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The dangers of tech brands usurping government

Opinion
As part of our Futurists-in-Residence collaboration with The Corinthia Hotel, we recently hosted a breakfast briefing with Lucie Greene, worldwide director of the Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson to celebrate her new book: Silicon States: The Power And Politics Of Big Tech And What It Means For Our Future.

We caught up with Lucie to discuss Big Tech’s encroachment into the civic realm and why it's not be too late to exert control over tech giants.

What sort of topics does your new book, Silicon States, explore?

The premise of the book is that Big Tech, having taken over all communication and lifestyle aspects of the way we live, is now stepping into a more civic role. It’s looking to cities, infrastructure, education and healthcare as new sectors to disrupt and a new commercial opportunity, and that’s why

At the same time, Big Tech’s power is increasingly superseding government, not only in terms of reach but also in conceptual and ideological terms. Elon Musk is now taking us to space and Silicon Valley is leading life sciences exploration. These companies are also co-opting adjacent power centres. Big philanthropy, particularly in the US, has a political role. It affects policy. And Silicon Valley is moving into new theories of how philanthropy should work. But it’s also rapidly supplanting the only other check on power, which was the fourth estate – the media.

Can we resist Big Tech or is it too late to turn back?

I don’t think you’re going to see it happen in the US any time soon because these companies are completely intertwined with America’s geo-economic strength. That’s why they’ve been able to grow unchecked for so long. You see that in the toothless congressional questioning of Mark Zuckerberg and also in the list of cities competing to host Amazon’s second headquarters by offering tax breaks and various other incentives, despite the fact that Amazon does not need a tax break. But, to an extent, it’s impossible to step out of these systems now. Can you imagine living or working without using Microsoft or Google or Apple products?

The exception, of course, is places like the EU where there is a collective body of countries that has the power to put in place regulations and fines. It also has cultural backing from the citizenry. It’s really interesting to consider how people's perception of the role of the state differs in the UK and the US compared to Europe. In the EU they’re very attached to the concept of privacy. They believe in the power of the state, they believe in having your job protected, and they believe in fair trade and competition. Those principles are embedded into the cultures of the European countries, which is the opposite to America, where it’s all about self-determination.

'People’s perception of the role of the state differs in the UK and the US compared to Europe.'

Do you think attitudes will change as the current generation of politicians are replaced by digital natives?

In terms of the state versus technology, I think it’s going to be fascinating to watch over the next 10–20 years as you see Millennials reach candidate age for the first time, not to mention Generation Z, who are very politically active, engaged and left-leaning. We’re going to see a radical shift in politics. Because when you look at the rise of Big Tech’s influence in the past 10 years, and its dominance of the government, a lot of that has to do, I think, with a generational issue – a basic lack of technological literacy. That came to the fore in the Cambridge Analytica investigation. Those in government have simply not been familiar with the implications of these companies and their technologies, or allowing them access to contracts and data sets.

Inside the Black Box (Supervised Learning) by Tom Pearson, London Branded Cities visual by Inferstudio for The Future Laboratory
'I think what’s important to note is that these are ultimately consumer brands, influential on a scale that we haven’t seen from any other industry.'

Do you think tech companies have any self-awareness that their actions have such far-reaching social implications?

I don’t think these companies are evil, they’re just driven towards profit without thinking about the ethical consequences. What I like is that in recent years more and more think tanks have been taking a critical look at the nuances of how devices are designed and raising awareness about how they should be changed. For example, why is IBM’s Watson – ‘the expert’ – a man and why are Alexa and Siri, who perform more menial roles, by default, women? All of these things are important to examine as this group take a bigger civic influence. This is one small detail, but it arguably normalises a lot of sexism. But, essentially, I’m not sure that any of these companies see what they’re doing as bad, or scenario-planned any negative consequences for the technologies they’re creating.

How did the people you’ve interviewed from the government perceive these issues?

The government people that I spoke to had much more humility. They admitted that: ‘Yes, the government's slow. Yes, it's frustrating.’ But they also pointed out some valid issues with Big Tech replacing the state. One of the things that rang true to me was how brands such as Uber and Airbnb claim to make travel accessible, but that’s only really true for the middle class. The government is most critical when it comes to people in the far reaches of society, and even though these companies use economies of scale to make such services cheaper, they’re still not 100% solutions in most cases.  

To discover the events we've got lined up as Futurists-in-Residence at the Corinthia Hotel London, click here.

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