ugly love

Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, The Economist wrote that “the health of capitalism will henceforth determine the future of civilization”. Today, big tech claims to bring civilization into the next century. It produces vast new wealth ensuring that we citizens can literally “reach for the sky”.

In reality, only Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson can blast into space with their own rockets. We mortals are doomed to live in hell, suffering severe headaches and dizziness from their rocket exhaust. China also dreams of building a palace in the sky. After all, he built the Temple of Heaven in Beijing in the first half of the 15th century, which is among the most visited sites in the country.

By engaging in the space race, China evokes the “scientific socialism” enshrined in the constitution. Indeed, its ambition is guided by the civilizational myth. Shenzhou (Divine Land) is a spacecraft developed by China to support its crewed spaceflight program and Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) is the name of the space station being built in low Earth orbit. Clearly, China’s dream of a pie in the sky is an extension of its mythology. The much-hyped digital age is an age of disruptive power. In the 1970s, futurist Alvin Toffler warned us of “information overload”. Today, big data poses a serious threat to the state, society and democracy. Big tech challenges the core capabilities of institutions. Their universe is expanding astronomically.

Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook, described by New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo as “the scary five”, have transformed lives beyond our imagination ~ how we communicate, do business, entertain, what and where we eat and who we make friends with. Digital data is available on the internet, social media, smart phones, surveillance cameras, etc. Having more data is not necessarily having quality data. Digital technology has blurred the distinction between so-called open and closed societies.

George Orwell’s and Aldous Huxley’s worst fears play out in both systems, creating a different kind of dystopia. We are faced with digital alienation and techno-feudalism. No less alarming is the fear of epistemic blindness. The digital dictatorship is another challenge. Every aspect of our lives ~ our voices, our facial expressions, our political affiliations, and our intellectual predilections ~ is undermined and monetized. In the age of the surveillance society and digital dictatorship, can democracy survive? Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari projects a chilling scenario. He foresees unprecedented disruptions created by infotech and biotechnology that will erode “human agency and, eventually, human desires.”

Under such conditions, liberal democracy and the market economy could become obsolete. Once people lose their economic value, how long will it take big tech to seize political power? Technology is a double-edged sword. It enables innovation but it also disrupts. The same technologies that have rendered billions of people economically useless have also made them susceptible to surveillance and control. Last November, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng mocked Western democracy when he said that “China’s people’s democracy as a whole is not one to wake up at the time of voting and then fall back to sleep”.

Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook are more powerful than many governments. With size comes power. Google is now the biggest spender on political donations in the United States. These may be too big to tame. Their profits and stock price have multiplied astronomically. Most profited from political patronage. Their opaque tax structures were ignored. Last year, Rolls-Royce, one of the most expensive cars in the world, sold more vehicles than it ever had. As nearly every economy contracted during the Covid pandemic, the “scary five” and some other tech giants made more money than ever. Big tech can very well be called pandemic capitalists. They may be yearning for a permanent pandemic! It will gladden the hearts of the pandemic diehards. Big tech companies mine user data and sell their likely choices, likes and dislikes to advertisers.

Rather than the internet becoming the time square of the 21st century, spawning what Brook Manville calls “the digital democratic utopia,” it has given rise to “cyberbullying, manipulative analysis, fake news, and authoritarian surveillance.” Byung-chul Han, a Swiss-German philosopher and cultural theorist born in South Korea, says the impact of internet technology and social media is such that we have begun to “desire our own dominance”. Our personal data is now monetized and marketed. He goes on to say that “in Hegelian terms, we have escaped the master-slave dialectic by becoming both master and slave.” People have fallen victim to what is known as “mass forming hypnosis” ~ people can be brought into a collective trance that makes them easily manipulated and prone to act contrary to reason and evidence.

Will technology kill democracy or reinvent it? Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, in his book The Curse of Bigness, called for the breakup of Facebook as big tech kills democracy. In a few years, it will be possible for each voter to receive “a different message and a different campaign promise” from the same candidate. Politics will thus become “a science of data”. Democracy already suffers from intellectual laziness. Big tech has thrived like pandemic capitalists. Twentieth-century industrial capitalism was mastered by labor rights, collective bargaining and regulation.

Big tech has now become super government. He obeys no one and fears no one. He is not fighting any election. Big business erodes democracy by using a legalized corruption system. In 2014, researchers from Northwestern and Princeton released a report indicating that lawmakers aren’t listening to what most voters want. They care most about serving their major donors. This is also happening in India. Failure to tame corporate power will have disastrous consequences. This will lead to a further widening of the gap between rich and poor and its consequences for democratic politics are not hard to imagine. History tells us that such policies will lead to populism, petty nationalism and extremism.

Tim Wu believes that “we are in grave danger of repeating the signature mistakes of the 20th century”. All in all, it was love at first sight with the internet, dazzling technology. As MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle says, “we were like young lovers who didn’t want to talk” thinking it would “destroy the romance.” Now that romance has turned into ugly love, “it’s time to talk.

(The author is Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi)

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