Hate to burst your (Tech) Bubble (2.0), but…

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Is that Jeff Bezos, somehow hanging on to his business model of underpaying employees and undercutting competition? Lee Lim

Is the Silicon Valley gold rush coming to an end?

In early November, Meta – the company that owns Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram – announced that it would fire over 11,000 of its employees. That’s about 13 per cent of its workforce.

Since September 2021, Meta’s stock value has fallen 75 per cent, losing over $800 billion. During the same week when Meta’s mass firing was announced in early November, Elon Musk – the new owner of Twitter – fired or scared off over half of its workers. Snap, the parent company of Snapchat, just downsized its staff by 20 per cent, and Amazon announced a hiring freeze. So, what’s going on in Silicon Valley?

A bubble, many are saying; ‘Tech Bubble 2.0’ to be precise. The first came in the late 1990s, commonly referred to as the ‘dot-com’ bubble. With the internet rising in popularity, investors saw its enormous potential as a new center of commerce. They weren’t wrong, but they were overzealous. Any company with the ‘.com’ suffix was a brilliant investment, they thought. Low interest rates in the late 90s only exacerbated the problem. Money was easy to come by, and investors were wantonly throwing that money into cyberspace. The market had been flooded with overvalued, underproducing tech companies. And then, pop. Only the strong survived.

The pandemic radically altered many aspects of our lives. In particular, we spent a lot more time online, and we spent a lot of that time shopping. Increased internet traffic and an explosion of online shopping was, obviously, a boon for Big Tech. But now that many of us have returned to our pre-pandemic behaviours, that internet traffic and online shopping has significantly decreased. Consequently, stock prices have tumbled. Amazon’s stock price, for example, has fallen nearly 50 per cent in the past year.

The burst may be imminent. Mergers, acquisitions, liquidation, and insolvency are all on the menu. When a bubble bursts, inevitably the number of competing companies decreases. Those that do survive are able to capture larger shares of their respective markets. With fewer competitors, will the behemoths of tech consume even more of the market? Will the trend toward oligopoly continue in Big Tech?

In the history of capitalism, there have always been influential captains of industry. But why do these tech billionaires seem so peculiar? I’m thinking especially about the philanthropy and the visionary pretenses of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates. Musk wants to get humanity off fossil fuels. Bezos also plans to spend unfathomable amounts of money combating climate change. Gates has spent decades in philanthropic initiatives, particularly in the field of agriculture.

It’s a grotesque marriage of social justice and sci-fi dystopia. This ethos has been called “solutionism,” which Wiktionary defines as the “belief that all difficulties have benign solutions, often of a technocratic nature.” Big Tech, most notably Musk and his various companies, now seem to believe that it is their prerogative to create the future. Yes, they offer us a future, but one barely worth living in.

Take, for example, the electric vehicle. As a form of transportation, are electrified vehicles the most effective way to combat climate change and lower greenhouse gas emissions? The past century has been dominated by the automobile. In North America, at least, we’ve single-mindedly transformed public infrastructure to accommodate these vehicles. Cities surrender public space to the road, to the overpass, and to the beltway. And suburbia is impossible without the automobile. So, yes, the automobile facilitated that mass exodus of the White working class from the inner city to the suburbs. The prevalence of the car has spelled the destruction of public space, the pollution of our immediate environment, and racist white flight. Tesla wants you to believe that remaining on this trajectory is the best path forward.

This is only one example. But this example demonstrates that, if effective climate action is to be taken, a more radical vision of the future is required. Big Tech hasn’t formulated this vision, and they never will, because self-interested actors don’t like making themselves obsolete. Bear with me.

In the past half-century, China has irrefutably proven that capitalism and democracy, whatever they might mean, are not always co-existent. The windbag ideologues of capitalism have long claimed that free markets necessitate a free people, and vice versa. They claimed there is something inherent in capitalism that makes it incompatible with authoritarian government. The internet has always had proponents that said the same thing. The internet is an inherently democratic technology, we were told. The free, unlimited exchange of information will make a liberated and well-educated public.

Your smartphone is one of the most astonishing pieces of technology ever created. The sum of human knowledge is contained in a device that fits in your pocket. Every conceivable question a person could ask can be answered in a matter of seconds. How many centimetres in a foot? When did the Ottomans conquer Constantinople? What is Kepler’s third law of planetary motion? Where is the nearest Tim Horton’s? In spite of this unlimited access to knowledge, your uncle still pontificates over Thanksgiving dinner that aliens from the planet Nibiru built the Egyptian pyramids.

The past decade has also shown Big Tech’s capacity for egregious breaches of privacy. In this regard, Big Tech’s crimes are too numerous to even begin listing. They’re capable of collecting and storing all of our data, and they have shown that they can be unscrupulous about what they do with that data. At this point, it’s laughable to expect much privacy while using the internet.

Rhetorical question: could the average person living in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union reasonably expect privacy from the state? Of course not. Big Tech has constructed a surveillance apparatus exponentially more effective and pervasive than those of the totalitarian states of the 20th century. Stalin would blush.

Tech Bubble 2.0 is probably here. It will mean ruin for many, and especially for those least responsible. To make the situation even more dire, the aftermath may further consolidate power into those handful of giant tech companies like Amazon, Google, Meta, Microsoft, and Apple. As their influence grows, their capacity for well-intentioned “solutions” also grows. We should always be wary of those who have taken it upon themselves to emancipate humanity because, as the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran wrote, “to free a man does not necessarily mean to save him.”

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