A few years ago, I was having dinner with a friend who worked at Google. As we were discussing the ins and outs of the tech world, he casually remarked: "Google is going to take over the world you know." Driving home and reflecting on that remark I thought: "How curious." But now, as I contemplate the shambles our democracy has become, I'm more inclined to think: "How prescient."
Democracy is under threat—not just in the U.S. but in many other countries as well. But the precipitous actions of newly minted authoritarian leaders and the turmoil in Western democracies are just a few of the puzzle pieces needed to figure out how we got to this point. Another less discussed trend is that U.S. citizens are being subjected to a relentless onslaught from intrusive technologies that have become embedded in the everyday fabric of our lives, creating unprecedented levels of social and political upheaval.
Advanced computer technology and the internet have given us many wonderful gifts when rightly applied. But we now know they can also be terrible taskmasters, impersonal forces that can dehumanize our personal interactions, cause severe mental health problems (especially for teenage girls), and serve as a de-facto wealth transfer mechanism to the billionaire class. Still, we accept the negatives because of the positive benefits. In this sense we might even call hyper-technology a Grand Seduction. Now, AI has exploded onto the scene and threatens to monkey wrench our lives in unimaginable ways.
U.S. citizens are being subjected to a relentless onslaught from intrusive technologies that have become embedded in the everyday fabric of our lives, creating unprecedented levels of social and political upheaval.
The limitations of these widely used technologies are well known. They include social media and what Harvard professor Shoshanna Zuboff calls "surveillance capitalism"—the buying and selling of our personal info and even our DNA in the corporate marketplace. But powerful new ones are poised to create another wave of radical change. Under the mantle of the "Fourth Industrial Revolution," these include artificial intelligence or AI, the metaverse, the Internet of Things, the Internet of Bodies (in which our physical and health data is added into the mix to be processed by AI), and my personal favorite, police robots. All of these technologies will be enhanced and amplified by the use of 5G and 6G communications via a rapidly expanding satellite system provided by Elon Musk.
This is a two-pronged effort involving both powerful corporations and government initiatives. These tech-based systems are operating "below the radar" and rarely discussed in the mainstream media. In addition to corporate surveillance, governments are also busy beefing up their own systems. While we tend to associate these sorts of initiatives with the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security, a groundbreaking article in the Boston Globe has described how pervasive and intrusive surveillance has become even at the state level. The article methodically details how law enforcement agencies in Massachusetts operate a huge apparatus of drones, license plate readers, and devices called cell-site simulators, which pretend to be cell towers in order to capture cellphone signals to pinpoint the location of individuals.
The AI "Arms Race"
AI's precipitous and dramatic entry into the technology mix has ushered in what Time magazine and other mainstream publications are calling an "AI Arms Race." The designation is telling, given that AI has been developed with significant funding from the defense and government sectors. This accelerated deployment is happening without the benefit of thoughtful political oversight because elected officials, often at a disadvantage in the face of technologies they don't completely understand, are providing little guidance, regulation, or pushback.
Parsing the subtler impact of technology in our lives is tricky. That's because it sneaks up on us. It doesn't happen by a vote or by some distinct series of events. Rather, it just creeps along, establishing itself in maddeningly minute increments. The sum total of these technological intrusions, fostered by government and corporations often working together, constitutes a semi-invisible overlay of technocratic governance that has no central organizing principle, unlike the traditional government structures we're familiar with. Just because these systems are "distributed" (to use a little computer jargon) doesn't mean that they are any less powerful. And while the internet presents the appearance of democratized participation, it's important to remember that its ultimate Oz-like control is centralized in the deep corridors of Big Tech companies.
Goodbye Nation States?
As we see democratic principles slowly vaporize even in Western nations, the fact that Big Tech continues to consolidate its power globally over and above that of nation-states is deeply concerning. However (just to keep things nice and confusing) sometimes it does this in cooperation with governments via public/private partnerships, a kind of Faustian bargain.
The Time magazine article cited above offered this startling observation: "Even if computer scientists succeed in making sure the AIs don't wipe us out, their increasing centrality to the global economy could make the Big Tech companies who control it vastly more powerful. They could become not just the richest corporations in the world—charging whatever they want for commercial use of this critical infrastructure—but also geopolitical actors to rival nation-states."
The world's biggest tech companies are now richer and more powerful than most countries.
Some might argue that this has already happened and the nexus of world power is now corporate-leaning. The world's biggest tech companies are now richer and more powerful than most countries. According to an article in PC Week in 2021 discussing Apple's dominance: "By taking the current valuation of Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and others, then comparing them to the GDP of countries on a map, we can see just how crazy things have become… Valued at $2.2 trillion, the Cupertino company is richer than 96% of the world. In fact, only seven countries currently outrank the maker of the iPhone financially."
For the moment, these trends appear to be unstoppable, given the levels of corporate investment already at stake and the supine posture and dependency of governments on their largesse. The best available response for the moment is simply greater public awareness and a commitment to face the contours of this brave new technocratic world head-on and with clear vision. Given the astonishingly out-of-control power of the Big Tech sector, it's also crucial to realize that simply regulating these systems while allowing them to continue to siphon off the power of traditional governments will not be enough to preserve our quality of life going forward.