Should We Boycott Silicon Valley?

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Why you should care

With great power comes great responsibility.

OZY’s electrifying prime-time TV show Third Rail With OZY is continuing to serve up provocative questions each week, and we want you to weigh in with your thoughts. This week’s question is: Should we boycott Silicon Valley? Email thirdrail@ozy.com with your thoughts, and we might feature your answer next week. Missed the debates from last season? Catch up here.

Silicon Valley has faced a steady stream of criticism in recent months, with scandals over everything from less-than-useful technology to sexism. At the crux of this, as OZY contributor Sunil Rajaraman writes this week, is “Silicon Valley’s modus operandi: building products to change the world,” presumably for the better.

Part of the problem is the sheer economic power wielded by big tech. Apple had more than $246 billion in cash at the end of 2016, while Microsoft and Alphabet had a combined $217.5 billion, according to Moody’s. Google nets 80 percent of global searches, while Amazon is projected to claim half of all e-commerce purchases by 2021, Fortune reported. The tech industry employs more than 6.7 million people in the U.S., and more than a billion people are on Facebook.

That translates into millions being spent every quarter to lobby the federal government on the industry’s behalf. But Silicon Valley’s desires don’t strictly align with either Republican or Democratic agendas. According to a recent study by Stanford researchers, most tech founders support higher taxation and wealth redistribution but less regulation. This is problematic for those who see tech as running rampant, such as Jonathan Taplin, director emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California and author of Move Fast and Break Things, a book about tech’s impact on culture and democracy. “These companies built these huge platforms, but they had no idea how they could be used for nefarious means,” Taplin says. “They seemed surprised that anyone would use their platforms to undermine democracy and spread fake news and propaganda.”

Others have also voiced more fundamental criticisms. Kumail Nanjiani, who acts in HBO’s comedy series Silicon Valley, for instance, tweeted, “We are realizing that ZERO consideration seems to be given to the ethical implications of tech.”

Buzzfeed’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith wrote a scathing piece in September about “the bad new politics of big tech,” while CNN commentator Van Jones warned OZY in July against the impacts that automation and artificial intelligence will have on jobs. More still advocate against the idea of “tech solutionism,” or the idea that technology can solve all of society’s problems.

Yet many still believe that tech’s power could be used for immense good. It has, for example, improved conveniences like next-day arrivals of purchases from around the globe. Biotech companies and green energy researchers are tackling what are arguably some of society’s biggest problems. Telemedicine could help boost access to health care, and “ag-tech” holds promise for boosting the resilience of crops and production. And all that says nothing of how the internet connects us with people and information around the world.

So with all this potential for good and with the financial resources to make it happen, maybe now is the time to issue a wake-up call to Big Tech. Sweeping the consumer rug out from under them would certainly get their attention, so perhaps it’s high time to boycott Silicon Valley.

So what do you think? Would you delete your Facebook account or forgo Uber to make a point? Let us know by emailing thirdrail@ozy.com or by answering in the comments below.

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