postal systems. … Silicon Valley leaders are also starting to think bigger, growing beyond scaling to considering new societal models, systems, town planning, and visions of future worlds. With characteristic hubris, they’re also looking at the world around them—they’ve already changed our social life, our commercial life, why not our political and biological life, as well.
So, what happens when Silicon Valley disrupts and takes over our systems of education, healthcare, and finance? “What happens,” Greene asks, “when we all live inside the Silicon State?” Greene uses Robert Moses as a warning—a man who championed a culturally insensitive and alienating vision of urban renewal in the mid-20th century, and used it to justify a series of massive building projects that built freeways over existing neighborhoods, erecting housing projects, “social experiments to accommodate the poor,” in their place:
He was immune to the existing and largely successful complex ecosystems housed within cities, which were observed, championed, and highlighted in Jane Jacobs’s famous 1961 book, The Death and Life of American Cities. Silicon Valley is selling an updated, data-driven, tech-obsessed vision of a future with similar vision, prejudices, and blind spots.
So, what happens when Silicon Valley layers the information superhighway on top of our communities and our city services. “When the city becomes connected,” she warns, “all urban life becomes another product.” But this is, to a large extent, already happening. And the largest technology companies have become veritable nation states unto themselves. Facebook has more users than any single nation has citizens. Apple’s cash reserves, at $285 billion in 2017, are more than double that of the Federal Reserve. The State Department, in 2016, even appointed an official ambassador to Silicon Valley. And these companies not only surveil the populace more than any government in history, “they know each individual, in some ways, better than friends or families ever could”—better than we know ourselves in some cases. And the government, once the primary engine of innovation in the world, has largely ceded that role the tech sector.
Where once, government took us to space, our government scientists built the internet, and our prime ministers strategized war—now we look to tech companies to lead us into the future.
Greene explains how the media has also been overcome by the narrative and ethos of Silicon Valley, hailing its startup culture and celebrity CEOs, even as its very business model is being upended by those forces. There are, of course, many issues to take with this disruption, a primary one being that Silicon Valley, which was supposed to level inequality by giving equal footing to anyone with an internet connection and act as the great democratizer of a connected world, has itself become “perhaps the most patriarchal white industry around.” And it’s not helping that Elon Musk is put on the cover of magazines for digging a hole in a SpaceX parking lot, while Megan Smith, Chief Technology Officer in the Obama administration, is virtually unknown despite her attempt to work on “the power balance between the government and Silicon Valley, while making sure the government does a few things that Silicon Valley precisely isn’t doing: one, making itself accessible to a more diverse workforce. And two, giving credit to women in the story of innovation.” (Musk was again the lead story on The New York Times recently, because it was apparently important for us to know how difficult and painful this year had been for him personally. Meanwhile, Smith has been on a Tech Jobs Tour across America for the past two years discussing how to “create a workforce that reflects the diversity of America," which has received approximately zero media coverage.)
That should embarrass the media, but tech companies are also undermining journalism itself in more pernicious ways. Because the algorithms of social media (where 62 percent of the population now gets its news) are based on the power the popularity of any given post, memes rise above in-depth reporting and long-form journalism—shock value over truth and accuracy. Its algorithms are designed, as Michiko Kakutani put in in her recent book The Death of Truth, to “give people news that’s popular and trending, rather than accurate or important.” Generated fake news is placed alongside, and on equal footing, with both fact-checked journalism and legitimate citizen journalism—like user-generated video covering protests and police shootings. Not being able to agree on basic facts is, of course, detrimental to our ongoing experiment in self-governance, but it is the very functions of government that the tech giants have their eyes upon. “Few industries will benefit more than Silicon Valley," Greene writes, "if more aspects of government are privatized.” And they are already putting pressure on it:
Silicon Valley technologies are ultimately exacerbating all the pressures on government and eroding income to government—thus undermining their strength. Automation, Robotics, AI are all increasing unemployment. … Platforms like Airbnb are distorting home and rental prices, forcing out lower income consumers. New technologies are creating swaths of not only ethical dilemmas to research, understand, and forecast but also regulate, putting further pressure on government resources. Widespread drone use alone will need monitoring for privacy reasons. Taken together, it feels like death by a thousand knives, a slow (or not so slow) battle of attrition by “efficiencies” against the slowness and bureaucracy of government. And its slowness, even when deliberate and considered, is being positioned by tech rivals as a halt on progress. Who will win?
