New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo published a disquieting essay this week titled “Google, Not the Government, Is Building the Future.” His article followed a familiar formula for a New York Times opinion column: point out a so-called problem and follow it up with an anodyne technocratic solution.
“The tech giants that are building the future would like some help changing the world,” Manjoo wrote, identifying massive private investment in artificial intelligence research as a problem. “We would be wise to chip in," Manjoo said about public investment in such technology, "or let them take over the future for themselves.”
But there’s a glaring problem with Manjoo’s logic — apparent in the headline.
Manjoo fundamentally misunderstands the reason that the tech industry exists. The tech industry does not exist to “build the future.” It does not exist to change the world. It does not exist to “disrupt” or “innovate” or to cull from any of the biz-speak buzzwords that the tech industry uses to mask its sole intent — which is, of course, to turn a profit.
There’s some kind of reality distortion field that pervades Silicon Valley, one that even an esteemed Times (and former Salon) columnist sometimes can’t even see. Hype goggles removed, there is no fundamental difference between Google and Monsanto; between Apple and Exxon; between Facebook and Raytheon. These publicly held corporations pay people money to make things and try to make sure that the amount they pay their workers is less than those goods sell for. That’s it. Anything else that the tech industry tells you that it does — say, try to convince you that it's not out to profit, but to make the world amazing — is false. All the world-change rhetoric around Silicon Valley is an act of branding that lets the tech industry get away with far more than it should.
I should note that I am not questioning Manjoo’s secondary point, which is about government investment in research. Manjoo proposed that, lest the tech industry become too dominant in artificial intelligence research, the federal government should invest more in it. “Technology giants, not the government, are building the artificially intelligent future,” he wrote. “And unless the government vastly increases how much it spends on research into such technologies, it is the corporations that will decide how to deploy them.”
In general, that’s a great idea. Private research tends to enrich only private interests, while government research has the potential to more equitably distribute the gains.
What else did Manjoo prescribe we do to combat this so-called problem? Later on in his essay, Manjoo declared that there are only “two ways to respond to the tech industry’s huge investments in the intelligent future.”
“On the one hand,” he wrote, “you could greet the news with optimism and even gratitude. The technologies that Google and other tech giants are working on will have a huge impact on society. . . .But the tech industry’s huge investments in A.I. might also be cause for alarm, because they are not balanced by anywhere near that level of investment by the government.”
His notion that there are only “two ways” to respond is not true. There are far more than two. We could break up Google with anti-trust lawsuits — a move that has been argued for, and which is probably past due. We could make Twitter and Facebook into public, worker-owned entities or government-regulated monopolies. Given that they basically function as public utilities, this would remove some of their negative externalities, like their questionable privacy policies and their use of brain hacking that stem from their status as for-profit companies.
Or we could reduce the length of time that patents last or demand that the maker of any product that was made with publicly funded science pays royalties to the American people. We could even just get rid of tax loopholes and use the money to invest in science or even provide a basic income.
The imagination of elites struggles to comprehend political alternatives that involve bottom-up, rather than top-down, power. Indeed, if you’re reading this and having trouble imagining an alternative future, know that examples abound. There are a number of worker-owned tech enterprises in the model of gig economy companies; “platform cooperatism” is the term for this. “'Platform cooperativism' hopes to harness the power of tech to democratize the economy and advance labor rights,” Tom Ladendorf wrote in a 2016 article for In These Times. Ladendorf cited TransUnion Car Service as an example of a worker-owned, unionized taxi service (Uber but without the exploitation!) and Stocksy, a stock photo company, whose artists are also voting members and co-owners of the agency.
These ideas aren’t limited to a few small companies either. Next week Twitter’s shareholders will vote on a proposal to convert the microblogging social network into a cooperative that its users own and control.
The point is, Silicon Valley and The New York Times both suffer from a severe lack of imagination when it comes to considering what is politically possible. Silicon Valley believes that the future will be created from above, by the wise scions who impose their technological will on us. Farhad Manjoo believes that’s fine, but perhaps the government might spend a teensy bit more on science. These are both technocratic visions of a future ruled by technocrats from above. But we won’t have a future to build if we can’t imagine an alternative to the status quo.