Why you should care
Because maybe it’s high time we rein in Big Tech’s influence.
In 2016, journalist Corey Pein flew to San Francisco to learn more about the inner workings of Silicon Valley. The result of his investigation is his latest book, Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey Into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley. In it he argues that the tech industry has contributed to some of the worst realities of our current economic situation. And moreover, the tech industry’s libertarian ethos has led to the recent rise in American fascist thought and action, such as last year’s white supremacy march in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In many ways, his book is a call for us non-techies to think more critically about how we use platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter — and to consider what, if anything, we can do to curb their influence on ourselves and society more generally. OZY spoke with Pein earlier this month, and an edited version of our conversation follows.
What is the most immediate danger that Silicon Valley presents to casual, everyday tech users like myself?
The most immediate problems are economic. Silicon Valley’s biggest companies have played an enormous role in the creation of the so-called “gig” economy and the devaluing of labor in general. For some of the biggest social media platforms, like Twitter, users are its greatest value. We in many ways perform uncompensated labor by posting free content. And moreover, we’re mines for data. Unlike the dot-com boom of the ’90s, our current situation seems at least quasi-permanent because it’s so profitable. As some have said, our data is the new oil. If we accept that, then shouldn’t we scrutinize big tech companies as much as oil companies? Unfortunately, we are nowhere near the point of doing so.
Since writing your book, we’ve learned about Cambridge Analytica and the exploitation of user data for political means. Are you surprised?
Not even a little surprised. Now, I think there is some valid skepticism out there as to whether Cambridge Analytica was effective at delivering the data analysis it promised — software companies always over-promise. However, that doesn’t mean that what they were trying to do isn’t really scary. But the Cambridge Analytica story is actually about Facebook, because Facebook made the entire thing possible.
Should we all delete our Facebook pages in response?
I’m not sure that just asking people to delete their accounts is going to be effective. What we really need is a new regulatory framework that isn’t created by these companies. And I suggest that we start from the position of nationalizing Facebook and making it open-source. It needs to be governed under laws that were created through a democratic process and not according to rules put in place by spoiled, poorly educated rich kids who are looking for the most profitable way to use our unethically obtained personal information.
You write in your book that the media missed the significance of Gamergate. Can you explain?
When I began looking deeper at what was happening with Gamergate and started talking to some of the women who were targeted, I could see that many of the online groups that either contributed to Gamergate or were Gamergate-adjacent — the so-called “men’s rights” groups and the neo-reactionaries — were all manifestations of or recruiting mechanisms for a much larger fascist movement. It should have been clear, even at the time, that Gamergate was a terror campaign, but it wasn’t always treated that way by the media. I believe you can draw a straight line between Gamergate and Charlottesville and maybe even the more recent mass shootings where we’ve found out that the perpetrators were involved in online far-right groups. In many ways, Gamergate was a trial run for some of the more visible, violent fascist actions that we’ve seen in the past year and since Trump was elected especially.
Gamergate groups used online tools to communicate with each other and propagate their message. But is it fair to put the blame on Silicon Valley for having created the tools?
Yes, absolutely. What I would like to know is: What conversations are happening at tech companies? What do they see as their obligation in this? Because for the past 20 years or more, companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Craig’s List have profited from the promotion of white supremacy. Before internet companies became the dominant communication companies in America, the gatekeepers, the people who ran the press, had decided that some ideas were beyond the pale. But for some reason, tech companies had a different idea—I think it’s probably related to their juvenile libertarianism. And it’s probably only because of recent boycott campaigns and perhaps feelings of financial and political pressure that the people who run these companies are even beginning to think about the more sophisticated conversations that are happening around free speech and what their obligations should be.