The situation is not helped by the fact that Amazon effectively paid no taxes in 2017, despite taking in $5.6 billion in U.S. profit, or that between 2010 and 2017, Facebook saved $7.9 billion in federal and state income taxes through a stock option loophole. Meanwhile, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to be seriously considering a run for president, and “Facebook’s board had granted the CEO up to two years leave for public service, while still retaining control of the company, if he wishes,” which is about the amount of time needed to run for office. Of that possibility, Greene writes:
The idea of Zuckerberg as politician raises some uncomfortable questions, though. If the  election and Brexit were lessons in the raw power of social media to shape political discourse (and the outcome of elections), what if the mountains of data Facebook has collected were used with strategic intent?
It is an alarming proposition, especially in light of the intense lobbying presence Facebook and other tech companies already have in Washington D.C., which now rivals that of oil and big pharma—but with the added benefit of knowing that politicians also rely on these companies for consultation on how to reach constituents on their platforms. And the influence of big tech doesn't end at out borders. Greene also discusses how Silicon Valley is using “the banners of altruism” to infiltrate and colonize the corners of the world they have not yet reached en masse. Discussing such efforts in Southeast Asia, South America, India, and Africa (even Cuba), Greene writes how:
The internet here, like Christianity before it, is presented as the great civilizer, unlocking economies and “empowering” people to achieve their potential. Free internet infrastructure is being built as a gift in exchange for ownership of the consumer population’s digital universe, which of course is infinitely more valuable.
The virtual state of Silicon Valley is, here, up against a very real state—China—which is racing to do the same thing. Again, she asks, “Who will win?” Greene also discusses how the UK’s pro-business stance makes it more appealing (or susceptible) to the Silicon Valley ethos, and how Brexit allows it to operate outside of European Union regulation, which is far more stringent. “London,” Greene writes, “is already, in many ways, a Silicon Valley colony, a loyal outpost floating alongside a grumpier Europe now clamping down on Big Tech.” And while Greene describes Silicon Valley as more a tribal community than a monolith, she also believes that:
Silicon Valley as a concept is important to examine because it has evolved to represent so much more than just a sector or industry in our eyes, and does represent something holistic. It’s a culture, a state of mind, and ethos, a language, and an aesthetic.
Silicon States is a history of that culture, and its encroachment upon popular culture, business culture, and our political culture. Silicon Valley has moved from supplying government (especially the military that funded the research that built it) and consumer interests, to disrupting those very businesses and government services. Greene, in looking at the various legal battles and debates around competition, privacy, and a myriad of other issues arising from them, takes us on a world tour of the current balance of competition. But she also provides a glimpse at their desired future. The tech elites now propose to do everything from eliminating disease-spreading mosquitoes to eliminating death itself, has in their aims everything from digitally colonizing developing countries to establishing literal colonies in the Cosmos. But it is their mission creep into taking over government services that is the primary topic of Silicon States. And if the rollout and rhetoric around Bird scooters in Milwaukee is any indication, it's not going to be the most inclusive or efficacious of efforts. As Greene writes:
The point is most people reading this book aren’t the ones who need the government most. It’s the people who can’t afford an Uber, or the emergency room, those who don’t own Macbooks. And they may soon be reliant on the generosity of a group of white, male-dominated, private companies to maintain their livelihood and the marketability of their problems for a new “social enterprise mission” to survive.
Over the time span that tech has come to dominate commerce and culture in this country, “there has been a fundamental power shift in society from the middle class to the uber-wealthy.” According to the Independent, Just nine of the world's richest men have more combined wealth than the poorest 4 billion people, and tech CEOs dominate the list. (Jeff Bezos take the top spot, even as thousands of Amazon workers rely on food stamps.) The companies they sit atop have largely avoided regulation, and taxes, as they've climbed their way up that list. And as they've built their wealth, society has become more diverse, even as—as many books we've reviewed over the past year, including Brotopia and Broad Band, have documented—tech itself has become more exclusively white and male in that time. This has led tech's vision of the future to become, as Greene puts it, one “architected almost singularly by privileged white men.” That is, it looks a lot like the the nation's past. As tech encroaches upon the civil services we all rely upon, and with all the implications it has for our privacy, the press, and so much else, Lucie Greene's Silicon States asks us to pause and ask, is this the future we want?