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Shifting Attitudes Towards Big Tech

-- By EthanMackay - 10 Nov 2017

Some Unscientific Observations

Here are some things I hear people say. They say that Instagram makes them feel sad but they go on it anyway. They complain that they watch too much Netflix or shop online too much but cannot seem to stop. They say they are creeped out by the possibility of Apple or Amazon listening in, but they buy the products anyway. They say they find targeted advertising creepy. They say that they are unable to focus in life because of the constant beckon of their phones, feeds, and shows. I think anyone of my age and background would tell you they’ve heard similar things. These observations support an opening premise of our course: people are addicted to technologies. These technologies surveil us, and by submitting to them, we fuel a data collection machine that is too powerful for control by a select few. Regrettably, it is controlled by a select few. For the purpose of this post, however, I’m more interested in another indication of these observations: people don’t want to be addicted. More than this, people hate being addicted. I want to think this hate is growing and could be a different sort of fuel. Fuel that allows us to escape the machine and build a new, decentralized one. I’m not just saying we hate when Apple pushes out an update and we can’t find a button we used to use. I’m saying we hate the effects these services have had on our lives, our friendships, and our relationships. Maybe my belief is just a coping mechanism. Maybe I’m just na´ve. Anyway, in an effort to support my wholly unscientific belief, I’m going to try to lay out some evidence of this trend in the attitudes of people toward big technology companies.

A Cultural Shift

When I was in college, I used to hear stories from excited friends of the surprising questions Google interviewers asked, the interesting projects Facebook coders work on, and all the free food on the utopian campuses. It was far cooler to go to Twitter than to Goldman. Now I don’t hear people talk about those perks and those cultures unless they’re making fun of them. The depiction of the fictional company “Hooli” in HBO’s Silicon Valley is probably the most prominent evidence of this shift in attitudes toward big tech. The show doesn’t seem to have one nice thing to say about the Google-Facebook-Apple-Amazon-Microsoft stand-in. Another prominent example is a recent South Park episode, in which the creators satirized Facebook’s peddling of fake news (and specifically made fun of Mark Zuckerberg’s roboticism and self-importance). But these companies aren’t just mocked by cultural commentators, they’re also feared. In 2013, a book called The Circle, by Dave Eggers, was a bestseller. The book is a warning about the power of big technology companies to create, through omnipresent surveillance, a very different world. Eggers depicts a company led by megalomaniacs, disguised as prophets, who don’t appreciate the damage they’re doing to individual rights (it was later turned into a mediocre movie featuring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson). And then there's the term, “The Frightful Five," which I only heard for the first time last month. It refers to Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook. A quick Google Trends analysis suggests the term is a recent invention that has grown in popularity over past weeks, partly as a result of this article by Doug Chayka.

Abusing Power Isn’t Cool

This cultural shift seems to me to come from increasing popular recognition that big technology companies wield awesome power and that they have already used it for evil and selfish purposes. They spend huge amounts of money on lobbying. They cheat by manipulating services that people view as utilities in order to make more money. They push around the little guy when they don’t like what he says. They rip off each other’s features in a naked effort to destroy their rivals. They peddle fake news, and thereby distort our very democracy, then claim they had no idea it was happening. They use our data in illegal ways that we don’t know about. They buy an app we like, break promises made by the founder regarding privacy, then pay a fine and walk away happy. On top of their misconduct, they are also critical to the success of our economy. In fact, since the start of 2017, the Frightful Five has been responsible for 37% of the S&P 500’s gains. These are prominent news stories and I think they have spooked people.

Individual Shifts

When I look for evidence that this broad cultural shift is resulting in individual consequences, the task becomes more difficult. I can look to adblock use, which is rising, with 615 million devices using it worldwide at the end of 2016. I can look to Virtual Private Network use, which is also rising. One source says that 3 in 10 internet users had used VPNs in early 2017. I can look to the amount of support net neutrality has received. Around 125,000 people signed a petition to protect it. Despite the cultural indications, it's hard to find strong evidence that the hate is beating the addiction. As of September 2017, around 20 million virtual assistants have been sold by Amazon and Google.


It seems to me that people want out. Or they at least want a change. The popularity of Adblock, VPNs, apps like StayFocusd? and SelfControl? show this. But maybe we're still in the early phases. Maybe the right solution hasn’t been invented yet. Maybe it has (e.g. free software) but it hasn’t been marketed or distributed properly. At the very least, I am encouraged that there is some movement in the right direction. At the same time, I am disturbed by how slight the movement sometimes seems.

Revision 1r1 - 10 Nov 2017 - 19:42:00 - EthanMackay
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