The political power of technology firms is now undeniable, and it is only set to rise
The year of 2017 is off to a politically fiery start. President Trump, who has only been in office for a few months, has already caused huge and contentious debates across the world. One of his numerous executive order’s, which places travel restrictions on migrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, as so far been the most controversial. Many were left shocked and appalled.
Typically, technology firms, those in Silicon Valley in particular, have remained fairly quiet and on the sidelines, for the most part, whenever such political controversy arises. Many either project a mantra of political purity or seem to show little interest in such matters. Perhaps the reason for this apathy is to limit any potentially adverse impacts on or shifts in public relations; avoiding the debate rather than picking a side means that tech firms avoid the unforgiving viciousness of the political arena. It is how Alphabet ensures that it does “the right thing” and avoids “evil.”
Yet, while tech firms may claim this moral high ground, their work, no doubt, plays an important role in shaping the globe, and in a political sense too. Furthermore, the gravity of the political shifts taking place in the world today is such that the sidelines are no longer an option for many of them. This is evident in the move by many Silicon Valley firms to join the legal battle against President Trump’s executive order labelled as “a Muslim ban.” In fact, they were amongst the first to express their discontent. Ironically, around a month earlier, these firms were making efforts to build alliances with the new President, pictured at his famous Trump Tower. For now, those alliances have seemed to be put on hold.
In essence, the political influence of tech firms is now undeniable. One question some are asking now, as a rise against the political establishment rages in the West, is whether tech firms seek to reinforce these ideas of equality and prosperity for all, or if they actually achieve the opposite. What exactly is the role of tech firms in the midst of this mass disenchantment that has spread across many countries? What political and societal role will technology play in the future?
Why You Mad?
The dissatisfaction and resentment felt across numerous groups in the Western world are now at the fore of Western politics. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of populist leaders across Europe, from France to Italy, challenge the ideas which have shaped many societies and economies for decades. Globalisation, free trade, capitalism and liberal democracy have for a while seemed to be crucial to the development of opportunity and prosperity for all. However, the rise of populism, lately, now threatens these ideas and their legitimacy.
But the concept of populism is not a new one. The origins of such a movement can be dated back to the 18th century. During this time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau foresaw the rise of underdogs in society who felt victimised by the fast-moving progressions and advancements of society, and whose rage leads to a desire for vindication. In the 1890s, the urbanisation of America put the Democratic Party, representing those belonging to the agricultural-driven life, against the Republican Party which represented those who embraced this economic occurrence.
Populism, thus, can be characterised as a general opposition to the societal and economical progressions in the belief that either these significant changes will cause people to be left behind or that people’s lives overall will not be, or have not been, better. It is a strong scepticism of the economic, political and societal structures which appear to provide no benefit or do not further the prosperity of one’s welfare.
There are arguments which suggest that tech firms fuel this feeling of mass dissatisfaction. One of them involves the development of artificial intelligence. Computers and machines have contributed to the world economy for a while, but only recently have they improved enough to the extent that they could potentially replace humans in a wide range of work and occupations. Even those in medicine, law and even cybersecurity could be under threat from significant technological shakeups brought about by advancements in AI.
Although, even in the most prestigious of industries, the prospect of technology taking over is yet to be realised and is perhaps a while away still. Even so, those who occupy more routine tasks, like lorry and taxi drivers, have good reason to be concerned now. Developments in self-driving vehicles, fuelled by the work of Google, Uber and other tech firms, also go on to reinforce this idea that a certain group in society are about to be left behind. Only those who have the right talent, knowledge and expertise to build these machines and services will thrive, and everyone else will be left jobless and, thus, less prosperous. Essentially, this point of view suggests that tech firms are a part of an elite group which consume the benefits of globalisation and capitalism and only leave crumbs for the rest.
This is what the future may hold. But recently, tech firms have taken a stance against President Trump’s executive order, championing immigration. It makes sense, since a significant amount of employees at these firms come from around the world. Apple may not exist without immigrants; the biological father of Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder, was from Syria. This then counters the idea that tech firms play a part in populism. Yet, the other side can be found with the boycotting of Uber; after taxi drivers went on strike during protests of the travel ban in New York, Uber did not, seemingly taking advantage of the chaos. #DeleteUber trended on Twitter.
Who Will Run the World?
Even in light of recent events, and even looking into the future, the impact of tech firms may not always be of this nature. Additionally, tech firms may not even intend to infuse such intense pique. But the rising political clout of their activity is inevitable. These firms, responsible for building self-driving cars, chatbots, fitness trackers, smartphones and other products and services, are building the future. Modern technology has advanced humanity faster and more drastically than any other industrial revolution or major economic change in the past, and will more than likely continue to do so. To stop the improvements of technology today is almost unthinkable.
Tech firms are ultimately helping to create a world that humanity has been ultimately striving for; ubiquitous eternal prosperity. Self-driving cars are being built to hopefully reduce road traffic accidents, chatbots allow users to execute tasks on their mobile devices in a more seamless and efficient manner, improving productivity, fitness trackers will provide more effective tips for diets exercise regimes to lose weight or gain muscle. All these technological goods and services all aim towards this end goal of great wellness, and the ones who will be driving this will be the tech firms. Thus, the political and legal momentum they will gather will put them in a position of immense authority, whether they intend to be there or not.
Take self-driving cars. Such an evolution, which has been dreamt of for years prior, will come with, realistically, unavoidable ethical and legal complexities. Programmers contributing to the development of self-driving cars, and implementing some sort of smart-crash avoidance software, will have to make the choice of whether the car prioritises the protection of the passenger or a mother and child crossing the road. Typically, tech firms, technologists and programmers alike, have left such questions to the free market. After all, the customer is always right. The internet is a good example of this; during its early development, the security, safety and legal questions surrounding it were never truly attended to. The result is a platform which has caused many legal problems, intellectual property to privacy, and is to a large extent quite unsafe and open. But tech firms will no longer be able to continue with this narrow, business-dominated mindset, and refrain from such ethical and legal issues.
Thus, the political significance of tech firm can only rise, as they build the world of the future. They will pose difficult questions for policymakers, lawmakers and world leaders. The current political climate sees tech firms being a part of the debates taking place, but they will soon be initiating and the heading them regularly and on a broader scale. There is little doubt, though, that technology has improved the world in numerous ways. The question now is to what extent will this continue?