The new titans of the global economy aren’t perfect, but they’re a lot better than the old guard
Tech companies are getting a bad rap.
That’s not surprising. They make for easy targets. As Alexis Madrigal points out in her new Atlantic column, ten years ago the top five tech companies (Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook) were worth $577 billion. Today they represent $2.9 trillion worth of market value — bigger than the combined market cap of the top 10 largest companies in the world in 2007. They’re also sitting on mountains of cash, with combined profits of $96 billion from 2016. They’ve transformed themselves from scrappy upstarts to giants of the global economy in a very short space of time.
With that kind of profile and power, they’re under scrutiny like never before. Their list of sins grows by the day. On the one hand they’re criticised for overreach, privacy invasions, unfair hiring practices, enabling fake news, terrible workplace diversity and destroying democracy in less than 140 characters. On the other hand, they’re blamed for irrelevance, vapidity, building products that nobody wants and creating a Silicon Valley bubble where venture capitalists achieve ketosis before breakfast and drink the blood of young people over lunch.
There’s an element of truth in some of these allegations, as they go. Power corrupts, as we know all too well. That’s why it’s important to be able to call out immoral behaviour when we see it. The more society lets the bad brogrammers know their actions are unacceptable, the sooner we’ll see change. It’s also crucial that regulators get their act together and start actually regulating the tech giants properly.
But perhaps it’s also worth remembering that in our rush to criticise, we risk losing a bit of perspective.
Remember the old titans?
Tobacco. Automotive. Oil. Finance.
Not exactly the world’s nicest people. Sure, tech companies could do a lot better at hiring people from different backgrounds. But at least they’re not knowingly destroying lives with lung cancer and covering it up, refusing to recall life threatening products, or deliberately inserting software to mislead environmental agencies about their emissions. Yes, tech companies should be trying harder to stop hate speech online. But at least they’re not pillaging the Niger Delta, destroying rainforests, cozying up to dictators, or causing global economic crises and making everyone else pay for it.
Let’s put it another way. It’s less than ideal that a small group of people have amassed such a huge amount of wealth. That’s a problem of governance and inequality and one that politicians in English-speaking countries have done a horrible job at fixing.
If we have to have someone’s dirty paws on the levers of the global economy though, who would you prefer?
Tech companies operate differently to former giants of the economy since they understand that it’s in their best interests to create more value than they capture. They build products for, and in collaboration with their wider community of users. In doing so, they invite the powerful network formed by a multitude of users to climb up their value chain, take control of resources and contribute to creating even more value through increasing returns at scale.
People who work in tech companies are also just a lot nicer. This is something that usually gets overlooked by the media, which has an interest in telling us stories about them being sinister or stupid. That’s why we hear about Google underpaying female employees, Tesla intimidating union workers, and the inevitable failures of cheese toasty companies trying to disrupt the humble sandwich.
What we don’t hear are the stories about mobile payment systems being developed to help immigrants send money back to the Phillipines. The tech companies are the ones that make it possible to smuggle taboo information to women in Iran under the guise of period tracking apps. The algorithms we’re going to need to run the smart grids for large scale renewables? Built by the tech companies. Image recognition software to help identify skin cancer, diagnose autism, spot plant diseases and track down poachers? All made possible by the tech industry. You don’t see the suits or the oil barons doing that kind of stuff.
The geeks are the ones building safer autonomous vehicles, developing batteries, making wireless insulin monitors, launching satellites to monitor overfishing, expanding free education platforms, developing better lighting systems for indoor farms, creating lab grown meat to save animals, printing prosthetics, coding up robot lawyers for refugees, generating VR experiences for PTSD and pain relief, trying to decentralise currencies, diagnosing diseases through genetic sequencing, and restoring sight to the blind. When was the last time a car company or a tobacco company did any of those things?
Instead of thinking about tech companies as tyrants, we should think of them as wayward teenage boys (and unfortunately, it is still mostly boys). While they may have reached full physical maturity, they still have a lot of emotional growing up to do. Their attitudes towards the opposite sex are horrible. They make up really stupid names for their companies and products. They’re often clueless about the way the wider world really works. When they do things that are bad, they need to be called out on that.
However, like teenagers, when encouraged in the right way they’re prone to incredible feats of prowess. Like teenagers they’re idealistic and enthusiastic, motivated by the idea that strange, weird nerdy people can get together and produce amazing things for the good of everybody. This is a precious thing that needs to be protected, and fostered. What they need is a strong guiding hand and some moral guidance. And perhaps a little less criticism, and a little more gratitude.