Science & Tech

The Big Tech Backlash

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg listens to a question during a news conference in San Francisco. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
Cultural conservatives and social democrats find a common enemy.

‘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. 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 and associates with opportunists such as Stefan Molyneux and CPAC. If three makes a trend, look no further than these pages, in which Ben Shapiro argued recently 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 port side, progressives assail the industry for its late-capitalist decadence. It all adds up to a strange-bedfellows backlash against Big Tech.

That’s new for an industry accustomed to amiable public relations. Promises 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. Companies such as Theranos, Juicero, and Hampton Creek have promised — and failed to deliver — revolutions in blood tests, juice, and mayonnaise. These high-profile grifts engender cynicism about tech’s utopian claims, inviting comparisons to the 1990s dot-com bubble-bursts.

Even successful corporations show signs of overreaching as well. Amazon 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 — and Amazon has come under fire for the spectacle. Uncritical worship of Big Tech is falling out of favor.

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” phenomenon. If executives scorn conservatives to enrich themselves, Ross 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.

Editor’s Note: This article has been emended.