The evidence is overwhelming: Big Tech companies are producing radical changes in the very structure of society. They are not simply technology companies, but powerful agents for the transformation of our societies, including their institutions and political culture.
It is difficult to place these companies in traditional economic categories or in the ideological frameworks we are accustomed to using. There are those who have proposed resorting to what one could call “the Californian ideology” to understand the extent to which Big Tech is influenced by an unusual convergence of diverse cultural ingredients. Silicon Valley cannot be explained without cybernetic principles and their ideal of self-regulation that is connected to the anti-authoritarian movements from the 1940s (to which what we call the “military-industrial complex” was surprisingly drawn), the ideal of emancipation from the 1960s, and the new economy from the late 1990s. The programme of Silicon Valley does not fit into the customary political binary (the left-right divide) because it combines a sometimes-paternalistic libertarianism, anti-hierarchical work styles, and traditional forms of capitalism. Its major outcome is a “platform society,” which forces us to rethink the meaning of equality, the supposed neutrality of technology, and the effects of depoliticization.
In the history of social struggles, indifference toward contexts and backgrounds has played a decisive role when it comes to attaining civil rights. The algorithm affords a specific tipping point to this egalitarian drive: it measures and evaluates but does not judge; it is not concerned with knowing the type of objects that are in play.
In the same way that Max Weber invoked the protestant spirit of capitalism, we could perhaps speak of an egalitarian spirit of data. It is, notwithstanding, a very specific egalitarianism, because it is not carried out through inclusion but through abstraction. Instead of the equality that kept the singularity of each person and every thing in mind, this egalitarianism is one of comparison, in other words, the abstraction of particular characteristics. It is an equalization that produces new breaches and exclusions, an “equivalence without equality” (Shoshana Zuboff). Is this the type of equality that corresponds to our democratic values?
The other big problem presented by the platform society and the divide between its message and mode of implementation is the issue of technological neutrality. In this conception, the more technology advances, the less it interferes with content, thus allowing users to make use of it however they choose. The idea that technology is always a benevolent force is false, both because technologies guide our practices and because the illusion of a complete dematerialization of a technologized world is contradicted by its impact on material resources. In fact, many of its artefacts generate toxic residues, require components that cause conflicts in different areas of the world, or have a disastrous energy balance.
The huge challenge that we have before us is to figure out how to resist the ostensibly attractive depoliticization of our societies and overcome the inertia of the traditional modes of government, while not letting ourselves be seduced by discourse that is falsely apolitical or post-partisan and not insisting on practices that do not correspond in any way to the new social realities. This platformization of society could be called the siliconization of the world (Eric Sadin), the algorithmic organization of society or the uberization of democracy. Tim O’Reilly, one of the oracles of Silicon Valley, inventor of the concept of web 2.0 and open source, suggests thinking of government as a platform, in other words, extending the model of commercial applications to the administration of common issues. In the name of a struggle against democratic deficits and excessive bureaucracy, O’Reilly proposes that the role of the state be reduced to a supplier of access and platform. Citizens could freely define their own political priorities upon that platform. If public powers have been the initial drivers of technological development, that movement has now been inverted: the state is invited to be inspired in the platforms, to serve no more than a purportedly neutral infrastructure for transactions between individuals.
We still do not have the concepts and words to express technological infrastructures in political terms. But the mere fact of talking about the “politics of infrastructures” implies recognizing that every ecosystem has political effects. In any case, between the seduction of a depoliticized world and the inertia of maintaining our institutions and the old political culture, there is ample space to consider the place that politics should occupy in these new realities.
The best way to respond to concerns created by emerging knowledge or early-stage technologies is for scientists from publicly funded institutions to find common cause with the wider public about the best mode of regulation. And this needs to be accomplished as early as possible. Once corporate scientists begin to dominate in a specific research field, it will be simply too late (Berg, Paul). Perhaps, we are now caught in that “technological momentum” of which Thomas Hughes spoke: in the course of its early development, a technology is easily malleable, but once it is embedded in a physical infrastructure, in trade agreements and in political rules, change is very difficult to accomplish.