Meet the tech boss, same as the old boss

“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It seems darkly funny, now, that anyone ever dared to dream that tech would be different. But we did, once. We would build new companies in new ways, was the thinking, not like the amoral industrial behemoths of old. The corporate villains of 90s cyberpunk were fresh in our imaginations. We weren’t going to be like that. We were going to show that you could get rich, do good, and treat everyone who worked for or interacted with your business with fundamental decency, all at the same time.

The poster child for this was, of course, Google, whose corporate code of conduct for fifteen years famously included the motto “don’t be evil.” No longer, and the symbolism is all too apt. Since removing that phrase in 2015, we’ve all witnessed reports of widespread sexual harassment, including 13 senior managers fired for it; Project Maven; and Project Dragonfly. Internal backlashes and a mass walkout led to retractions and changes, courtesy of Google employees rather than management … and now we’re seeing multiple reports of management retaliation against those employees.

Facebook? I mean, where do we even begin. Rootkits on teenagers‘ phones. Privacy catastrophe after privacy catastrophe. Admissions that they didn’t do enough to prevent Facebook-fostered violence in Myanmar. Sheryl Sandberg personally ordering opposition research on a Facebook critic. And those are just stories from the last six months alone!

Amazon? Consider how they overwork and underpay delivery drivers and warehouse workers. Apple? Consider how they “deny Chinese users the ability to install the VPN and E2E messaging apps that would allow them to avoid pervasive censorship and surveillance,” to quote Stanford’s Alex Stamos. Microsoft? The grand dame of the Big Five has mostly evolved into a quiet enterprise respectability, but has recently seen “dozens of” reports of sexual harassment and discrimination ignored by HR, along with demands for cancellation of the HoloLens military contract.

Those are the five most valuable publicly traded companies in the world. It’s far from “absolute power,” but it’s far more power than the tech industry has had before. Have we avoided corruption and complacency? Have we done things differently? Have we been better than our predecessors? Not half so much as we hoped back in the giddy early days of the Internet. Not a quarter. Not an eighth.

And it’s mostly so gratuitous. Google didn’t need to try to build a censored search engine for China. They don’t need the money — they’re a giant money-printing machine already — and the Chinese people don’t need their product. Amazon doesn’t need to treat its lower-paid workers with vicious contempt. (It’s true they finally — finally! — raised their minimum wage to $15, but it could very easily afford to make their pay and working conditions substantially better yet.) Facebook doesn’t need to … to increasingly act like a company whose management is composed largely of wide-eyed cultists and/or mustache-twirling villains, basically.

Google should have promoted the organizers of their walkout, but there, at least, you can see why they didn’t. Raw fear. The one thing which truly frightens the management of big tech companies, more than regulators, more than competitors, more than climate change, is their own employees.

Is it that the modern megacorps have inherited from their forebears the obsession with growth at all costs, a religious drive to cast their net over every aspect of the entire world, so it’s still not enough for each of those companies to make billions upon billions from advertising and commerce to spend on their famous — and now sometimes infamous — “moonshot” projects? (Don’t talk to me about the fiduciary duty of maximum profit. Tech senior management can interpret that “duty” however they see fit.)

Is it that any sufficiently large and wealthy organization becomes, in its upper reaches, a nest of would-be Game of Thrones starlets, playing power politics with their pet projects and personal careers, regardless of the costs and repercussions? (At least when they are born of hypergrowth; it’s noticeable that more-mature Apple and Microsoft, while imperfect, still seem by some considerable distance the least objectionable of these Big Five, and Facebook the most so.)

I don’t want to sound like I think the tech industry is guilty of ruining everything. Not at all. The greatest trick the finance industry ever pulled is somehow convincing (some of) the world that it’s the tech industry who are the primary drivers of inequality. As for the many media who seem to be trying to pin recent election outcomes, and all other ills of the world, on tech, well

But the existence of greater failures should not blind us to our own, and whether we have failed in an old way or a new one is moot. Accepting this failure is — at least for people like me who were once actually dumb/optimistic enough to believe that things might be different this time — an important step towards trying to build something better.