TThe thing about history is that it repeats itself sometimes. As for the tech industry, we saw that last year and it looks like we’ll see it again in the year that has just started.
But first things first: 2021 was the year in which it finally became clear that freeriding, which Google and Co. had been enjoying for two decades, was coming to an end – that tech would become a regulated industry. It was unclear exactly how this would turn out, but the direction of travel was unmistakable.
In the United States, for example, the new Biden administration began to recruit bright minds who understood the social dangers of unbridled corporate power. People like Lina Khan, who is now the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, the country’s main regulator; or Tim Wu, now a member of the National Economic Council of the White House responsible for antitrust and competition law; or Jonathan Kanter, a senior antitrust attorney, now assistant attorney general. And so forth. Given that all of the leading tech companies are based in the US, these were the most important moves, but there have also been signs other parts of the world (including the UK Competition and Markets Authority) that democracies are emerging from their long slumber while Corporations had prospered obscenely.
The tech companies saw this coming, of course, and it was scary to see their responses mirroring the tobacco and energy companies’ playbooks of an earlier time, such as those described by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their 2010 book. Traders In Doubt: How a handful of scientists have obscured the truth on topics from tobacco smoke to global warming. The other day, Andrew Bosworth, the new Chief Technology Officer of Meta (nee Facebook), was asked if he thought that “vaccine hesitation was the same with or without social media.” His answer is literally: “I think Facebook ran what is probably the largest Covid vaccination campaign in the world. What else can you do when some people who can get this real information from a real source choose not to get it? This is your choice. They are allowed to. You have a problem with these people. You have no problem with Facebook. You can not do this to me.”
Sounds familiar? This is what oil companies came up with when they invented the idea of the “carbon footprint” – i your Footprint in the biosphere, not theirs. It is the responsibility displacement strategy: since it is a free country, no one is forcing you to do anything that harms you. Childhood obesity is the responsibility of the child or their parents. Alcoholism happens because she do not “drink responsibly”. The radicalization of the mass shooter is not YouTube’s responsibility. It is always your fault, not the manufacturer of the addictive product.
Next. Looking ahead to 2022, we can expect a repetition of this eternal staple food of capitalism: irrational exuberance – the phenomenon that, as the economist Robert Shiller puts it, “news of price increases arouses investor enthusiasm, which spreads psychologically”. Contagion from person to person, amplifying stories that might justify the price rise, attracting an ever larger class of investors who, despite doubts about the real value of the investment, are drawn partly out of envy of others’ successes and partly by the excitement of a gamer ”.
This de nos jours tulip mania has been going on for some time with cryptocurrencies, but it gets angrier as the notion that blockchain – the cryptographic technology that Bitcoin, Ethereum et al. Underlying – the basis for something called Web3 can become: a new, properly decentralized version of the World Wide Web (compared to the current version in which control has been effectively centralized in a small number of giant companies).
In principle, this is an interesting idea – to create an alternate world of finance, commerce, communication and entertainment that could radically transform essential elements of the world economy – and that is not controlled by banks and governments. But for those of us cursed with memories of the past, this has a sense of deja vu. It reminds us of the beginnings of the internet in the 1980s when it evoked utopian dreams; Here, we believed, was finally an invention that had the potential to dissolve the sclerotic power structures of the old world and become a force for democratization and human empowerment.
Of course it didn’t work out that way. We underestimated the cunning and ruthlessness of corporations, the weakness of governments, and the fact that many of our fellow human beings were content to be passive couch potatoes, albeit with streamed boxing sets.
Given the dream of Web3, the obvious question is: will history repeat itself? Only time can tell. In the meantime from this recovering utopia: Happy New Year!
What i have read
The Liberty of Local Bullies is a beautiful 2011 essay by Noah Smith on the boundaries of libertarianism.
Moderation or death is the masterpiece of Christopher Hitchens LRB Review of a biography of Isaiah Berlin by Michael Ignatieff.
In the Beginning What the Command Line is a memorable essay by Neal Stephenson on personal computers, programming, and operating systems.