“Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse,” Sophocles.
Since the beginning of the 1800s, America has been courted by a relentless and seductive suitor. Technology, along with all of its obvious benefits has proven to be the siren that may yet wreck our Ship of State.
Although it had its antecedents in Europe, the Industrial Revolution was spurred on by American innovation with advances in manufacturing, transportation, communications and commercial agriculture. Horse-powered machinery gave way to water-powered devices creating new population centers in the northeastern part of the country where fast-moving rivers were plentiful, providing ideal sites for the powering of mill equipment and other industrial machinery and a network of waterways to transport products to market.
Connectivity among communities was enhanced by the development of the telegraph system and, while average incomes swelled and our standard of living improved, these changes lead to an increased reliance on mechanization and a future love affair with technology.
Fast forward to the present where JP Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, Robber Barons and Captains of Industry of the 19th century, have been replaced by the 21st century Titans of High Tech and Unelected Gatekeepers of Competition and Free Speech, Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Sundar Pichai (Google) and Tim Cook (Apple). These are the oligarchs of our age, driven by a thirst for wealth and power.
As history has demonstrated, too much power concentrated in the hands of a very few is an anathema to a healthy democracy and in the words of 19th century English historian and writer Lord Acton “… all too frequently, men with the mentality of gangsters get control.”
Last year, in a rare demonstration of congressional bipartisanship, Washington lawmakers questioned the business practices of these CEOs accusing them, in some cases, of anti-trust violations, the selective suppression of free speech, and the fostering of a far too intimate relationship with Communist China.
Regrettably, but not unexpectedly, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Pichai and Cook all left the hearing with little more than a feigned slap on the hand. Although, Tech Analyst Dan Ives observed that “storm clouds” were building over Washington, the threatening skies offered little relief from the drought of courage and conviction that has come to define many Washington politicians who seem more focused on punishing their political enemies and raising money for their next re-election campaigns than safeguarding the welfare of the public they allegedly serve.
Since no one seems especially optimistic that there will be an effective legislative fix to address the excesses of these transnational tech giants, what can be done to counter their influence? In a market-driven society like ours, the antidote to the poison of too much power is the very thing that allowed these company to become our overlords.
As consumers we have a choice. We can stop feeding our bad habits and be more selective about what companies we do business with and how often we use their services. Following my own advice, I try as much as possible to buy products directly from the manufacturer (preferably American-made) to avoid using Amazon as an intermediary. I have never been and never will be a customer of Facebook or Twitter because divulging my every thought, in many cases, to total strangers impresses me as being awfully narcissistic.
In an era where we are encouraged to live up to our worst impulses whether by using recreational drugs or technological intoxicants, we need to start the painful process of purging our lives of these unhealthy influences. In a Netflix original documentary entitled “The Social Dilemma,” some of the tech geniuses who helped to develop platforms like Facebook and Google disclose the nefarious intentions behind these technologies and how these businesses have evolved from something positive into money-making machines and laboratory experiments on the human brain.
“We’ve created a world in which online connection has become primary,” confesses Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google. “And yet, in that world, anytime two people connect, the only way it’s financed is through a sneaky third person who’s paying to manipulate those two people.”
Ironically, in the final analysis, the only thing that might rouse us out of our stupor and cleanse our technology-addled brains is the collapse of the network that feeds our addiction.
Shelly Aldean is a Carson City resident.