Livin’ on the land of Big Tech: The gentrification of the internet
November 30, 2021 / Session / By Alex Linton
Originally published on the Session website on November 29, 2021.
Do you believe in technology? There is a raging enthusiasm for technology that courses through our history books, newsfeeds, and water-cooler conversations — technology is progress; it is power; it is making our lives better.
In the historical context, ‘technology’ could mean anything from the wheel to silicon-based central processing units, but nowadays technology isn’t just the things around us, it’s ‘tech’ — tech industry; big tech; technocrats; tech gadgets; tech for human rights; tech for an unlimited, automated utopia. It’s the fibre that weaves the fabric of our modern lives — or so we’ve been told. And the result is ever so predictable: the tech industry is the most dominant force in our global economy. But ‘tech’ is designed to centralise control into the hands of a rich and powerful few. Service providers—like Facebook—end up controlling all of the resources that run the internet we all rely on. Those means—which encompass everything from colossal server infrastructure to swathes of engineers building products—are overwhelmingly controlled by the biggest players in the game. This takes away the ability of the user (that’s you, by the way) to control how they experience the internet, removes the user’s power to make meaningful choices about the conditions they expect when living their digital lives, and forces someone else’s (self-serving) vision of the internet on the masses.
But people are getting sick of living on someone else’s internet, sick of having our internet-rent raised by Big Tech while they keep serving up the same exploitative, unimaginative platforms. We—the people—are building a new internet. An internet made by the people who use it, for the people who use it. It’s called web3, and it’s going to overthrow the power structures of web2 and usher in a new, user-driven internet. People don’t want to live under the thumb of Big Tech, and people are slowly finding ways to move on and create a new system that will distribute the power and control of the internet in a more fair, equal, and transparent way.
Tracing ‘techlash’: Throwing rocks at Big Tech
The last few decades have been the era of Big Tech’s peaceful rise. With tech journalists in-tow and everyone who walks the planet becoming a tech-consumer, ‘tech’ is the predominant social, cultural, and economic power of our time.
As ‘tech’ became bigger, more powerful, and more influential, journalists gleefully boosted tech companies and their ‘innovations’, acting less like journalists and more like stenographers. The mood in the industry was that everything was idealistic, brilliant, and paradigm-shifting, and if you didn’t fawn over it hard enough then you’d be voted off the island of prosperity. Somewhere along the way, things started to change.
Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Uber and the rise of the exploitative ‘gig’ model. Facebook and their Cambridge Analytica scandal. People revolted. There was a clear, palpable anger at the way that the ‘tech elite’ were conducting themselves and their businesses and the effect they were having on our communities, and the media finally started singing a more shrill tune — particularly when it came to the shenanigans of Big Tech.
We saw the #DeleteFacebook hashtag trending across pretty much every single web2 platform in existence, memes about Mark Zuckerberg’s limp Congress testimony, and the appearance of new Facebook ‘killers’ (like Vero) marketing themselves as free from advertisement- and data mining-free. Meanwhile, people like Sam Harnett started analysing how service-delivery tech companies like Uber came to become billion dollar companies with the help of swooning tech media. Dubbed ‘techlash’, this was supposed to be the beginning of an embattled tech-elite class struggling to hold its ground against a growing enraged mass.
But Big Tech had multiple morale-smashing moments to swiftly squash ‘techlash’. #DeleteFacebook? Doesn’t matter, Facebook keeps profiles about everyone they can, even if they do delete Facebook. Rallying against Uber and other serfdom-based service apps? Too bad, Proposition 22 just codified the gig-economy state law. (Note: Prop 22 has since been successfully challenged, and Uber and other ride-share companies are continuing to appeal the decision).
The message from Big Tech is clear: ‘We own this town, steer clear and just enjoy what we’ve given you’. At this point, Big Tech is so capital-B Big that it owns ‘tech’, it’s their world, and we’re just livin’ in it. They own the systems, platforms, and industries they built, and if we want to keep playing their game, we have to keep consenting to their rampant exploitation, mismanagement, and abuse of our online communities. But as much as Big Tech might monopolise the internet as we know it, the internet is still—at a protocol level—an open platform. We can make something else. We can make our own internet, which doesn’t enshrine and enforce a stagnant (from an abstract perspective) hierarchy of power.
Tech-optimism: Web2’s greatest weapon
The assumption that technological progress is a key performance indicator for a well-functioning civilisation has led us to this ferocious brand of ‘tech’ cultism where—in spite of some very limited amounts of scepticism and pessimism—we still Tweet about Facebook’s vision for the metaverse, pre-order the new iPhone, and binge Netflix on the weekend. ‘Tech’ is always on the tip of our tongues, and the underlying belief is that tech makes us happier, smarter, and better — a dogma which has been drilled into us by the companies, products, and media that makes up the ‘tech industry’. But (at risk of sounding like your old uncle who can barely send an email complaining about fandangled computerised devices) is the technology that’s captured our hearts, minds, and attention actually…good?
