All things must pass, as George Harrison famously sang in 1970.
Not so famous now, though, that song, so QED.
Big Tech too will pass, although as it currently stands astride the world like the colossus of Rhodes, it doesn’t much seem like it at the moment.
But we have been here before, with new technologies and new trading empires, with the disruption they cause to established political structures, and the changes in social attitudes that they inevitably accelerate.
So how will the power of big tech eventually unravel, and what will happen to its barons?
Three great historical precedents present themselves as guides in the new information age: the invention of the printing press and the chaos that then ensued, the rise and fall of the first great multinational capitalist trading houses, and the rise and fall of the railroad barons.
The first, the printing press, presents the most obvious parallels. Within a few years of its invention, the established order, as maintained by the Catholic church and policed by the guardians of Aristotle’s conception of science, had been split apart. The old order survived, but its challenger grew stronger by the day, and was never in all the subsequent years vanquished. One of its newer forms, indeed, is the current incarnation of the information age itself.
The second precedent, the rise and fall of the first great multinational trading houses, is a more complex comparison. What bears scrutiny here is the way in which upstart traders made unprecedented fortunes in the Far East, creating the British and Dutch East India Companies along the way. When they returned to their countries of origin, the impact of their new-found wealth skewed the way political power and influence was wielded, and caused a significant escalation both in levels of corruption and in moral outrage.
Everything wasn’t so instant back in those days, but don’t for a moment think that it’s only the invention of the internet that’s allowed a major critique of imperialism to reach up into the highest echelons of power – no, Edmund Burke was doing it at the end of the eighteenth century, and his target was the East India Company. New trading patterns, new cultural patterns, new outrage.
The third historical parallel holds true in so far as space itself gets divided up and parcelled out for profit. In the days of the railroad barons, this space was of course, physical. Now it’s conceptual. But in both cases, a few big players ended up taking the lions share. Indeed, the legends of the injustices of the railroad boom still roll down through popular culture, perhaps most famously in Sergio Leone’s epic film, Once Upon a Time in the West, in which Henry Fonda plays, against type, an evil railroad baron.
His opportunity for evil was immense, given the wide open spaces available for him to corrall. More to the point, his character bears traces of the well-known magnates of the era who on the whole came to a less sticky end: Vanderbilt, Carnegie and JP Morgan. They carved up the newly created world between them then, just like our modern tech oligarchy has done today.
But as to posterity, the new barons face the same risks. How will prosperity view them? We are, after all, a long way from “don’t be evil”.
@Jack has a lot of enemies.
As of course you would, if you choose to destroy the main communication conduit between a US President and his 70mln supporters. If it’s those supporters who end up writing history, Jack Dorsey is likely to go down as one of the great villains of the era. And for those who argue that this goes significantly against the current mainstream view, remember that at the time Vanderbilt and Carnegie were both considered major benefactors of mankind, and that it was in their hands that the Manifest Destiny of the US would finally be fulfilled. Back then that was considered a good thing. Now, it’s considered one of the primary motivating factors in the genocide of the Native American.
Will Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, and the more faceless types from Google, Apple and Reddit end up being held responsible for the sundering of the American nation, for its ultimate division into two irreconcilable camps – in short, for stoking up and facilitating a new, twenty-first century secession crisis that ruined America?
The odds on this may be long, but they are no longer ridiculous. Because if de-platforming continues to be the main mechanism of social control, it’s only a matter of time before the right wing in America gets its act together, and adds a plethora of new story-telling mechanisms to its one existing outlet, Fox News.
After all, it won’t be the instantaneous judgements of likes and clicks that form the historians’ collective view of the past. As far as big tech goes, it’ll be the impact on society as a whole. And if these earlier parallels are anything to go by, the verdict is likely to be decidedly mixed, at best.