Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, The Economist wrote that capitalism’s “health will now determine the future of civilisation”. Today, big tech pretends to take civilisation into the next century. It produces vast new troves of wealth assuring us how we citizens can literally “reach for the heavens.”
In reality, only the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson can blast into space on their own rockets. We mortals are condemned to live in hell experiencing severe headaches and dizziness caused by the exhaust fumes of their rockets. China too is dreaming of building a palace in the sky. After all, it built the Temple of Heaven in Beijing in the first half of the 15th century which is among the most visited sites in the country.
In joining the race for space, China evokes “scientific socialism” which is enshrined in the constitution. If truth be told, its ambition is guided by civilisational myth. Shenzhou (divine land) is a spacecraft developed by China to support its crewed spaceflight programme and Tiangong (heavenly palace) is the name of the space station being constructed in low earth orbit. Obviously, China’s dream of a pie in the sky is an extension of its mythology. The much tom-tommed digital age is an age of disruptive power. Way back in the 1970s, futurist Alvin Toffler had warned us of “information overload”. Today, big data poses a serious threat to the state, society and democracy. Big tech is challenging the core capacities of institutions. Their universe is expanding astronomically.
Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook, described by New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo as “the frightful five,” have transformed life beyond our imagination ~ how we communicate, do business, entertain ourselves, what and where we eat and who we make friends with. Digital data is available from internet, social media, smart phones, surveillance cameras, etc. Having more data is not necessarily having quality data. Digital technology has blurred the distinction between the so-called open and closed societies.
The worst fears of both George Orwell and Aldous Huxley are becoming manifest in both the systems, creating a different kind of dystopia. We are confronted with digital alienation and techno-feudalism. No less alarming is the fear of epistemic blindness. Digital dictatorship is another challenge. Every aspect of our lives ~ our voices, our facial expressions, our political affiliations and intellectual predilections ~ are mined and monetised. In the age of surveillance society and digital dictatorship, can democracy survive? Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari projects a scary scenario. He foresees unprecedented upheavals created by infotech and biotech which will erode “human agency and, possibly, human desires.
Under such conditions, liberal democracy and free-market economics might become obsolete.” Once people lose their economic value, will it take long for big tech to capture political power? Technology is double-edged. It enables innovation but it also disrupts. The same technologies that have made billions of people economically irrelevant have also made them susceptible to monitoring and control. Last November, Chinese vice-foreign minister Le Yucheng mocked western democracy saying “China’s whole-process people’s democracy is not the kind that wakes up at the time of voting and goes back dormant afterwards.”
Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook are more powerful than many governments. With size comes power. Google is now the biggest spender on political donations in the US. These are perhaps too big to be tamed. Their profits and share prices have multiplied astronomically. Most have taken advantage of political patronage. Their opaque tax structures have been overlooked. Last year, Rolls-Royce, one of the most expensive cars in the world, sold more vehicles than it had ever done. While nearly all economies have contracted during the Covid pandemic, the “frightful five” and some other tech giants have made more money than ever. Big tech can very well be termed as pandemic capitalists. They may be pining for a permanent pandemic! It will gladden the hearts of the pandemic diehards. Big tech companies extract data from users and sell their likely choices, likes and dislikes to advertisers.
Rather than the internet becoming the time square of the 21st century, spawning what Brook Manville calls “digital democratic utopia,” it has given rise to “cyber bullying, manipulative analytics, fake news and authoritarian surveillance.” Byung-chul Han, a South Korean-born Swiss-German philosopher and cultural theorist says that such is the impact of internet technology and social media that we have begun to “desire our own domination.” Our personal data is now monetised and commercialised. He goes on to assert that “in Hegelian term, we have escaped the master-slave dialectic by becoming both master and slave in one.” People have become victims of what is called “mass formation hypnosis” ~ people can be brought into a collective trance that makes them easy to manipulate and prone to acting in ways that are contrary to reason and evidence.
Will technology kill democracy or reinvent it? Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, in his book The Curse of Bigness, has called for the break-up of Facebook as big tech is killing democracy. A few years down the line it will be possible for each voter to receive “a different message and a different campaign pledge” from the same candidate. Politics will thus turn into “a data science.” Democracy is already suffering as a result of intellectual laziness. Big tech has prospered like pandemic capitalists. Industrial capitalism in the 20th century was tamed through employment rights, collective bargaining and regulation.
Big tech has now become a super government. It obeys none and fears none. It fights no election. Big corporates are eroding democracy using a system of legalised bribery. In 2014, Northwestern and Princeton researchers published a report which said that lawmakers do not listen to what most voters want. They mostly care about serving their big donors. This is happening in India too. Failure to tame corporate power will have disastrous consequences. It will lead to further widening of rich-poor divide and its consequences for democratic politics are not hard to imagine. History tells us that such politics will lead to populism, petty nationalism and extremism.
Tim Wu believes that “we are in grave danger of repeating the signature errors of the twentieth century.” All said, it was love at first sight with the internet, the dazzling technology. As MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle says, “we were like young lovers who didn’t want to talk” thinking it would “ruin the romance.” Now that the romance has become an ugly love, “it is time to talk.
(The writer is director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi)