‘Conservatives are zeroing in on a new enemy in the political culture wars: Big Tech.” So say Michael M. Grynbaum and John Herrman in the New York Times, and there is plenty of evidence to support the claim. Grynbaum and Herrman report that the author of Clinton Cash, Peter Schweizer, is making a movie about the left-wing bias of social-media titans. James Damore, the erstwhile author of the Google Memo who was fired for questioning the company creed on diversity, is now a conservative favorite thanks to his naive decision to associate with opportunists such as Stefan Molyneux and CPAC. If three makes a trend, look no further than these pages, where Ben Shapiro argued this past Wednesday that tech companies are engaged in viewpoint discrimination against right-wing journalism.
Conservatives fear that Silicon Valley, where employees and executives are generally liberal, will suppress conservative speech on their platforms. But they aren’t the only ones questioning the once-prevailing wisdom that Silicon Valley, a bastion of free enterprise and creative capitalism, is a positive force. On the other side, some liberals blame Facebook and Twitter for putting Donald Trump in office or otherwise corroding our democracy, and argue that tech companies should be more censorious. Even further to the port side, progressives assail the industry for both being too profitable and epitomizing late-capitalist decadence. It all adds up to a strange-bedfellows backlash against Big Tech, new for an industry accustomed to amiable public relations.
The worry that Facebook and Google will suppress conservative speech might be the latest fixation of resentful, exasperated right-wingers. But it is also a concern about something that has already happened: Facebook was caught suppressing conservative news, and the new fact-checking service on Google seems to have a skew of its own. As Michael Brendan Dougherty has warned, such bias could worsen if c-suite executives in Silicon Valley listen to the stern clarion calls of their fellow elites.
Yet what makes an alliance of strange bedfellows possible is that the progressive critique of Big Tech is striking a chord. The attacks on its business practices point to a potentially real problem, though occasionally go too far. But as the carefully preened reputation among hipster tech tycoons and employees that their business was unlike other industries collapses, left-wing skepticism of the culture of Silicon Valley is becoming more resonant.
Big promises — not primarily about profits, but rather about groundbreaking innovations — were the industry’s accepted idiom ever since Steve Jobs lured John Sculley from Pepsi to Apple by asking, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to change the world?” To his credit, Jobs’s company did what it promised, but not all his emulators could pull that off. Theranos promised technology that could revolutionize blood tests; Juicero promised fresh, Wi-Fi enabled, on-demand juice; Hampton Creek promises vegan mayonnaise that will revolutionize the food industry. Such high-profile grifts engender cynicism about tech’s utopian claims. Yes, these companies are the latter-day equivalents of the 1990s dot-com bubble-bursts, but successful corporations show signs of overreaching as well: Amazon, in a display apparently copied from the International Olympic Committee, is staging a tournament asking cities across the United States to shower them with sweet deals in return for the privilege of hosting a second company HQ. Naturally, from Fresno to Pittsburgh, cities have abased themselves to see who can offer this mammoth corporation the most welfare. Creative destruction can be a good thing, but uncritical worship of Big Tech is being tempered.
It’s no wonder the man behind Clinton Cash and social democrats find themselves with a common enemy.
A world where Big Tech’s most fervent critics are culturally aggrieved conservatives and materialist progressives seems like the natural byproduct of the “woke capital” that Ross Douthat and Daniel Foster have intelligently pinned down. Foster argues that corporate executives court cultural liberals in large part because, well, they are cultural liberals, while Douthat points out that superficial liberalism allows companies to continue raking in profits and strengthening their market share. If executives scorn conservatives to enrich themselves, Douthat predicts, that could “confirm the blue-collar suspicion that liberalism is no longer organized around working-class economic interests” and “encourage cultural conservatives in their feeling of general besiegement.” In that context, it’s no wonder the man behind Clinton Cash and social democrats find themselves with a common enemy.
Yet plenty of people care less about Facebook’s censorship struggles and more about messaging their friends, less about Amazon’s HQ2 and more about when their package will be delivered (or whether they’ll get hired by Amazon), and less about Elon Musk’s political philosophy and more about the rocket launch he orchestrated weeks ago. If the backlash to the tech industry is limited to the politically resentful, it could attract plenty of bipartisan and journalistic attention — but ultimately be an exercise in spitting into the wind.