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DON’T BE EVIL: The Case Against Big Tech by Rana Foroohar book review

  • Written by  Jacob Dykes
  • Published in Books
DON’T BE EVIL: The Case Against Big Tech by Rana Foroohar book review
01 Mar
2021
• by Rana Foroohar • Allen Lane

Don’t Be Evil takes its name from the mantra that Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page offered their early engineers – a kind of incipient moral framework, designed to ensure the safety of technologies with world-changing potential. Even if you grimace at Rana Foroohar’s repurposing of it to launch her case against companies such as Google, it’s certainly true that we’ve reached a tipping point in our relation with the tech giants. Or, as the co-founder of the Centre for Humane Technology, Tristan Harris, describes it, ‘a point where the interests of the tech giants and the customers they supposedly serve are no longer aligned.’ 

Foroohar’s book isn’t a diatribe against technology. Instead, this is a clarion call to constrain the growing influence of tech corporations. The market power of Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google (the FAANG giants) has significantly concentrated during the past few decades. They have grown at a rate disproportionate to surrounding economic development. In 1954, the top 60 US companies accounted for less than 20 per cent of US GDP. Today, the top 20 companies make up more than 20 per cent. 

These facts won’t necessarily come as a surprise, but some of the tactics used by the tech giants might. Foroohar sets out the ways in which firms seize new sectors; evade corporate tax; sign ‘no-poach’ agreements to ensure their hold on talented employees; and, threatened by outside innovation, buy up emerging tech companies. She also gives examples of innovations that have been leeched from start-ups. Those that cling to their patents are either bought out, or they jostle with the heavy legal biceps of the tech giants. It’s invariably David, not Goliath, that gets outmuscled. 

For everyday Amazon consumers, the euphoria of cheap deals comes with a vaguely unsettling feeling that asks: ‘Hang on, what’s the catch?’ Foroohar lucidly explains that catch. The irresistible price-gouging tactics of Amazon may be a short-term convenience for consumers, but they come with a heavy cost for the global economy. Every page view comes with a data-collection exercise that local sellers are unequipped to compete with. These imbalances in market power only lead to wage stagnation and deepening inequalities. 

Data currently have no monetary value to us. We can’t sell it on ourselves and its value is wantonly obscured by the platforms that use it. Yet, if current predictions hold, behavioural and demographic data will be worth US$197.7 billion by 2022 – more than the total value of US agricultural output. 

Perhaps most alarming are the tech platforms’ vulnerability to malintent. Foroohar excoriates Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election; the use of hateful adverts to influence the Myanmar genocide; or more recently, the failure to tackle dangerous misinformation on Covid-19. If tech giants can freely trace our every page view and purchase, Foroohar argues that they should be able to monitor hate speech, nefarious political ads and dangerous fake news. Their sluggish acceptance of this responsibility fits the industry culture that Foroohar describes: a labour force with little capacity for moral consideration in ‘getting from A to C the fastest’, and an attitude that it’s ‘better to ask for forgiveness than to beg for permission’. 

There are few people better placed to make this case against big tech. Foroohar has been a top-tier business columnist for three decades, writing for the Financial Times. She had a brief foray into venture capital herself and has conducted countless interviews with tech entrepreneurs, employees and economists. The first-hand nature of her ideas makes them more digestible than some of the academic, anti-capitalist ideologies that have gone before. So thorough is her work, however, that the barrage of vilifications can become intimidating.

There’s an unnerving dichotomy at Don’t Be Evil’s core. Put on your Utopian glasses and witness a world that allows us to liberally express our views and creative selves. Another set of glasses reveals a constricted society at the behest of a business model that forces us into echo chambers. Duped by the opportunities that tech affords, says Foroohar, we’ve ceded too much control to these companies. Hiding somewhere within beautiful interfaces is the rise of populism, the deepening of wealth inequalities, the degradation of our mental health and the erosion of privacy. These things really are at stake, Foroohar argues – we are just too enraptured by the gifts the tech companies have laid upon us to see it.

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