With the pandemic only amplifying the power of big tech, progressives across the world need to think through a coherent approach Leoni Boyle with permission for Varsity

Too often, despair feels to be the dominant sentiment among progressives peering up to the extensive digital faculties of Big Tech. Industrial data harvesting, the creation of a precariat and egotistic tech-bro-billionaires have stumped progressives internationally. While there may be instances of a breakthrough on individual legislative bills, or some semi-cringe-mic-drop-moment on Twitter – the Left has not yet produced a cohesive alternative to simply rolling over to the whims of fat cats of the tech world.

“The Left has not yet produced a cohesive alternative”

On the Left, we are glued to 20th-century solutions, and for good reason. Unionisation, welfarism and a belief in the transformative power of the state provided stability. In terms of markets, we had a coherent policy system to attempt to mitigate extreme economic inequality, consisting of regulation and wealth redistribution. The mechanisms of returning money back to the state were well-established and relatively accepted in the post-war consensus. The beginnings of neoliberalism and reliance on financialisation undermined this and paved the way for Big Tech.

However, the disruption of the new technological elite and underlying logic is completely different to that of Big Business. Before, business and government cooperated, with the odd tax break promised following the annual dinner. While of course, this remains the case, the rise of the new Big Tech elite offers a significant disruption. In 2023, baby-faced tech bros occupy a divine status above nation-states; their supremacy prospers in a world where established state mechanisms in regulating markets appear increasingly unachievable against Big Tech.

Big Tech is new in its scope and influence. Its ability to rupture our fragile notions of privacy tells of a core restructuring of relations between individuals and capital. From period-tracking apps selling data about our menstrual cycles to Twitter bots undermining democratic elections, it is hard to quite grasp the enormity of the challenge. In the 20th-century football game of politics, we lost 1-0, achieving the post-war Keynesianism consensus, but eventually giving in to neoliberalism and ‘the end of history’. Today, on the pitch, we are blind to even seeing where the ball is.

The threat of Big Tech is a 21st-century game of data, and does not resemble the historical battles between workers and bosses. There exists a complete asymmetry of power relations, whereby the strength of Big Tech is to know us better than we know ourselves. This mechanism of data production and exploitation operates through our interactions with Big Tech’s platforms, regenerating the trap we find ourselves in. This increasing reliance on tech for evermore intimate places in our lives renders us evermore powerless in attempting to dig ourselves out, and for progressives to attempt to describe how this can take place.

“The threat of Big Tech is a 21st-century game of data, and does not resemble the historical battles between workers and bosses”

The recent AI tech safety summit was a significant moment for attempting to understand and regulate AI. However, look past the grounds of Bletchley Park, and the veil falls, revealing a rather inconsequential, shallow parade. Our Prime Minister felt like a dog being walked by its owner, Elon Musk – Sunak gagging to look like he is of any significant importance in comparison. But this is exactly the issue; heads of tech firms wield in many cases, far more power than world leaders in our current international political climate – they are un-elected Leviathans. As a result, the political arena is poised to change no longer through the ballot box but through a click of a digital toggle of privacy settings. Regardless of these seismic changes in the way in which citizens interact with democracy, the Left appears immobile in producing genuinely fruitful propositions to deal with attempting to achieve regulation in AI, without having to pander to the whims of the likes of Altman or Musk – note the specific maleness in most of these tech executives.


Mountain View

The Myth of Perfect Consumption

Instead of declaring the game is up, placing on our tin hats, bulk buying spaghetti and preparing for imminent disaster, as progressives, we must fight harder than ever to maintain the rules of the game. We must not allow the Left when in power to allow the tech giants to simply make the rules themselves. I will praise the work of progressive institutions and think tanks that have produced policy briefs around AI and technology, but unfortunately, for many of these institutions their capitalisation on the recent wave of interest in AI is 15 years too late. Beyond the pearly gates of these well-funded think tanks, I see progressives fail to produce counteractive political ideas of the future of technological change against tech firms themselves. This is certainly informed by the fact we do not even know how much they know about us.

So how can we do this? Progressives should embrace the possibilities of technological change, which are extensive, but must stand up to the tech giants, who if they have their way, will only entrap us in their wealth-producing, digital prison. The technology revolution should happen for the public, not to the public.