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How colossal power afforded to social media giants is unsustainable: Bit Tyrants by Rob Larson, review

When we discuss the state of modern capitalism, the modern tech company cannot go without mention. The advent of the World Wide Web and the Windows operating system created colossal platforms for further innovation. From this came search engines, social media, online shopping and now portable devices as sophisticated as many computers.

This manifests itself most obviously in Silicon Valley. The home of tech giants such as Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and Facebook, all of these companies have amassed colossal power in so many spheres of life. Increasingly, however, across the political aisle, there is a recognition that the colossal power afforded to the social media giants is unsustainable.

 Within the liberal centre and the conservative right there has been an increased focus on social media and its ever-increasing impact on political discourse. The Cambridge Analytica scandal and concern about fake news and foreign interference in elections has driven much of the concern on the centre.

Conversely the conservative right, particularly in the United States, has claimed there is a bias against conservative media across social media. This has led to mainstream attention, with Elizabeth Warren’s Presidential campaign supporting tougher anti-trust legislation to break up the Silicon Valley giants and legislation such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation Act ensuring more transparency in how tech companies used the data of private citizens.

Otherwise, the rise of socialist and social democratic leaders such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders saw an increased level of discussion of the conditions of workers within Amazon “Wish Fulfilment” Centres.

It is within this context that Tacoma University Professor Rob Larson’s most recent book “Bit Tyrants” sits. Pulling these seemingly disparate issues together, Larson views the problems of “big tech” as a familiar tale of capitalism’s contradictions. Critiquing “big tech” through the lens of democratic socialism, Larson sees the monopoly power of Silicon Valley’s corporations as fundamentally the same story as that of the “robber barons” of the 1920’s. The tech giants are a cartel, with the success of their firms allowing them immense economic, social and political power.

First of all, Larson goes through each of the different companies from Microsoft through to Facebook, looking at the beginnings of each company through to how they act with the huge market share they currently have. With each company, Larson comes to a similar conclusion, albeit with slightly different focuses. Today’s big tech companies have ruthlessly gained their power, often hardly through innovation or fair competition, and largely abuse it.

In Larson’s analysis, consumers are given products that, despite what these platforms afford them, have significant problems. This because of, not in spite of, their model of ownership and monopoly status. This encompasses everything from the events that led to the 2001 anti-trust trial of Microsoft, to the colossal collection of user data from Google, Amazon or Facebook and the scandals surrounding “built in obsolescence” for Apple’s iPhone.

When discussing the conditions of workers, Larson moves beyond the mainstream discussions regarding this. The rise of the left in the last decade has renewed discussions about the treatment of the blue-collar workforce of tech companies, but Larson also sees faults in the treatment of the white-collar office workers. Whilst the blue-collar labour force is subject to appalling work conditions and poor pay, workers within Silicon Valley are subject to an authoritarian workplace culture that stifles the undoubted creativity of those who work there.

The second half of “Bit Tyrants” discusses issues that go beyond the tech companies and towards deeper, less obviously connected problems. One of these issues is Net neutrality, the principle that all data be treated the exact same by internet service providers. It became a viral internet cause during the midpoint of the last decade before its 2018 repeal, conspicuously following Silicon Valley’s withdrawal of opposition.

Larson then more clearly refutes the notion that much of the fundamentals of these platforms were created by the innovation of markets. One example mentioned is how the creation of the internet was originally to serve the US military . Whilst these may seem at first as asides from the broader point of “Bit Tyrants”, it illustrates very plainly both how needless and harmful private ownership of these platforms are for the rest of society.

There is then a brief section on the politics of Silicon Valley, discussing the relationship between the giants and governments from the US to China. The book’s final chapter whoever discusses what the alternative to the “big tech” giants are, namely how to democratise these platforms. This is where the book falls slightly short.

This section does effectively discuss the challenges of creating a truly democratised internet due to the global nature of modern capitalism. It also broadly suggests a vision of an internet in line with democratic socialist and cooperative principles. The narrative of workplace democracy over state control doesn’t quite rise above preaching to the converted, however. In comparison to the first half of the book, the final chapter doesn’t connect the socialist ideal with a more traditionally accepted view of “big tech”.

A vital aspect of the history of these platforms is that of the alternatives that were rejected or remain as minor footnotes in the history of computing and the internet. The most obvious example of this is open source software. Programs like Audacity are used by millions and millions of people every year, the Linux operating system and its different versions are used by a surprising number of people given the colossal power of Microsoft and Apple and Mozilla Firefox is also very popular.

This idea has traditionally been discussed more in the context of a “populist”, Ron Paul-style libertarianism, and this seems like a great loss.  This isn’t to say that open-source software will single-handedly democratise the internet, far from it. They do however offer a microcosm of the socialist vision of these platforms, accessible, transparent and cooperatively managed.

This slight limitation aside, Rob Larson’s “Bit Tyrants” serves as a largely excellent socialist critique of Silicon Valley’s power and how they use it. Linking the controversies that have dogged these tech companies over the last two decades with a systemic critique of capitalism, “Bit Tyrants” serves as an extensive primer into the flaws of platforms that are only growing in their significance in our daily lives. This is an excellent place to begin in seeing a technological future that is more democratically managed and less exploitative of those who consume and produce it.  

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