Managing Editor Zack Abrams attended a chat between author and Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar and Columbia professor R.A. Farrokhnia. The subject was Foroohar’s new book about Silicon Valley, Don’t Be Evil, which fails to consider the human component of Big Tech’s story.
In preparation for writing this article, I read a few books, attended a Twitter recruitment information session, and watched a bunch of cigarette ads from the 1960’s. Until recently, America’s tobacco companies, which have made billions upon billions in profit by making people sick over the last few decades, seemed poised to go die a slow death as smoking rates for the country’s youth plummeted. All that changed with the introduction of a USB-sized device called Juul. Sleek, trendy, and odorless, the vaping device led to a complete erasure of the gains made by anti-smoking activism over the past twenty years for teenagers.
Juul had successfully pulled off the Big Tech dream: dominate an industry through slick design and even slicker advertising, get millions hooked on your product, and stop to think about the consequences later. When Juul accepted $13 billion from Altria, the tobacco company behind Marlboro and other brands, it gave $2 billion back to its 1,500 employees as bonuses, a transparent bribe to look the other way as the industry they wanted to replace gained a 35% foothold in their own business.
The unicorn dream came to an end as Juul faced greater scrutiny for the epidemic of teen vaping, which escalated into a nationwide panic over 26 mysterious deaths from vaping-related illnesses. Altria has now lost billions as Juul frantically tries to control the media narrative and save itself from the tech sector’s greatest nemesis: government regulation. The throughline between the tobacco companies of old and the vaping companies of the modern era is clear: Fred Flintstone smoking a Winston during a commercial break in 1961 isn’t so different from Juul’s attempt to court celebrities and influencers into using their product. Juul’s failure, therefore, is merely acting as an evolution for the nicotine industry, rather than embodying a revolution. The famed disruptors of Silicon Valley are the ones who’ve truly gotten the world hooked while finding themselves off the hook entirely for the consequences of their relentless ambition.
It’s in this context that Financial Times columnist and CNN’s global economic analyst Rana Foroohar met for a “fireside chat” with R.A. Farrokhnia, a member of the Business School’s faculty, a board member of CJS’s Knight-Bagehot Program, and a fellow Columbia graduate. The discussion centered around Foroohar’s new book, Don’t Be Evil, which chronicles the ways in which Big Tech has disrupted our lives and the consequences thereof.
In her book, named for Google’s famous unofficial motto, Foroohar correctly diagnoses the faults in the business sector that have led to the accumulation of 80 percent of corporate wealth by 10 percent of companies: those which control the data and networks of the modern world. The tech sector was excused from regulations that apply to the telecommunications sector as the result of concentrated and expensive lobbying campaigns. Advancements in “captology,” which Stanford describes as “the study of computers as persuasive technologies,” have led to ever-increasing time spent on social media platforms. The army of lawyers that the tech corporations keep on retainer insulates them from rightful claims of intellectual property theft and shuts out the competition in any related sector.
Her investigation, however, is ultimately limited by imagining each actor in these tech firms as Homo economicus, the perfectly rational being that maximizes its utility within the constraints given. The Big Tech sector can therefore not be put at fault for what it has become; after all, it is simply operating within a favorable regulatory environment and with a consumer base willing to look the other way on the invasion of its privacy if that means getting cheaper stuff faster. It’s not their fault for breaking society, she argues, it’s our fault for not stopping them.
When asked about the worship of founders in Silicon Valley, such as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Travis Kalanick of Uber, Foroohar demurred by saying, “it’s more about, from a regulatory standpoint, what are the rules of the game and what do we incentivize?” The problem is that Big Tech firms have never had respect for the rules of the game; the worship they enjoy stems from the very fact of the founders ignoring those rules in service of their own unyielding vision. There is no greater incentive than the one this idolatry creates, the image of the founder as a collective savior.
A telling moment was when Foroohar was encouraged to directly confront the ethical consequence of her reporting: could she advocate for Columbia graduates to go into the tech sector, knowing what they know about it but faced with mounting student debt? Foroohar didn’t have an answer. Wall Street and Silicon Valley, by hoarding wealth and talent, have succeeded in creating an economy where selling out is one of few viable options, further perpetuating the cycle of inequality.
Unlike Wall Street, however, the disruptors have a cogent argument for the prospective Valley denizens who flock to their tables at information sessions and yearn for round after round of interviews: you’re not selling out, you’re changing the world. Despite all evidence of the people hurt when a privileged few exert their unilateral will on global society, from the Rohingya of Myanmar to the gig economy workers hanging on to financial stability by a thread, earnest graduates from all the top universities flock to tech companies, or even drop out to start their own. The essence of Big Tech isn’t the promise of optimized value for Homo economicus, but rather the dream of optimizing everyone else, no matter what they have to say about it. Who can say no to that? What does it mean for everyone else when they say yes?
Big Tech hates when you call them “Big Tech.” In any other industry, there’s a danger in any one person becoming too notorious: the Sackler family spent decades in the shadows making billions from Purdue Pharma, the company most responsible for the opioid crisis, but received far less press than “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli, who jacked up the price of one drug that around 2,000 Americans use but had a considerable more public — and punchable — face. When David Fincher made Mark Zuckerberg’s story famous with The Social Network, however, it only helped to solidify the legend of his origin in the eyes of self-styled disruptors across the nation. Zuckerberg was seen as an asshole, sure, but that wasn’t his weakness: it was his superpower.
The founders and executives who are blamed for the sins of Silicon Valley are driven by only two beliefs: that growth should come before all else, and that they have been given a divine right to decide the future. America has failed to regulate the former, all while reinforcing the cult of ego that encourages the latter. In this way, the titans of tech may have created the very thing that will sustain them. Not content with amassing the world’s money, data, or attention, Zuckerberg and Thiel and Bezos and all the rest want the credit, too, and we’re letting them have it. The last thing we want to do to our heroes is to regulate their power away.
We’ll have to see if that attitude continues should Foroohar’s prediction of a tech-led economic downturn come to pass. I have a feeling that the founders would find a way to shift responsibility or, at the very worst, take a golden parachute and regroup at their quiet mansions. Those engineers, lawyers, PR staff, and product managers seduced by the promise to revolutionize the world would be safe, of course. No one could blame them for following these prophets of a new era, simply doing their job by amassing and privatizing all that we hold valuable, as any Homo economicus would.
After all, can you name a single banker responsible for the Great Recession?
Event Photograph via Bwog Staff