In a column yesterday at Spiked, urban studies specialist Joel Kotkin, author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (2020), provided depressing evidence that the power of Big Tech is beginning to genuinely resemble the power medieval lords had over their serfs. It’s not just an office joke any more.
Google, he recounts, was part of an anti-authoritarian high tech culture when it went public in 2004. Its search engine technology, and others, were seen as empowering the little guy.
In 2018, for unclear reasons, Google dropped the famous “Don’t be evil” slogan. Since then, in Kotkin’s view, it is “increasingly becoming a force not for good, but for, well, evil.” He musters an impressive case for a slow but sure industry shift in that direction:
Back when I started reporting on Silicon Valley in the mid-1970s, many start-up companies were run by people who had revolutionary ideas about how to make society better. At the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, anti-capitalist demonstrators even held a minute’s silence when they heard that Steve Jobs had died. They hailed him as a liberator and maverick.Joel Kotkin, “Google: whatever happened to ‘Don’t be evil’?” at Sp!ked (July 20, 2022)
Times change. Google now controls 90% of the world’s search engine market and 75% of e-mail (1.5 billion monthly users).
Two outcomes he highlights are: Google is less innovative and more defensive of its dominance (a typical fate for Bigness of all kinds) and that its search engine and behavior have become ever more politicized. In creepy and possibly dangerous ways.
DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg, whose company offers a competing search engine that touts its privacy protections, told myself and Gerrit De Vynck during an interview Tuesday that Google is deploying manipulative design features, known as “dark patterns,” to trick users into abandoning rival products…
Since Google implemented the changes, DuckDuckGo said it has seen a significant drop — 10 percent — in how many new users it has been able to retain on its services on Chrome. DuckDuckGo said that has translated to hundreds of thousands of new users lost. (Chrome is the world’s most prevalent desktop browser by a wide margin.)Cristiano Lima, Aaron Schaffer via MSN News, “Charge: Google Hammering Competitors By Manipulating Browser Extensions” at Technocracy News & Trends (January 10, 2022)
We’re told that this was the first time a DuckDuckGo exec had spoken publicly about the problem. But readers who have tried installing DuckDuckGo as a search engine may well have encountered it. And if Google can’t destroy the competition, it can usually buy it.
Two other key changes Kotkin notes are 1) Silicon Valley itself features stark social disparities between homeless encampments/ car-dwellers and the tens of thousands of tech millionaires living very comfortably indeed. And 2) although Google started out politically non-partisan, beginning with the Obama administration (2008–2016), the Valley has become decidedly Democrat, putting its money where its mouth is and maintaining close relations with the current White House.
Here’s where it gets creepy
It’s not just about Silicon Valley being rich and powerful Kotkin tells us,
The tech oligarch’s greatest weapon against dissent lies in its ability to control the flow of information. Today’s tech firms seek to monitor thought just as much as the Catholic Church did in the Middle Ages. They have engaged in widespread de-platforming of largely conservative voices. And Google, through its algorithms, now removes or downgrades publications or individuals as it sees fit. It has become, as US News put it in 2016, ‘the world’s biggest censor’. To make matters worse, Google Chrome is widely cited for tracking its own users with ‘ubiquitous surveillance’ technology.Joel Kotkin, “Google: whatever happened to ‘Don’t be evil’?” at Sp!ked (July 20, 2022)
And they are after our minds as well. That’s not a conspiracy theory:
Google seems determined to extend its dominion over information. This year, it unveiled a plan to use its algorithms to encourage users to use more properly ‘inclusive’ language. The growing confluence of Google and the other dominant platforms with the executive state is even more worrying. This became especially clear during the pandemic, when online platforms engaged in the censorship of those voices, no matter how well-credentialed, who dared to question the official policy on Covid. Tech firms have been engaged in attempts this year to create a ‘disinformation board’ that would work to limit dissent from federally supported orthodoxy.
But this is just the beginning. Last year, Google announced a ‘crackdown’ on climate-change sceptics – including well-known scientists.”Joel Kotkin, “Google: whatever happened to ‘Don’t be evil’?” at Sp!ked (July 20, 2022)
It’s definitely not a conspiracy theory if the firm “unveils” and “announces” its intentions.
Not surprisingly, Kotkin notes, public opinion has been turning against Big Tech in recent years:
A 45% plurality of U.S. adults have a very or somewhat negative view of these firms, defined in the survey as “technology companies, such as Amazon, Facebook and Google.” Another 34% have a very or somewhat positive opinion of them, and 20% are neutral.
The one in three Americans with positive views of Big Tech reflects a decline from 46% in August 2019, while negative views have increased from 33% to 45%. And the proportion with a very negative view has more than doubled, from 10% to 22%.Megan Brenan, “Views of Big Tech Worsen; Public Wants More Regulation” at Gallup (February 18, 2021)
The pandemic helped shape the public’s increased distrust: “During the pandemic, Big Tech firms were able to rake in enormous profits, at a time when Main Street businesses were ordered to shut down.” (Kotkin)
Not surprisingly, the proportion of the public that wants more government regulation of Big Tech increased (from 48% to 57% according to Gallup). But, as Big Tech increasingly meshes and merges with Big Government, reform becomes difficult — all the more so as Big Tech controls the dissemination of information in a way that historic dictators have only dreamed of. However, also looking to history, what if Big Tech emphatically supports one party instead of paying off both? A party that comes to power despite its efforts, owes it nothing.
Not only is Big Tech a force for “evil” in Kotkin’s view but — more relevant to its position — a force that will work to limit innovation: “Following a remarkable epoch of greater dispersion of wealth and opportunity, we are inexorably returning towards a more feudal era marked by greater concentration of wealth and property, reduced upward mobility, demographic stagnation, and increased dogmatism.”
The independent Brave search engine (and others, no doubt), hangs on meanwhile — attracting attention for even doing so — and pioneers methods that give the user more control. Whether such innovations are permitted to thrive or eventually succumb depends largely on whether users accept their serf status or challenge it.
You may also wish to read: The Brave search engine survives; so does privacy still matter? Despite Google’s overwhelming dominance, Brave clocked 2.5 billion searches since this time last year. Not content just to survive, Brave is pioneering Goggles, which enables the user, rather than the company, to customize the search.