A Second Coming of Big Tech in the age of COVID-19?

@katjab has published a very interesting long read on how SARS-COV-2 is affecting the evolution of the Internet. Hers is a nuanced reflection, to which I cannot fully do justice here. Nevertheless, I would like to comment on one of her points: that the pandemic, as it ravaged so many human lives and endeavors, has strengthened large tech companies.

The obvious big winner of the COVID-19 crisis so far has been Big Tech. Where most sectors of the economy have seen demand collapse, many large tech companies are reporting record profits, and have been able to use this momentum to further consolidate market share. With more of us reliant on technology for our daily lives than ever before, we have become more willing to turn a blind eye to the excesses and ethical shortcomings of these companies and their business models. The so-called “end of the techlash” would no doubt be seen as a welcome break after years of negative headlines and mounting public pressure. But will it turn out to be a temporary respite for the internet giants, or are we witnessing a more permanent concentration of power over yet more aspects of our society and economy?

Katja formulates it as a question, but her article seems to have an answer: the Internet giants appear more unshakeable than ever. One piece of evidence stayed with me:

Jeff Bezos has so far added 25 billion to his net-worth this year, while 60 percent of UK independent bookstores expect they might not survive this crisis.

Her argument so far is very persuasive, almost inevitable. But I do not completely agree with what comes next:

It is not just their sizable battle chests that leaves Big Tech so well positioned in this current crisis. Because credit where credit is due: the privileged new class of remote workers can only be sustained because we have access to solid, well-functioning digital tools courtesy of the data barons of the new Gilded Age.

This is just not true. Remote office work could be done (and was done, by a lot of people) in the 1990s. With Mediawiki to replace version control with an edit history (developed 2002) + any chat (which hark back to IRC, developed 1988) you could do 95% of what people do today with MS Teams and the like, give or take bells and whistles. You could even argue that many bells and whistles reduce productivity: the rise of Zoom and the like make meetings easier to have online, and meetings tend to be a drag on the productivity of many people. Don’t take my word for it, ask Scott Adams.

The lionization of tech companies strikes me as deeply unfair. The most unfair is probably Netflix’s. In 1999, Shawn Fanning built Napster as a robust, scalable file sharing service. At that point we could exchange and share multimedia files. Industry sent in copyright lawyers and lobbyists and took it down, and then built it again, sold it to us, and are now using the proceedings to crush independent cultural and media enterprises. In her book The Entrepreneurial State. Mariana Mazzucato makes the point that most groundbreaking tech innovation has been made by public sector researcher and funded by taxpayers, with Big tech (and its financial sector-alter ego, venture capital) stepping in when the high-risk work was done, to privatize the reward. That’s rent seeking.

A world with great digital tools that are not owned and wielded by Big Tech is absolutely within reach. In fact, Katja herself mentions city halls in Europe deploying Jitsi servers so that schools can host online lessons. Further on, she discusses resilience: and this would be a major piece of resilience – the equivalent of 19th century municipalist socialism, when cities built their own utility companies (from transport to energy) to escape the yoke of private monopolies. I am looking forward to seeing whether any polity embraces it.

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There are and have been many different forms of remote work. Different reasons for doing it, different tools used. I think the trend rightnow to calls all of that into one class and oppose it with (essential) worker’s who can not work from home even if they and their company wanted it is presenting a wrong picture and conflict. Yes, right now there is a big different in the live of people who’s work can be done remotely and that of those whose can not, but there are many more different factors within those groups. And yes, currently many of those rely on tools provided by big companies, but those are not the only way to sustain this type of work as Alberto pointed out. And if the need for a tool exists and the flexibility to start using it, initiatives come u to develop it. Many of those end up being bought up and incorporated or simply copied in the current set up, which is where those sizeable cests come back in. Maybe the stewardship models could be interesting there.

ping @erik_lonroth and @mattias

Thanks Alberto for reading the piece and the thoughtful comments!

I think the bit about me now praising Big Tech is perhaps a bit of a accidental “selective editing” from the text- as it was meant more as a sarcastic bit about how they’ve now so entrenched their power that they are better able to uphold the kinds of infrastructures that we now rely on- not that we necessarily need to use Big Tech always, or that no alternatives exist. The problem is that alternatives like Jitsi can now not (yet) meaningfully compete because of the underlying conditions that have made the Big Tech so powerful. This is no way me praising Big Tech for providing us with services- it is challenging the laziness of the “end of the techlash” narrative! Later on I also say that I hope this might just give us the impetus to more permanently transition to open source alternatives etc. - it’s just that the conditions currently aren’t there, and that many have been too complacent to switch.