Most of the time when we see new products, trends, or innovations coming down the tech pipeline, we feel safe in assuming they’re going to have a positive effect on our lives. People who display any level of scepticism are simply ‘doomers’ or they ‘just don’t get it’. And if the luddites end up being right—and people start to see the ugly side of ‘tech’—the narrative that’s trotted out is generally that it’s not the technology that’s the problem, it’s the companies making it. We’re encouraged to be angry at Facebook, not the proliferation of algorithms. We make fun of Mark Zuckerberg, but not the unfair and unjust system which enables him. If we toss Mark out, there’s a Jeff Bezos ready to take his place. Eventually, we all grow tired of tech’s latest chosen one and move onto yet another idol preaching ‘don’t be evil’. But if we don’t target the entire institution of ‘technology’ that incubated, enabled, and repeatedly absolved companies like Facebook, we’ll keep ending up with Facebook by another name (and no, I don’t mean Meta). It might look shiny, we might be hopeful, but under the hood it’s the same problematic, flawed technology. Sick of Facebook? Try Google. Sick of Google? Try Amazon. The cycle of enclosure and exploitation continues. On and on. There will always be some new technology that will conveniently arrive just as we’re growing tired which solves the problems we found in the old technology. But no matter how much the tech changes, the people wielding power and control remain the same.
Over the last decade, we’ve finally seen a shift away from the general adoration of Big Tech, but there’s still a huge lack of critical thought about whether tech is really carrying the torch into our utopian future, or if it’s just automated oppression. With that in mind, as much as protesting the evils of tech corporations is a worthwhile cause — maybe it’s time to rage against the machine itself?
Building our own internet
A healthy, resilient, and fair internet isn’t created by a handful of individual private entities, but by its users. The people who use, work, and interact on the internet should be in control of what the internet looks like. This kind of participatory, community-first approach to rebuilding the internet is the only way to create something which actually serves the people, and not the companies trying to pump its stock price by selling the next big technological solution.
At the moment, users on the internet are rentpayers to the owners of web2, and we pay our dues in the form of personal information, and limited choices and freedom. Over time, rent has been going up and up — but what we’re getting hasn’t really changed. We are repeatedly mined for profits — the algorithm is hungry for more and more data, and borderline unintelligible privacy policies and underhanded data collection tactics have turned the information highway into a data-collection conveyor belt.
To create a non-exploitative, sustainable, and inclusive web, the new internet will need to be fundamentally different from the way that web2 currently exists. Because such drastic changes are needed, there might be some growing pains along the way, but work is needed to break the inertia of the market and push us towards a better, more democratic internet. The hailed saviour is web3, but the concept of web3 isn’t infallible or incorruptible either. At the start, web2 was also extremely idealistic, optimistic, and hopeful about how it would help the world, but over time its flaws have become plain for anyone to see. It’s important that we don’t let web3 get hijacked by the same power brokers that puppeteered their way up to the top of the web2 ladder. In fact, web3 shouldn’t really have a ladder at all.
The principles of web3 are there for anyone to read, but here are two of the elements which are most important to making sure our new internet is more equitable.
In ‘tech’, control means a few different things. Firstly, there is control over the software itself—the webpage you visit, the application you download, etc. The best tool we have for spreading and sharing control over software is through open-sourcing. Open-sourcing not only allows users to contribute directly to the software and create the changes they want to see, it also allows people to effectively xerox the project and start again if they see the software becoming too divergent from the interests of its users, or if different subsets of its users have different needs (after all, how can one tool be ‘right’ for billions of people). This also allows for more open, honest, and transparent discussions from anyone in the community who wishes to participate — even if they can’t write a single line of code. Secondly, there is control over infrastructure — an abstraction of all the server racks, cables, network connections, storage servers, etc. Democratising control over infrastructure is a lot more challenging than the software, because it requires users to have the technical and monetary resources to contribute to operating network infrastructure. However, the work of engineers can make it simpler for the average user of the internet to participate in operating server infrastructure and demystifying the role of infrastructure operators to give users more agency and control.
Without being able to audit technology, we cannot control it. At the moment, several large tech platforms have found themselves in an algorithm predicament. The issue being that even the creators of social media algorithms aren’t really certain of their inner workings, meaning we end up with algorithms which are semi-autonomous, non-sentient, amoral, and…control huge portions of our lives. It’s important that—as a community— we always keep one hand on the wheel of the technology we create. By creating technology which is open, we can collaboratively and independently audit the technology we are using. No locked boxes with wicked mysteries inside, no nasty surprises — we all know that it (tech) does what it says on the box.
FOSS FTW: Support Free and Open-Source Software
The existence of free and open-source software (FOSS) is one of the biggest steps towards this ‘better internet’. There are a lot of organisations, tech projects, engineers, and individual advocates working in the FOSS space already, and they are promoting and embodying many of the beliefs which are core to web3.
By supporting FOSS projects, you can help support the new, equitable, fair, and transparent internet that we were all promised 20 years ago. So go ahead, find a FOSS alternative, find a decentralised alternative, start adopting, participating, and advocating for technology which is made by and for us — the users.
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