The power of Big Tech does not last forever
Image by Hugo Escalpelo on Flickr

Our lead researcher Haroon Sheikh writes a weekly column for Dutch newspaper NRC. In these columns, he shares his insights about changes in the global hegemony, economy and society. In this column he writes about the power of technology companies.

Like something ten times and an algorithm knows you better than your colleagues at work. 70 likes defeats a roommate and 300 beats your partner! This is according to a research by Cambridge University. If algorithms keep after us so much, the question arises who is behind them. Who controls the digital world?

The answer seems clear: hyper capitalism. Large technology companies in Silicon Valley rule the world. Apple’s market value approaches our annual GDP and Facebook has more users than China has citizens. Mark Zuckerberg could have political aspirations and Elon Musk has big plans for humanity; either in space or underground. Some Democrats and even Republicans vote to break up companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

The hope for the early internet was for it to liberate the individual citizen from centralized powers such as companies and governments. This dream seems to have shattered, but is experiencing a revival.

And yet it remains to be seen if the future belongs to them. At least two different scenarios are conceivable. First of all, the power of governments on the internet is growing. India has implemented the Aadhaar system, the largest biometric database in the world. The fingerprints and iris scans of over a billion Indians have been entered into a system linked to social benefits, citizen information and accounts. China is experimenting with sesame credits, a social credit system in which each citizen is given a score for their behavior. If you visit the gym four times a week, then your premium drops. Often spend your nights playing games? That reduces your chance to get into the best universities. This might seem hyper Orwellian. This kind of government has no need to go through your thrash and round you up. It can subtly ‘nudge’ your behavior. But are we not already being nudged in this way by companies such as Uber and AirBnB? If these governments were elected democratically, then this scenario might not be a bad alternative. Data could give the overstrained welfare state a new chance, allowing it to offer support where it is really needed.

There is another possibility. The hope for the early internet was for it to liberate the individual citizen from centralized powers such as companies and governments. This dream seems to have shattered, but is experiencing a revival. Cities such as Paris, Amsterdam and Barcelona are restricting global internet platforms like AirBnB and Uber and local, cooperative alternatives are being established. New technological developments also point towards decentralization. As algorithms become cheaper and more widely available, global platforms are able to monopolize less value. Encryption undermines surveillance and control. Based on technologies like blockchain, currencies and autonomous organisations are being developed which would make functions of banks and governments redundant.

This shows that the organization of the internet is anything but fixed. Technology is not deterministic. In the past, the developers of new technologies such as railroads, electricity and cars initially reigned supreme as well. In his new book From Luxury to Necessity, Sjoerd Bakker shows that, after every technological revolution, the largest value creation eventually occurs locally and close to citizens. Electricity dramatically changed the household; the car brought suburbia, shopping malls and restaurants within reach of the average citizen. But in the end, technology companies become general facilities – resources for citizens to improve their lives. The large internet platforms may seem incredibly powerful now, but just like electricity and railroads, they might merely be fulfilling a utility function later. If they know us better than our own partners, that might be just as well.

To read the article in Dutch, click here.