Those of you who are too young to remember or have experienced the dot-com boom of the late 1990s missed out on probably one of the most exciting economic times in American history. Every other day, some reasonably bright, tech-savvy guy whom no one had heard of before would announce something like, “we’re going to sell rutabagas over the Internet!” and some venture capitalists would credulously say, “that sounds terrific!” and before you knew it you were reading magazine profiles of some twenty-somethings who had just been given a couple million and who pledged to “completely transform the way Americans buy rutabagas forever.”
Obviously, not every dot-com had a happy ending, and the hype, ludicrous expectations, and speculative bubble of the era and players lend themselves well to mockery. But there was this joyous, palpable excitement and enthusiasm as people got together and convinced themselves, their investors, and sometimes potential consumers, “we’re going to create something that people are going to love!”
I’m not sure I love Missouri senator Josh Hawley’s legislative remedies, but he has a point when he writes in today’s Wall Street Journal that “what passes for innovation by Big Tech today isn’t fundamentally new products or new services, but ever more sophisticated exploitation of people.”
We love the idea that Amazon can ship just about any product in the world to our door. We don’t love the thought that some algorithm studying our shopping habits can figure out that a woman is pregnant before she pees on the stick.
We love the idea that Facebook lets us stay in touch with friends far away, and reminds us of people’s birthdays, and lets us see how fast kids are growing up. We don’t like learning that Facebook paid contractors to transcribe users’ audio chats, or hearing that a human contractor for Google Assistant leaked thousands of audio clips to a Belgian public broadcaster.
We like the ability to speak into our phone and have our spoken words transcribed almost instantaneously. We don’t like finding out that Siri is so easily accidentally activated that “Apple contractors regularly hear confidential medical information, drug deals, and recordings of couples having sex.”
We love the idea of an app or gadget to get constantly updated information about our health and using that as a tool to become healthier. We don’t love the thought that the apps can be hacked and somebody out there could get all of our personal health information.
No matter how many times the CEOs apologize, no matter how many bad headlines, or how many times lawmakers furiously denounce Silicon Valley, the attitude of the big tech companies seems to be, anything you give us, we are entitled to attempt to monetize, and we will insist you agreed to this when you clicked okay to that lengthy ‘terms of service’ user agreement that we know almost no one ever reads. (No, really, people agreed to prank language that promised to turn over their firstborn child and their immortal souls without reading.) Tech companies no longer see their customers as consumers to be served but as a resource to be exploited.
Hawley closes his op-ed with a challenge: “To the masters of Big Tech, I say: Raise your sights. If you want to be leaders for this country in this century, earn it. Build tools that enrich lives, strengthen society, create good-paying jobs, and improve productive capacity.” Even if you don’t like how Hawley wants to change technology policy and the law, you have to agree the senator is right that something’s gone terribly wrong in Silicon Valley, when so much of its efforts just ended up building a bigger, better, more invasive, society-wide surveillance system.
I mean, it may have been silly and doomed, but no one ever really got hurt by an online market for rutabagas.