The announcement of Mark Zuckerberg's latest project, the Metaverse, a platform that promises complete unification of the real and virtual dimensions, did not go unnoticed both among the fans of advanced technologies and those abstaining from overt excitement.
If, up to this point, you thought that things like 3D-holographic avatars and running daily errands with a wave of the magic stick exist only in sci-fi films, it's time to wake up and watch the pathetic statement of the Facebook owner promising that the platform will bring people together and provide privacy, and safety ‘from day one’.
If such a hyper-virtual world-encompassing every area of our life is promised within the next 5-10 years, and the owners of online giants now know more about us than high-ranking officials of the state administration, the title question seems rhetorical.
A phenomenon that has always intrigued me is the paradox of American libertarians, staunch free-marketers, many of whom are reluctant to any sort of control imposed by the government or even suspicious of social welfare programs such as the beloved Obama Care.
Yet, the same people who would gladly see governmental control abolished, do not express the slightest concern about the legitimization of the big tech companies monopolizing digital communication, the workplace and almost any other sphere with the overriding purpose to collect, monitor and store a wide range of users’ sensitive data at the large scale and without any constraints.
What can they do that the government cannot?
Shoshana Zuboff, professor of social psychology and philosophy at Harvard University, refers to the operational side of big tech as 'economy of scale' and 'economy of scope'.
The former is simply an extensive acquisition of the data regardless of the factors such as national borders or political preferences, which, in opposition to the digital sphere, significantly influence governmental capabilities in researching their population. The latter is the variety and type of data.
How does this extensive acquisition of our privacy gets reproduced? In the 21st century, not having a portable device permanently connected to the mega-data management system aka a smartphone, entails an immense inconvenience in almost every aspect of life, if not social exclusion. Getting into trouble with the government to the point when they are making it difficult for you to get a decent job would nowadays be a challenge, instead, job-seeking turns out to be quite tough if you don't have a LinkedIn or business Instagram profile. You lose an opportunity to network, your job prospects decrease… We know that we are being invigilated, but the price that an individual would have to pay for publicly manifesting their objection to big-tech surveillance, or simply not owning a smartphone is just too high.
Now, let's proceed to the economy of scope. It is one thing to give everyone a portable device and navigate where they are, and another to subtly find out what they are doing, how often, with whom and in what way, without violating any laws and the alleged privacy of users.
Remember the wrath about QR codes introduced by different governments in public spaces to target the infected? Such a comprehensive check-in system for tracing all the coronavirus cases was introduced for different time periods in Australia, China, Italy and Germany in 2020 whilst a similar idea, although ultimately not implemented, was also proposed in Poland (BSG, 2022).
No political statement included, but while in theory, the purpose of this action was pivotal in stopping the spread of the virus, Apple and Microsoft have no reason, even, in theory, to track, analyze and store in their archives the information on where and at what time we go, how much we pay with the Wallet app, how many steps we take, and in the case of SmartWatch fans, our heart rate and the number of the calories we burn. All these are the information that the government does not know about unless you tell them.
Yet why, despite being aware of all that, we don’t demand legal regulation of the functioning of the big techs, keep on using the social media and buying from Amazon even though we are aware of their workforce exploitation? The answer is that the advantages and convenience associated with the usage of social media such as the ability to immediately contact our friends and family on WhatsApp or Messenger, a dopamine surge that we experience after posting a picture on Instagram, or a parcel that gets delivered to us the next day after purchase on Amazon simply outweigh the costs of paying abandoning them in the name of ethics or social responsibility.
Digital media got irrevocably embedded in our everyday life and undeniably facilitate it, however, we let ourselves believe that just because something is not subjected to the governmental power it is more secure.
They will not push through the legislation at 3 AM in the morning, they will not increase the taxes, squander taxpayers' money nor will they ‘come into our homes at night to send you to the Gulag or the camp’, claims Zuboff.
They do not possess a coercive power apparatus or tools to manage the state budget, yet they have free access to information constituting the currency in the 21st century; users’ data allowing them to influence, shape and control people's thinking in such a subtle way that we don’t think it’s worthwhile of our attention.
In addition, the general hesitance in holding the big-techs accountable is encouraged by the fact that the owners of Metaverse (former Facebook) or Microsoft are seemingly apolitical, independent self-made men who have wiped out their competition solely with their hard work, creativity and innovation. The general misconception about the digital is that it is subjected to the same free-market laws as any other industry and runs by the principles of pluralism and owners diversification. Yet, what one does not take into account is that the online social media market has been monopolized in the Western world by Metaverse whilst each of its participants should be treated as an economic entity.
Apart from avoiding legal and economic responsibility (vide Metaverse paying taxes in the Bahamas), big-techs are not socially responsible either.
In principle, in most countries, governments are elected in free and independent elections. Every citizen regardless of material status is given one vote and then has the ability to verify the government's agenda in the upcoming elections. In addition, there are tools such as the citizens' initiative, referendum and the freedom of association.
Unfortunately, both big-techs and independent global organizations such as World Bank or IMF are not at disposal of citizens' engagement tools (not that they would like to be) to engage subordinates (the users) in executive decision-making processes (Stiglitz, 2002). Instead, they operate like the corporations where the millions of users affected by the arrangements in the headquarters of Google, Microsoft, Metaverse or Amazon do not hold power to influence the decisions made by a handful. An average citizen does not elect any of the ‘big 5’ executives regardless of their country of residency and thus does not have any driving force to shape the aims, regulations and enterprise undertaken by chairs of these corporations, whilst their digital activity will be subjected to the decision of the handful. Such corporations can, therefore, without consequence, expand and limit users’ rights, define the degree of data collection and shape the opportunities for Internet activity thus, significantly affecting one’s freedom and daily functioning.
I think I can hear Orwell giggling in his grave.
So what’s the verdict?
In the face of the advancing possibilities of modern technology, the lack of legalization of the big-techs functioning both at the surveillance and financial settlement levels, one can get the impression that we are dealing with big-tech impunity.
And although it is the decisions of national governments that affect and reach us much more intensively, it is good to realize that, unlike the big-techs, the governments are under much stricter scrutiny, not only by their citizens, but mainly by the media and global institutions such as the EU. Moreover, depending on the international position, the decisions of a given government have a local, regional or continental impact (except for the USA and China) while the decision-making process and its execution are overt. In the case of Microsoft, Metaverse, Google and Apple, with an emphasis on the first two, however, as they are the core of our technology and online communication, the average user has neither insight into, nor a clue about the purpose and implicit consequence of a given algorithm or codes used to design them.
So, are big-techs the new governments? No. They are much more powerful.
Covid-19 Government Response Tracker (2022), Blavatnik School of Government.
Zuboff, S. (2021) Surveillance Capitalism and Democracy. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5AvtUrHxg8A
Stiglitz, J.E. (2002) Globalisation (Globalisation and Its Discontents). London: Penguin Books.