In the hysteria surrounding Amazon’s RFP for a second headquarters, a lot of people have had fun mocking cities or states that have submitted bids with no realistic shot (I’m looking at you Danbury, CT.) Aside from the surprising comfort Americans seem to have with treating cities like American Idol contestants and the unsurprising willingness of many elected officials to submit to such indignity, this hasn’t raised many serious questions as a country.
But it should. How did a company get this powerful? How healthy is it that one company is retroactively creating a company town in the 21st century? What precedent is this setting for other big tech companies?
That could change with the revelation that Chicago is effectively endorsing massive wage theft as part of their proposal. That the 3rd biggest American city — which, along with the state it is in, isn’t doing so well financially — felt compelled to offer up billions in public money to Amazon should terrify all of us. But I’m skeptical that it will.
That’s because we, along with our civic institutions, have already surrendered to Big Tech. Companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple dominate our economy and society like no other companies in the history of the US. Not even during the height of the Gilded Age did Standard Oil or US Steel come close to dominating so many aspects of daily life.
Those companies were eventually broken up because they were seen as too powerful and too dominating. Rightfully so. They were killing the country. Capitalism is supposed to work for democracy, not the other way around.
In the Gilded Age, millions of Americans suffered because our country forgot that. Eventually, the sustained efforts of muckraking journalists, progressive politicians, and radicalized citizens ultimately led to the realignment — however imperfect — of American society that reached its high water mark during the New Deal.
However, today, we have forgotten the lesson of the Gilded Age entirely and those three groups are failing to make the same efforts to fight back. Our country’s peace and prosperity can’t last if they/we continue to acquiesce.
Tech journalism is for stenographers
We’ve seen a steady erosion of trust in media and certainly big tech has played a role consciously and subconsciously. That’s a well-travelled story. How terrible tech-related press has always been is not.
Part of this history stems from the tech industry coming of age outside of the media capitals of LA and NYC. There just weren’t that many people writing about tech in the early years, so few people understood it at a structural level (or at a technical level). The culture has simply never had a skeptical media auditing its evolution, which allowed it to develop some toxic habits.
When the media did start to question tech, albeit in a flawed manner like Valley Wag, the industry stood by as Peter Thiel crushed it — stomping on the very rhetoric of transparency and competition that supposedly defined tech culture.
What we are left with is a fawning tech press that chases each new trend, product, or founder with minimal skepticism and maximal deference. Rarely does tech press report on the racism, sexism, classism, and outright fraud that define much of the culture.
When journalists in tech are seen as “influencers” and “trend-forecasters” rather than truth-sayers and bullshit filters, we all suffer for the lack of transparency and accountability. Brave individuals like Susan Fowler have no one to turn to. Someone outside of the valley exposed Theranos. It took way too long for Juicero to look as stupid as it clearly was.
Terrible tech press is a big problem for all of us. Tech companies have a lot to answer for, but outside a small circle of investors and board members, they rarely have to.
Elected officials are clueless or too clued-in
Who elected Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg? We live in a democracy. That means we elect people to represent the will of the people. The fact that you’re rolling your eyes right now shows how far from that we’ve strayed. Yes, it’s flawed, but someone has to decide how to organize our society, and we have wisely tried to create a system where legitimacy rests with the people through our elected leaders.
It’s sad that so many mayors and governors have embarrassed themselves both on camera and on paper for Amazon, but the only outlier with Amazon is the sheer scale of its 2nd headquarters. This subjugation of the public good to private interest is the norm and has been for decades in one form or another.
Our elected leaders, particularly in the federal government have internalized private interest over the public good in breathtaking fashion. The tax bill and the repeal of net neutrality are just the logical conclusions of this trend. Most Americans are opposed to both, but that doesn’t seem to matter. The donor class gets what it wants.
If elected officials aren’t cynical or opportunistic, they are clueless about how the tech economy works and how tech companies think. They try to incorporate ride-sharing apps into transit planning instead of charging them for using our roads. They team up with Google to install fiber networks without treating them like public utilities. They hand out massive subsidies for company relocations instead of investing in long-term infrastructure to entirely create new ecosystems.
These companies want more customers, market share, and protection from competition. They don't want to help cities in any meaningful or lasting way with their services. Relying on them as strategic partners is a colossal mistake. Too many officials seem oblivious to that.
There is little incentive for an elected official to worry about the future beyond immediate media and election cycles. There is little belief in the power of good governance and strong government in general at most levels. That leaves us with a vacuum in leadership and vision that tech companies are all too happy to fill to serve their own ends.
We are lazy shitheads
Before you think I’m casting stones, I’m part of the problem too: I have Apple products, I have Amazon Prime, I have Facebook, and I use Google all the time. Why wouldn’t I? They do things we want, really well. No one is at fault for using products that are useful. The power of social networks coupled with convenience has made these companies wildly successful for good reason.
However useful these products are to us as consumers, we are guilty of letting convenience and low cost cloud our judgment as citizens. We are just as indifferent about the labor practices of Apple with workers in China as we are to the last mile Amazon delivery people in America. We are as indifferent about the lack of privacy we have on Facebook as we are with the amount of information we freely give to Google.
I sincerely believe that we do this to some degree because many people assume there are safeguards on these companies. Somebody somewhere is watching to make sure they do the right thing, right? We have agencies that do that. We have courts that do that. We have competitors that keep companies honest. But that isn’t true.
So much of our political discourse talks about how government is inefficient and that we should trust the market to solve our problems. We have let this mindset seep into all corners of our society and undermine all of our public institutions, including our role as active citizens. As a result, the market has seeped into all corners of our government, blurring the distinction between corporate will and government will.
We’ve consistently undermined labor laws that people died for not 100 years ago. We’ve consistently sold off public assets to short term private gains at the expense of long-term investment. We’ve consistently surrendered our agency to stand up to corporations in court. Big tech came around after these trends started certainly, but it has been the biggest beneficiary.
For what it’s worth, I have been guessing that Amazon picks Washington, DC (or close by) just for that reason. Particularly in light of the 2016 election, people are starting to notice and to question the power of Big Tech. These companies are increasingly concerned that their unparalleled power could be in danger and are responding with spending millions in political lobbying. Given this emerging paradigm, it’s logical for Amazon to set up camp closer to the center of government to influence policy at a deeper level.
Alternatively, I can envision Big Tech actually splitting up elements of their operations to dispense across more regions in the country. Just as military contractors spread their operations across as many Congressional districts as possible, it’s easy to see the advantage of Big Tech following suit for the same reason. The military-industrial complex serves as a useful model to the technology-industrial complex. Both are too powerful and too destructive to our civic health.
In either case, unless we collectively stand up to Big Tech, we can expect a lot more embarrassing and shameful pitches from mayors and governors. And we will have many cool, convenient ways to watch them do so.