Techno Moral Panic

John Herrman, New York Times, on reactions to the power of large tech companies in 2017:

The flip side of these companies’ new dominance is that, not unlike the first industrialists, they turn progress from something that manifests inevitably with the passage of time into something that is being done to us, for reasons that are out of our control but seem unnervingly and suddenly within someone else’s. This is a profound reorientation, which might explain why current anxieties about the internet make for such unlikely bedfellows. Conservative parents with moral complaints about inappropriate videos surfacing in YouTube kids’ channels find themselves inadvertently agreeing with leftist critiques of corporate power. Facebook’s inability to deal in any meaningful way with misinformation on the platform has loosely aligned an elitist critique of democratized news with populist anger at a company led by Silicon Valley elites. There are right-wing anti-monopolists and left-wing anti-monopolists setting their sights on Google and Facebook, claiming dangerous censorship or lack of responsible moderation or, sometimes, both at once — people who want different things, and who have incompatible goals, but who have intuited the same core premise. In these instances, the only people left telling us not to worry — rhyming their responses with the vindicated defenders of the nascent internet — have suspiciously much to lose.

Herrman wrote about the root of this nearly three years ago in an excellent article for the Awl:

In this future, what publications will have done individually is adapt to survive; what they will have helped do together is take the grand weird promises of writing and reporting and film and art on the internet and consolidated them into a set of business interests that most closely resemble the TV industry. Which sounds extremely lucrative! TV makes a lot of money, and there’s a lot of excellent TV. But TV is also a byzantine nightmare of conflict and compromise and trash and waste and legacy. The prospect of Facebook, for example, as a primary host for news organizations, not just an outsized source of traffic, is depressing even if you like Facebook. A new generation of artists and creative people ceding the still-fresh dream of direct compensation and independence to mediated advertising arrangements with accidentally enormous middlemen apps that have no special interest in publishing beyond value extraction through advertising is the early internet utopian’s worst-case scenario.

I’m going to bring this back around to net neutrality because the FCC’s vote is in about a week and I think it’s worth keeping that in mind. FCC chairman Ajit Pai has said, quite reasonably, that he is concerned about the influence of a handful of tech companies on our greater discourse. Whether that’s because he’s actually concerned about their influence or whether he’s using Silicon Valley as a scapegoat is irrelevant in this discussion. But it is more likely that a company can rise up to compete with, say, Facebook than it is that a startup could compete with a major ISP like Verizon or Comcast1 simply because of the high initial costs associated with building broadband infrastructure.2

Today’s tech giants were born in garages in the shadows of yesterday’s tech giants, so we hear, but major ISPs don’t have a comparable story. Allowing ISPs to treat websites differently or prioritizing traffic for a fee will more deeply entrench the dominance of the largest and wealthiest tech companies, and will make it less likely that an upstart can compete.

  1. Both of these ISPs actually run cable and their own infrastructure unlike, for example, smaller regional ISPs. ↥︎

  2. This is something that I seem remember the FCC acknowledging in their proposal (PDF) but I haven’t been able to find the passage. If you remember where it is, please let me know↥︎