In an op-ed for The Guardian, Evgeny Morozov writes that Western governments, faced with a “legitimation crisis” of historic proportions—as evidenced by the rise in anti-establishment populism—are increasingly turning to tech giants to shore up confidence in government. What these companies provide, writes Morozov, isn’t economic stability, social cohesion, and other values associated with responsible governance. Instead, they provide “innovative” services and fancy gadgets that distract from the very absence of these things. An excerpt:
Today, however, there’s a major change. While the financial industry has historically been key to “buying time” and staving off the populist rebellion, in the future that role will be assigned to the technology industry, with a minor role played by the global advertising markets – the very magic wand that allows so many digital services to be offered for free, in exchange for our data.
The contours of this new accommodation between governments and industry are already beginning to emerge. Real incomes might be stagnating and the population might no longer want to take any more debt but there is no cause for panic: after all, a growing number of services, from communications to preventive healthcare, are already free. Plus, we have new ways to make our ends meet, mostly by prostituting our free time and other possessions. And the government, as the latest budget reveals, would even be happy to offer tax allowances to such micro-entrepreneurs!
Since all this data generated on digital platforms has an immense market value, it can be profitably sold off to fit any holes in the budget – including by governments themselves. Universities, insurance firms, banks: plenty of companies would be happy to buy it.
Finally, technology firms – thanks to data they collect – can always position themselves as essential to fighting the terrorist threat. For every Tim Cook fighting the FBI, there’s a Peter Thiel, the famed venture capitalist and the chairman of Palantir, a $20bn machine-learning giant that caters to the defence establishment. In a recent interview, Thiel even boasted that Palantir’s technology had helped thwart terrorist attacks.
The grim reality of contemporary politics is not that it’s impossible to imagine how capitalism will end – as the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson once famously put it – but that it’s becoming equally impossible to imagine how it could possibly continue, at least, not in its ideal form, tied, however weakly, to the democratic “polis”. The only solution that seems plausible is by having our political leaders transfer even more responsibility for problem-solving, from matters of welfare to matters of warfare, to Silicon Valley.