Regarding working from home: Of course working from home was possible before- the point was more that it is a privilege to work in a jobs that can be done remotely- most particularly lower-paid jobs don’t allow for this (i.e. manual work, many segments of the service economy, etc.). Jobs that can be made meaningfully made to done remotely disproportionately require university degrees, etc.

It is not the only facet of discussions about class of course, and there are also those in lower-paid jobs who can work from home and vice versa, but the current crisis has revealed and accelerated a growing divide (discussed in far more detail further down in the blog) that we need to be wary off. This is not against remote work, it is against remote work becoming a driver of growing inequality. The solution here is probably in bringing more resilience, and enabling more people to find that flexibility in their work.


However: if you found that unclear, I should probably edit back in a section around “functional sovereignty”, which I took out given the whole piece was ballooning up to be a bit too long. About Big Tech becoming the de facto infrastructure we cannot get out of- which then creates a narrative that they are somehow more capable/better able at meeting our needs, which allows them to further strengthen their positions, etc.etc.

Don’t worry, this is perfectly clear. On the other hand, the facts that you report – FAANG stock soaring as the economy nosedives, Bezos’s transcendent wealth – are true. And they point to that direction. In other words, even if you don’t buy the argument that “the data barons are giving us robust tools we need”, most people and governments do. I am making my point not to contradict you, but to contradict that narrative. Which, is guess what? once again this toxic, misleading idea of “innovation” as something done by “risk-taking” private entrepreneurs, who “create value” by their “creativity”. I am so tired of this.

Granted. I did write that remote office work was possible already in the 1990s.

This is a topic dear to our heart. Edgeryders has been trying to go stackless since forever. And I have been begging the Commission (DG CNECT, since it was still called Information Society) to fund an open source Google Docs equivalent as a digital common good, instead of all these close-to-market apps. It’s slow going, I can tell you that!

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Here is a link to @katjab’s excellent essay.

Meanwhile, I just read this Guardian piece by Naomi Klein, “How Big Tech Plans to Profit from the Pandemic.”

Her focus is largely on the efforts by former Google boss Eric Schmidt in advocating for his former company and their peers like Amazon, Microsoft, Oracle and Facebook, to essentially take over the information infrastructure for pretty much everything in life in the future. It starts describing him pitching the need for China-level surveillance in order to compete with China. I thought at first that Ms Klein was overhyping her point until i scrolled down to the slides Schmidt used to pitch his vision. Based on what is in it, I don’t doubt that Trump likes this guy and his vision. It brushes privacy and the public’s rights aside if it wants to be like China. He calls mass surveillance a “killer app for deep learning” and touts the virtues of a city “carpeted with cameras.”

And of course these Smart Services will be brought to us via outfits like Sidewalk Labs which almost wired up the Toronto waterfront as a Smart City area, but the city dropped it over privacy questions from the public along with not enough apparent public benefit. But Sidewalk and all have moved on and are now working up something bigger with New York and Governor Cuomo.

And we know that some services that require high info tech can be deployed in ways that protect privacy. And of course we know about Rob’s disposable identity project. And I could imagine a guy like Schmidt paying attention and value into ensuring the rights of people. But surveillance made him a billionaire and he has no track record that I know of in placing high value on the privacy and rights of individuals.

Into this comes the pandemic. Whereas that vision for the urgent need to adopt mass surveillance tech was pitched as a national security issue, suddenly there is this pivot toward using these same tech companies and their technologies as benevolent bringers of our survival needs. And Schmidt is pitching the tech for education, home health, etc etc… It reminds me of the “atoms for peace” program that got shoved down our throats in the 50s when it was really always about nuclear weapons. But bomb shelters were scaring people and by the way not selling, so then it was decided to embark on all these huge projects to show us what a friend the uranium atom really is. I remember it all quite well.

Scary essay. I know Naomi Klein, author of “The Shock Doctrine” can serve up a large dose of shock herself, and in this she delivers. I hope she is wrong, but I think she is correct.

@pbihr I wonder what your thoughts are…?

A guess: the end game is taking control of our basic means of survival e.g food through controlling data from high precision agriculture etc IBM got there early.

Here is another piece about how Big Tech and Big Money (crucial components of neoliberalism) view the opportunities of the pandemic. In this piece the author argues that, despite much of the hopeful talk many of us engage in, right-wing groups funded by the likes of the Koch brothers, are moving forward with plans to take advantage of the pandemic to lock down more changes that favor their position. To me a lot of the tie-in to big Net companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc. is they are led by people who, to me, also see themselves as thought leaders of aspects outside their expertise. Schmidt assuming he knows how education is supposed to work, or Elon Musk talking about almost anything. Strong right-wing control that keeps todays hierarchies intact emboldens the tech leaders too. I find this emerging symbiosis pretty scary.

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It’s absolutely within reach, especially if we organize to build that future beyond Big Tech. Looking forward and hoping to!