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Are the big tech companies getting too big?

Silicon States: The Power and Politics of Big Tech and What It Means for Our Future | Lucie Greene | HarperBusiness | 288 Pages | Rs 699

THE BIGGEST COMMENTARY on the chasm between our real and online selves is nowhere more apparent than in politics. The fate of most governments is now decided on social media. After all, this is where politicians share views, people discuss politics, and news is shared, sometimes even concocted, which many a times has led to violence. But all of this ‘sharing’ is acutely limited to individual circles. In effect, more than three billion people around the world now consume different versions of reality making ours a highly divisive world. But do these filter bubbles make us guilty? Or are the creators of these silos, the Big Tech, responsible for the biases as they baked into while writing social media’s algorithms?

Futurist Lucia Greene, in her book, Silicon States argues how these tech behemoths are going far beyond building driverless cars and contactless mobile payment systems. Their ambition is to be the ‘builders of the future’; developing cities, transport, education, healthcare, and of course, laying the foundation stone on Mars. She warns that by usurping what was once the government’s prerogative and claiming it as their own, a dangerous social shift is taking place.

Since the dot-com bust and the rise of consumer-centric tech companies in the 2000s, a handful of elite white men mostly from San Francisco Bay Area have replaced governments and state leaders to decide how we live, what we think and how we connect. In contrast to the government that is still perceived as slow, cumbersome and bureaucratic, Silicon Valley companies are now considered faster, cooler and more visionary.

 Greene’s vantage point comes from her journalistic career and as a futurist at the consultancy The Future Laboratory and J. Walter Thompson. With her extensive observations of the tech world, Silicon States is a rich source of information on the strides the technology billionaires are making as they ‘change the world’. For instance, she highlights the possibilities Mark Zuckerberg can pursue by using the colossal amount of data he has to leverage his potential presidential ambitions in the future!

Most governments are now relying on these technologies to make their performance much more efficient or commissioning future projects such as NASA is to Silicon Valley start-ups. Many also hire Silicon Valley techies as advisers to the government blurring the lines between politics and these corporations. Once an advisor and then a company analyst, as people switch industries, how are deals brokered and sealed? Silicon States sweeps all places and people to map how technology and politics are contesting and influencing each other just to ask the simple basic question—What are Technology and Politics meant for in our lives?

Is it to turn around ‘work and work culture’ into a start-up style or to replace traditional media and carry technology’s ‘progress’ to unconnected corners of the world such as Cuba, Africa and Asia on compromising terms. Calling these companies imperialistic, Greene is equally irked by them being male dominant and brandishing an insolent worldview. Is technology, she asks, meant to achieve moonshots (incredible feats of innovation) and conduct ‘experiments in applying everything from biotech to AI to extend our lifespans, augment our bodies, or replicate them with technology, they are also hacking humanity with a degree of irreverence reserved for people who believe they are clearly above it, and nature itself.’

Greene painstakingly interviews think tanks, professors, venture capitalists, government advisors, entrepreneurs to fold in voices of strong critics such as Nick Denton (of Gawker media). Layer by layer, she unpeels the degree of image-making and power these companies wield to make users or netizens like you and me come back to them as consumers despite scandals and whatnot. Though she suggests that in the tussle between technology and politics, technology just might disrupt politics, she does advise politics and politicians to ape the competitor and redefine the world of governance.