Big Tech Is Now a Shadow Government
24 hours after a failed coup, the lead story on Twitter is Elon Musk becoming the wealthiest man in the world
On my podcast last week, public health expert Dr. Abdul El-Sayed highlighted that while viruses are naturally occurring, epidemics are a function of human action or inaction. This week, as a mob overran the U.S. Capitol, his observation registered increased purchase.
Extremism, misinformation, sociopaths stewarding profit-incentivized algorithms: All viruses. What we witnessed Wednesday afternoon — and have seen at least since November 4th — is an epidemic. Record deaths from Covid-19 and the U.S. Capitol overrun by a mob on the same day. How did this happen?
The virus has broken containment, preying on our comorbidities.
The ascendant comorbidity is the steady denigration of our public institutions, particularly government and its agencies, over the last four decades. Since the Reagan Revolution in 1980, a conservative philosophy of limited government has morphed to an anti-government creed. President Trump is the manifestation of that narrative. The president blames the “deep state” for every setback and has stocked his cabinet with appointees opposed to the departments they lead, from a Secretary of Education who doesn’t appear to believe in public education to a Secretary of Energy who once proposed eliminating the Department of Energy.
Skepticism of government is healthy, when tempered with respect for the mission and those who serve. Otherwise, we risk a population that lacks faith in our mission and each other. Keep in mind, all elected representatives are Americans schooled in U.S. institutions, who carry the same passports and were elected by other Americans.
A similar assault has been waged against the press. Just as elected officials helped hollow out the government they are charged with leading, the mandarins of media bear blame for the weakness of their branch. Conservative outlets have shelved citizenship as they recognize that novelty and tribalism make more cabbage than truth. Social media firms are doing the same — but at greater scale. Liberal media, terrified of being labeled “elitist,” has fallen back on a feeble bothsides-ism that normalizes, and brings oxygen to, outrageous conduct. Progressives have a guilty need to understand and feel the pain of anybody who claims victimhood. Among liberals, being offended and angry means you are right.
As our institutions have retreated, private capital has emerged as a shadow government. Banks command our economy, the shareholder class commands the politicians, and big tech reigns over it all. Our idolatry of innovators equates wealth with virtue, and does not hold the innovator class, or their firms, to the same standards as old economy firms (or the general population). Twenty-four hours after a failed coup, the lead story on Twitter is Elon Musk becoming the wealthiest man in the world.
When Trumpism began its march, it wasn’t the government or the media that we turned to for help, but big tech. Today, we plead with @jack to suspend the president’s account. The FBI, voters, our laws… all of them sit secondary to thirtysomething innovators who hold the real power: algorithms that decide who sees what, how often, and from whom.
In this rudderless environment, where information flow is not a public good but a revenue stream, is it any wonder that misinformation — call it what it is, disinformation — has taken hold?
What can be done? A virus should be monitored. An epidemic must be cauterized.
The striking arrogance of our American exceptionalism allowed us to ignore the virus of fringe ideas fueled by algorithms and profit. The sight of a mob overrunning the U.S. Capitol, under the direction of a U.S. president, forces us to acknowledge that we have an epidemic that demands swift, severe action(s). Put another way, putting the president in a social media timeout is insufficient.
We need greater attribution and accountability. President Trump should be stripped of power immediately. The incitement of violence against a co-equal branch of government is grounds for impeachment, conviction, and removal from office by Congress. If he had just one day left in office, Trump would still be a clear and present danger to the republic. More importantly, the first declaration in years that our leaders face consequences for their actions should be in bold type.
The people who broke into Congress should be arrested and prosecuted. A selfie desecrating the office of the Speaker of the House should be a hi-res Go Directly To Jail card.
If there is any question that big tech is our new government, then register that these are the only entities whose actions seem to have a meaningful impact (or what we view as meaningful). Which has had more impact? Futile discussions about the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, or Facebook and Twitter suspending President Trump’s accounts and Shopify closing MAGA stores? Applaud these actions if you like, but accountability for sedition should not be meted out by private companies (in the case of Shopify, a foreign one). We should not be pandering to part-time CEOs to save the nation they demonstrate no regard for.
Count me as the dad who walks in to see his 17-year-old son vacuuming the living room, and isn’t impressed. Great, thanks… but why? Because he threw a 400-person rave while I was away for the weekend, the garage is on fire, and the dog is pregnant.
