Steve Hilton: Silicon Valley’s surveillance capitalism has resulted in Big Tech killing off human privacy
The case against Big Tech seems to be building by the week. And interestingly, some of the most powerful evidence is being provided by those who really know what they’re talking about: tech insiders.
Full disclosure: I am a tech insider myself. I run a tech company in Silicon Valley. My wife is a senior executive at Facebook and many of our closest friends have senior roles in companies like Google.
Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive responsible for growing the social network’s user base, recently argued that Silicon Valley had “created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”
Palihapitiya lamented Big Tech’s role in our democratic debates: “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem – this is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem.”
He cited the role of mobile messaging service WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) in the killings of seven innocent men in India after hoax messages about strangers abducting children were shared.
“That’s what we’re dealing with,” Palihapitiya said. “And imagine taking that to the extreme, where bad actors can now manipulate large swathes of people to do anything you want. It’s just a really, really bad state of affairs.” He said he tries to use Facebook as little as possible, and that his children “aren’t allowed to use that s---.”
His comments are in line with another huge figure in tech, early Facebook investor Sean Parker, who blasted the addictive properties of Silicon Valley’s technology: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
Parker argued that Facebook “literally changes your relationship with society” and “probably interferes with productivity in weird ways.”
Parker said that because the whole point of Facebook is to keep people using it. He said “the thought process … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” That’s why the inventors of tech services like Facebook give their users “a little dopamine hit every once in a while,” for example through ‘likes’ and comments: “It’s a social-validation feedback loop ... exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
Parker went on to say that the men who designed and built these social media platforms, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Instagram’s Kevin Systrom, “understood consciously” what they were doing. “And we did it anyway.”
Many commentators have made the comparison between these insider admission and the moment when the tobacco companies finally admitted that their products kill people. No one has suggested that technology actually kills people by design. But in other ways, the case against Big Tech is even more damning than the case against Big Tobacco, simply because Big Tech is so much more powerful and plays so much greater a role in our modern world.
The tech companies love the fact that they have risen to the apex of the business pile. Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft top the list of the world’s most valuable corporations.
The companies love to boast in high-minded terms about how their mission is not something as mundane as making money. No, they are all about “changing the world,” as Apple CEO Tim Cook recently claimed. Well, with all that wealth and power comes influence. And increasingly, despite our Silicon Valley overlords’ self-regarding and cloyingly sanctimonious smugness, it’s not for the good.
Let’s look at the charge sheet. It goes well beyond the “addiction admissions” of whistleblowing insiders like Sean Parker and Chamath Palihapitiya.
Because the business model of many of these tech firms relies on selling ads, their relentless focus is on gathering data on their users – that would be you – to enable advertisers to better target their messages.
With a phone in everyone’s pocket, these companies can now literally track your every move. And the creepiness seems to get worse by the day. Only this week we heard that clothing company L.L. Bean said it is planning to install sensors into some of its boots and coats to track how they’re used.
This intense data-gathering of your most intimate decisions – where you go, who you talk to, what you like or don’t like – is only going to get worse. With new “home assistants” like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, Big Tech is now right at the heart of family life.
Children are growing up talking to Alexa as if “she” is a member of the family. Silicon Valley is actively exploring computer chips that would be inserted into people’s brains, so that artificial intelligence software can be “merged” with human thought.
Who owns all this data and what will happen to it? Quite apart from the sheer creepiness of tech companies wanting to invade your brain, we know from recent experience that literally everything can be hacked – whether by criminals or foreign governments like China that hacked our own government and stole millions of Americans’ most personal data.
Silicon Valley’s surveillance capitalism has killed off human privacy. Did anyone ask them to do that? They say people want the convenience of data-enabled services – but for most people, there’s no alternative. If everyone else is on Facebook you have to be there too, and you can only do that if you tick the box that signs away your privacy forever.
Artificial intelligence, of course, is not just about invading your privacy: it’s assaulting our economy too. Studies predict that huge swaths of jobs will be destroyed by Big Tech as it advances into new areas of economic activity and automates jobs from truck driving to accounting.
Silicon Valley’s only response to the economic devastation it’s about to unleash on American workers is to push forward the idea of a “Universal Basic Income” – a government wage regardless of whether you work.
Translation: “We, your tech overlords will be doing all the interesting work. Sadly, there won’t be any jobs left for you serfs – but don’t worry, we’ll makes sure the government gives you some money so you can sit around all day and make the most of your newfound leisure time. Enjoy, little people!”
Big Tech’s baleful economic impact extends to another disastrous feature of our modern economy: a stifling of competition. This has contributed to the lowest level of start-ups in decades, and the wage stagnation that has hurt American workers so badly.
When sector after sector in our economy ends up being dominated by a handful of giant corporations, workers lose their bargaining power. This trend is made worse by the growing dominance of the tech companies that are not only dominating their own markets – whether that’s in media, through ad sales, or book retailing – but in fundamental aspects of business life. Just try starting a business these days without using Google, Facebook or Amazon products.
The one marketplace that Silicon Valley has not yet managed to dominate, however, is China. But it’s not for want of trying. Companies like Apple and Google are desperately sucking up to the brutal authoritarian communist regime in China in order to gain access to the vast market.
But in the process, our own leading companies are aiding and abetting China’s plan for world domination by handing over technology – like artificial intelligence – that China will use against us.
And finally let’s not forget the role of Silicon Valley in shaping our culture and the way we think. Sometimes you see it in pernicious side effects of automated systems for getting users to consume content.
We saw this this week with the Wall Street Journal’s expose of YouTube’s role in pushing its users towards extreme videos and conspiracy theories. But frankly, we can also see this in the manifestation of the liberal bias that pervades Silicon Valley and the tech industry.
We will reveal shocking new evidence of Big Tech’s anti-conservative and even anti-religious bias on “The Next Revolution” this Sunday as we put Big Tech on Trial. Hope you can join us at 9 p.m. EST on Fox News Channel!