For Silicon Valley titans, technology is progress — and they’re the ones who deliver it to us.
They don’t question the type of technology we develop, or the ends it serves. There is only the pursuit of technological advance and the benefits that are not just assumed, but in their minds guaranteed, to follow from it.
The driving consideration is speed: move fast and break things, consequences be damned. When development speeds up, it means we’re progressing as a society, but when things slow down, progress stagnates.
Needless to say, it’s an incredibly self-serving way to think about technology and human society, but it’s one that’s been pushed at us through marketing campaigns and media reports for decades (if not far longer). It forces us to align with the goals of the companies that dominate the sector.
If we limit Uber’s ability to expand globally, or Amazon’s desire to expand into new sectors, or Mark Zuckerberg’s determination to build the metaverse we’re not just stifling a company’s business prospects; we’re holding ourselves back as a species. If Silicon Valley can’t extend its idea of technology to more sectors of the economy, corners of the globe, and moments of our lives, we’ll all suffer as a result.
The real question is whether any of this is true. And the answer is absolutely not.
How Tech Shapes Our World
The venture capitalists and chief executives whose net worths soared in recent decades want you to believe that progress — both social and technological — is linear; that there’s only path technological development can follow. But that’s a lie, and one that serves their financial interest.
Look at the technologies they’ve deployed in recent decades. Yes, the internet connected us globally, but it also allowed these companies to extend their business models along the cables that knit us together.
- Google launched a useful search engine, then used it to build an anti-competitive digital advertising business that helped hollow out local journalism with severe consequences for for our ability to hold power to account.
- Facebook told us its “social media” would allow us to build vibrant online communities, then turned its platform into a megaphone for socially harmful, right-wing conspiracy theories.
- Amazon promised us increased convenience by moving shopping online, only to use the power it accumulated against virtually everyone: warehouse workers suffering above average injuries, delivery drivers having to pee in bottles, and third-party sellers constantly at the company’s whims.
These are just a few examples, but they illustrate that just because these companies label their business models as important innovations doesn’t mean they’re actually delivering social progress.
Technology is shaped by economic conditions. Capitalists adopt and develop new technologies to increase their profits, but also — maybe even more importantly — to increase their power. “For, as anyone who has ever worked for a boss understands too well, management is concerned with one thing above all else, and that is staying in control,” wrote David F. Noble in Progress Without People : New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance.
Consider the case of Uber, a company that promised convenience for riders and empowerment for drivers, all made possible by its supposedly innovative technology. In truth, moving taxi dispatching onto an app wasn’t really all that ground-breaking, but the way management chose to implement it was calculated and political. The app could have truly empowered drivers by allowing collectives to control the technology, thus deciding the conditions of their work and setting rates that provided them with a living wage. But what venture capitalist in their right mind would fund that?
Instead, Travis Kalanick and his frat bro team aggressively rolled out their service to break the remaining power of taxi drivers and ensure management had even greater control to set the terms of their work. Drivers didn’t even have a human manager they could push back on; they had to deal with the cold indifference of the algorithm. And all of that effort couldn’t yield a profit for Uber. Sure, early investors cashed out at the IPO, but Uber’s reward was not in monetary gains. Rather, it increased management’s control over workers throughout the gig economy and beyond, even redefining workers’ employment status in some parts of the world.
This is the reality at most tech companies. Amazon might have some robots in its warehouses, but its real success is subjecting warehouse workers and drivers to aggressive algorithmic management. Employee tracking software went mainstream during the pandemic, infecting many more workers’ computers, and tech companies have built a whole economy of microworkers that get paid pennies to label data, respond to surveys, and do all manner of short tasks with few protections.
These outcomes are what Noble referred to when he said that technology is political: the technologies emerging from Silicon Valley are not the product of some predetermined path of development. It’s convenient for companies to have us think that way because it allows them to shape our world to serve their interests, all the while telling us they’re delivering progress and prosperity.
It’s Time to Push Back
If we want a better world, we need to stop falling for the rosy marketing copy prepared by well-paid public relations experts in Silicon Valley. They always have a wonderful future to sell us — whether it’s self-driving cars solving all our transport woes or cities on Mars saving the human species — but those grand visions don’t exist to inspire us. Their purpose is to distract us from the “present tense”: the often destructive and harmful impacts of their companies and technologies today.
With Disconnect, I want to give you another take on the tech industry — a critical take that’s too hard to find among mainstream sources. One that isn’t afraid to reject what the tech industry is trying to sell us, because, as Noble writes, “saying no does not so much arrest human history as call into question the current form of development and change the rules of the game in the present.”
The status quo isn’t working, and Silicon Valley has proven time and again that it doesn’t deliver on its promises. Challenging its power will take a lot of work, but escaping the reality distortion field is a good place to start.