The only reason Mr. Zuckerberg has done anything is Stacey Abrams. Specifically, the realization that after Tuesday’s runoff, the House and Senate subcommittees who oversee Facebook will soon both have chairpersons that are fed up with the sociopath and his lipstick. This is not progress. Until there is more competition, meaningful economic penalties, and perp walks, social media firms will continue to do exponentially more harm than Drexel or Enron.
Big tech and the shareholder class will not do more than Band-Aid over crises unless there is a financial disincentive for their systemic misconduct. To the contrary, it appears the wealth of the top 1% (who control more wealth than the entire middle class) and our nation’s health are inversely correlated. A year of death, a day of anarchy… and the markets boom… both times. Why would we expect the ruling class to participate in the fight against the virus when its march enriches them?
We are quick to borrow against our children’s prosperity when things are bad, but find it anathema to ask people to contribute more when things are good (see above: adding the GDP of Hungary to your wealth). We should eliminate the favorable tax treatment of capital gains, and disincentivize externalities that damage the commonwealth. A good start would be a “digital carbon tax” on the profits of the algorithmically served media that, in a nanosecond, can determine if Mark Zuckerberg will accrue wealth if it (the algorithm) finds content that pits us against one another.
In The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, former Berkeley professor Carlo M. Cipolla posits that a stupid person causes damage to others while deriving no gain, or even possibly incurring losses. We invariably underestimate the number of stupid individuals in circulation as the probability that a certain person is stupid is independent of other characteristics or credentials (e.g., they can have a PhD or be president). We (the non-stupid) are vulnerable to the stupid and their actions as we find it difficult to imagine and understand — or to organize a rational defense against — an attack that lacks rational structure or predictable movements. Or, as Friedrich Schiller put it, against stupidity the gods themselves fight in vain.
Under some f*ked up version of wokeness, we have decided that stupid people are a special interest group who warrant empathy and latitude re the damage they levy. We excuse Trump’s mob, as they are the ones America left behind or who didn’t have access to higher education. No, they’re just stupid — even the ones with “Senator” before their name. The president and his mob registered a deep blow to our democracy and global standing… with no commensurate benefit. If Betsy DeVos and Elaine Chao have reached their limit, the insurrectionists and their dear leader are either going to jail or losing advertisers for the launch of his network. We are only awakening to the profane assault on America, our forefathers, and the sacrifices of previous generations after the unprecedented events of Wednesday.
We need to recognize that stupid is a thing and, per Professor Cipolla, encourage our youth to discern how not to be stupid and to aspire to be “intelligent,” which also is a thing… and a noble thing, and not derived from a place of privilege that demands apology and self-flogging. The right has become so weird, the left so weak, that we should see something resembling a third option (e.g., Independent) accrue momentum and elected leaders. But that’s another post.
At a deeper level, we must find ways to reassert the primacy of truth and reason in our discourse. No sooner had the mob been cleared from the halls of Congress than did Representative Matt Gaetz take to the podium to knowingly spread disinformation: that facial recognition determined the mob was Antifa. (It wasn’t.) Elected officials who knowingly spread disinformation should be censured and denied federal and state matching funds for their next election.
We are justifiably concerned about the declining state of math and science education, but it won’t be enough to teach more calculus. We need to teach our kids the tools of science: statistics, critical thinking, and then… civics. Mark Zuckerberg is what happens when you replace civics with computer science. We must also find a way to inculcate empathy and commitment to the commonwealth in the next generation, as the evolution of our economy leads to dispersion and segregation.
The invader with his feet on the speaker’s desk is an agent of the president’s chaos. The disinformation and disaffection coursing through the mob surrounding him is a virus. All this has come together in an epidemic. We must address this epidemic swiftly, and vaccinate our nation with a new respect for institutions, greater accountability, and incentives that foot capital to the well-being of our commonwealth. We must recognize that there is a stupid and a truth.
This a.m. I am hopeful, as it feels the American corpus, similar to a vaccine, has (ideally) received enough of a tyranny pathogen to inform an immune response to future viruses before they seed another epidemic that forces (again) our elected representatives to barricade doors to the House Chamber with furniture. I’d like to believe we are getting less stupid.
Life is so rich,
P.S. My next Brand Strategy Sprint kicks off February 2. 94% of the people who took the last one said it had a positive impact on their professional development and 88% said they learned something they could immediately implement in their work. — sign up here.